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Monday, October 08, 2018

Non-Economic Factors in the Economic Retardation of the Rural Malays (1/4)

"Some anthropologists and European scholars of Malay language and custom have argued that a contributory cause of the Malays' economic stagnation is their attitude towards economic development. It has been claimed that the Malays have been generally resistant to change and have, in consequence, been unwilling to adapt their lives to modern conditions and techniques. This argument, which is not accepted by a number of Malaysian academics, has been put forward all too briefly, and sometimes without any attempt at substantiation. On the other hand, those who have attempted to refute it have done so almost equally briefly, though with some supporting evidence. The following quotation may be taken as fairly typical: 'If [the Malays] can really get hold of something concrete and if they are convinced it will improve their level of living, or way of life, they will adopt it. For example, consider the spread of the bicycle, the sewing machine, patent medicines and the kerosene stove. In the fishing industry, there has been the spread in the use of outboard motors and nylon nets...

The rural Malays, as producers at least, continue to combine available factors of production in ways which are very similar, though not identical, to those of their forebears, and any of the innovations which they have accepted (such as bicycles or kerosene stoves) have been those which can be grafted on to production techniques without radically altering them. As will be seen later, this is perfectly in keeping with a basic characteristic of the Malays, namely, their propensity to absorb the new, providing that they can maintain or retain the old. And this is undoubtedly an example of a more general South-east Asian and Melanesian characteristic, that of a tendency towards syncretism. Any resistance to change that the Malays (and perhaps other South-east Asians and Melanesians) may possess becomes apparent only when the absorption of something new necessitates a fundamental break with the past.

Even though there has been little or no specific research undertaken to determine whether or not the rural Malays are generally resistant to change, several analyses of the rural Malays' life and customs are available. Drawing upon some of the observations made, the evidence suggests, first, that there is a tendency among the rural Malays to resist change, and secondly, that there are some understandable reasons for it. But it ought to be emphasized, lest it be overlooked, that the acceptance of change, or its converse, is not an absolute standard; it is a tendency that is more or less characteristic of one society or person as compared with another.

There are several examples which can be cited to illustrate how the rural Malays have tended to resist some of the more fundamental changes to their current production techniques and traditional practices...

There is still considerable opposition to the government's appeals for the planting of more than one rice crop per year, even though the rice fields lie fallow for about six months per year under the present system...

Quite common is the argument of simply preferring to work in the old ways.

Allied to this is the opposition to the government's policy of encouraging the rice farmers to use part of the wet rice fields as a nursery bed for their seedlings, instead of, as at present, using a location on dry land for their seed beds. This would enable the farmer to take advantage of the fencing, manuring and available in the wet rice fields. The farmers maintain that the main advantages of a dry nursery bed are that the seedlings do not reach maturity so quickly and thus there is not quite the same urgency to transplant them, and secondly, that seedlings are harder to pull up from wet fields. However, it is the women who seem to be most opposed to changing the location of the seed bed, and the ones that I spoke to said that, in any event, the old way was more agreeable since planting seedlings on up-country dry land had become a social occasion which was enjoyed by the entire village.

There is also considerable opposition to co-operatives, especially, it seems, as institutions which lend money or grant other credit facilities. This opposition has been evident since the first co-operatives were formed in the 1920s. In Malaya, as elsewhere in Asia, there is still a preference for the traditional methods of obtaining credit or raising a loan, many of which are far more usurious than the co-operatives, and some of which are usurious in the extreme. The reason for this apparent acceptance of the more usurious institutions is not easy to see, but it may be based on the fact that the growth of the traditional credit institutions has been the result of a spontaneous growth from within... The co-operatives have required too great a break with the traditional gotong royang practice to be acceptable to the Malays.

Another of the ways in which the rural Malays have shown themselves to be resistant to a radical change in their production techniques is in their preference for coastal fishing. The coastal waters off and Trengganu tend to be over-fished, whereas the deeper waters still offer considerable opportunities for greatly improved catches. Admittedly, the Malays lack suitable boats and equipment for deep-sea fishing, though they are using more and more outboard motors and nylon nets. But in spite of this the Malays themselves have expressed their great dislike of being away from home, and say that they will not go deep-sea fishing for this reason. This is another instance in which the Malays have accepted changes that can be grafted on existing techniques (motors and nylon nets), but have not accepted those changes that would radically upset their whole way of life.

M. G. Swift has shown that the Malays still prefer to hold wealth in the form of cattle, land and jewellery, and, despite the recent tendency to hold money as deposits in the Post Office, the most favoured methods of holding savings are still the rather barren handed down through the centuries.

Another example, which was both a cause and effect of this resistance, was the Malay attitude towards education in the nineteenth century, an attitude which does not exist today. It is said that the Malays were very unwilling to send their children to secular school even when one existed nearby. This lack of education put them at a disadvantage in competition with the Indians and Chinese, who were both able and willing to take advantage of the urban educational facilities. Moreover, the Indians and Chinese also established schools of their own and showed a very marked interest in education. The Malays did not, and suffered accordingly."

--- Non-Economic Factors in the Economic Retardation of the Rural Malays / Brien K. Parkinson (in Modern Asian Studies, 1967)
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