Lazy Malay, Lazy Thinking

Irma Stern's 'Portrait of a Young Malay Girl' 1939

Southeast Asians sometimes use cultural or hereditary arguments to explain their own allegedly easy-going, deferential and uncompetitive nature. In a 1970 book The Malay Dilemma Mahathir Mohamad -- the eccentric and bad mannered prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 -- justified giving Malays special economic and political privileges designed to help them overcome a historic ethnic-cultural disadvantage vis-à-vis the country’s more go-getting Chinese and Indian population. Mahatir argued it was simply good breeding, manners, and nobility which habitually made a Malay “stand aside and let someone else pass”. 

Until the influx of Chinese and Indian migrants during British colonial rule Malaysia’s resource base allowed the indigenous population comparative comfort without the need for undue exertion or ingenuity. Malays did not have to be ‘fit to survive’. They had free time and ample food. Seeing that Chinese out-competed Malays in towns and industries, however, British colonial authorities encouraged an ethnic division of labour which kept Malays in rural occupations, while pretending to Malays that they wished to protect them from predatory urban Chinese. 

Europeans were guilty of lazy thinking too...

Europeans in the colonial period often said that indigenous Southeast Asians were insouciant, unresponsive to material incentives, and reluctant to keep the hours required by modern enterprise. Dutch and British officials complained about sluggishness, low productivity, and lack of indigenous commercial initiative in areas comprising Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In the 1970s Malay sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas acquired international fame by criticising the imperialist mindset of those early European reports about ‘lazy natives’ with an ‘indolent nature’ who were ‘disinclined to work’ and whose ‘master vice is idleness’.

Dutch colonial and post-colonial scholar J.H. Boeke (who was sympathetic to the views of Gandhi in 1930s and 40s India) had a more sophisticated but still fatalistic view of the Malay society he knew. Its people prioritise social needs above economic needs, he claimed. Malays do not respond to capitalist incentives. They will not accept western technology, or mobile factors of production, or allocation by the price mechanism. Boeke called the Malay economies “dualistic”. A modern sector sits alongside a large traditional sector, and always will. West and East are irreconcilable in economic terms. The best that could be done was to reconstruct the village, restore the heritage of Malay values, and accept that economic motivation and material need would forever remain muted there.

The brighter alternative to commonplace emphases on Malay cultural obstacles to economic rationalism was exemplified by the dissident development economist P.T. Bauer. 

Bauer’s initial research on the Malay rubber industry in the 1940s had led him to believe that no society is unresponsive to material incentives. He confirmed this in later research. There is no such thing as an inherent inflexibility of consumption. The presence of foreigners will be functional in bringing about a change in wants and needs. Economic progress takes time. It comes if market forces coordinate decision making, and if there is freedom to deploy resources efficiently. The enemies of progress in countries like Malaysia include the “widespread feeling of guilt in contemporary Western society”, the obsession with national and international wealth redistribution. “Why”, asked the very unfashionable Bauer in the 1980s, “is it obviously unjust that those who contribute more to production should have higher incomes than those who contribute less?”

Political structure or market failures are reversible given willingness and the right policies. Culture, in contrast, is resistant to change. There is, as I will show, a view of economic autonomy among cultivators in Southeast Asia not dissimilar to one suggested for African small-scale farmers by Harvard political economist Robert Bates. 

This view emphasises dynamic proactive choices and economically rational responses to public policies, to power configurations, to risk, and to changes in terms of trade. The dynamic view includes the possibility of withdrawing from markets, ceasing production for sale, and preferring markets contra public policy - depending on the constraints and opportunities. 

Bad Malay institutions are just like bad institutions everywhere...

Culture is almost always the laziest possible explanation for laziness. A cultural explanation of underdevelopment is often nothing more than a confession of ‘don’t know’ or ‘too hard’. Europeans were lazy not to realise that the lazy Malay was not lazy. Non-actions that looked lazy were, in truth, active reactions to bad institutions and bad policies.  

The obstacles to indigenous entrepreneurialism and to the emergence of a property-owning middle class in Malaysia were institutional obstacles that could be removed. Malay patrimonial rulers were the oppressors of new industry in Malay society. These rulers suppressed innovation. Malay nobility were greedy and rapacious. The sultans did not allow their subjects to become rich. Objects of value were liable to be taken away, and so they remained hidden. Poor property rights caused Southeast Asians to maintain few possessions and make few capital investments in buildings or machinery.

In the early nineteenth century the British commentator and government official in Southeast Asia, Thomas Stamford Raffles, advocated a social revolution that would unleash the “native energies” of the people of the Malay archipelago. Native producers must be permitted to produce and trade free from the stifling monopolies, arbitrary appropriations and obligations to which they had been subjected by both local rulers and foreign mercantilists. Raffles carefully studied indigenous law and property rights. He viewed incorporation of English legal principles in Singapore and Java alongside native customs as the means of inducing predictability in the administration of justice. Humanist ‘contract’ law and property rights could counterbalance Malay ‘status’ law with its emphasis on burdensome obligations of caste, race and religion. Inspired by the writings of Adam Smith, Raffles believed economic freedoms in a framework of codified law that protected against monopolies and arbitrary exactions would liberate the economic potential of Malays.   

Writing a century later J.S. Furnivall, official historian of British rule in Burma, conveyed the fashionable guilt that harsh experience brought in the wake of fast economic development. Even so, Furnivall was resigned to the need to use market forces as catalysts for freeing native enterprise. There was no doubt in his mind about the duty of the colonial state to foster market-oriented wealth creation. Furnivall fretted that while making Burmese cultivators better-off materially in this way, colonial rule might yet destroy Burmese social tradition. Raffles -- more realistically -- hoped only that Western-style law and order would eliminate the evil customs of Malay rulership and might, furthermore, restore the seemingly more enlightened rights of ancient Southeast Asian civilisations. 

Both men believed European capitalism was needed there, and that law would be essential in the transformation. As Furnivall observed before his own eyes, “mere maintenance of law and order set free the economic forces which dissolved the village into individuals”. Meanwhile the rich and deep traditions, those worthy of survival, did not simply disappear like puffs of smoke when individualism emerged. 

Some enlightened and educated Malays criticised their sultans and royal courts. Under the influence of Raffles, Munshi Abdullah (1797-1854) passionately denounced the “tyranny and injustice of the government of the rajas”. Malay rulers, not Malay culture or western imperialism, were the reason for the miserable condition of ordinary Malays. The rulers failed to provide services to the people. They did not provide law and order, and were instead obsessed by petty status regulations and sumptuary laws that limited the commoner’s rights to housing, clothing, education, the marketing of surplus produce, and wealth accumulation. The rajas discouraged individual initiative and achievement in Malay society in order that no one but them might “lift their head up and enjoy themselves”. Abdullah stressed the importance of good government, property rights, education and meritocratic policies, which would incentivise and reward rather than penalise hard work. 

Bouncing skywards on the rubber plantations...

We can now examine an uplifting story of receptive rationality -- the elasticity effect of buoyant rubber markets on the economic behaviour of ordinary Malay cultivators.  

The fact that rural Malays could not be attracted to work on rubber plantations in numbers sufficient to meet the spike in demand for labour at the turn of the twentieth century fed the argument, common among British colonial officials, that Malay natives were ‘lazy’. British plantation owners were forced to turn to India and Burma as sources of imported labour. 

In fact, Malay cultivators were more clever than lazy. Global motor vehicle production at the turn of the century increased exponentially and the price of rubber soared. In the short-term Malay small-holders responded to this surge in demand for rubber by selling subsistence land at good prices to rubber planters. In addition, many Malay smallholders themselves took up rubber production. By 1921 Malay smallholders satisfied up to 15% of total world rubber consumption. The resulting relative prosperity of ordinary cultivators stimulated domestic consumption and an increase in imports of manufactured goods. The only irrational aspect of the process was an increase in spending on pilgrimages from Malaysia to Mecca.  

Material incentives were obviously a spur to Malay small-holder production. But profits were not the only incentive. Small-holder rubber production did not involve continuing high costs, great risks, irreversible commitments, or hard labour.  Once land had been cleared and trees had matured, the tapping (harvesting) could be carried out fairly easily by family labour in-between other subsistence, exchange, and casual labour activity. If the market for rubber collapsed, Malay small-holders would revert to their alternative sources of income.  

Malays clearly showed their normal aptitude for low-risk entrepreneurship and responsiveness to profit opportunities. With 15% of the world market effectively in their hands it was indeed conceivable that a capital-owning class might have emerged from the rubber economy. That this did not occur was largely the fault of British administration, which established complex regulations to limit Malay small-holder rubber production. The design of government land policy and public services sought mainly to favour the large plantations. Titles on Malay land holdings were often stamped with ‘no rubber’ clauses, ostensibly to curb the sale of Malay ancestral lands to non-Malay rubber companies and thereby protect Malay interests.  

Was British policy towards Malay small holders rational or romantic? Some British officials clearly did have a sentimental attachment to the seemingly idyllic traditional Malay rural life. Another consideration was the need to ensure continuing food supplies from Malay small-holder farms to the high-productivity Chinese and Indian migrant communities in the cities, as well as to tin mines and large wage-labour plantations. 

Of even greater concern was the prospect that success and wealth accumulation by small Malay entrepreneurial rubber producers might upset traditional sources of authority in society (see above). Maintenance of British rule depended on preserving the influence of Malay sultans. The rajas were, in effect, the patron-client brokers on behalf of the British. The privileged rajas managed local political and social affairs.  

A further reason for the colonial regulation of Malay rubber production was that small-holders accounted for 25-30% of Malay rubber production. They were a real competitive threat to the large British-owned rubber estates which operated with high overhead costs. Officials liked to say that Malay small holder production was technologically backward and environmentally unsustainable. On the contrary, there is good evidence indicating that Malay producers were in many respects better attuned to local ecological conditions.

The attraction of rubber production for ordinary Malays was so great that British officials only had limited success curtailing it. 

Many officials probably tactfully avoided strict implementation of the regulations that limited small holder production. The relevant lesson is as simple as it is in the case studies of African small farmers presented by Robert Bates in his classic 1981 book Markets and States in Tropical Africa. If incentives are right the indigenous producers will fit in and follow government policy; if not they will find ways around it.  

Laziness, it's far more complicated than culture...

Malay rubber production supplied the world with a valuable commodity. Lazy Malays were not lazy after all. The view that Malay culture was an obstacle to economic rationality was either wrong or must be balanced by awareness of the severe political constraints under which Malay cultivators operated. 

Nineteenth and early twentieth century Southeast Asian indigenous cultivators displayed their market rationality in unexpected ways and in diverse places (equivalent stories are available for Sumatra, Java, Burma, Siam, the Mekong delta, and parts of the Philippines).

Here I have offered but one example, the supposedly ‘lazy’ Malay cultivator demonstrating a capacity for energetic elasticity of output in world rubber markets.

The history of colonialism in Southeast Asia frequently shows that alongside their rhetoric of economic liberalism the European rulers were at times as likely as pre-colonial indigenous rulers to crush the life out of autonomous small-scale business endeavours.

Is it too late? Has all memory of the natural elasticity of Malay rubber producers been erased for ever? After British rule, successive Malay governments attempted to engineer an artificial distribution of business opportunities, public employment, and wealth to favour indigenous Malays. 

It is like the old story of the hen and the egg. If he or she is protected from competition, a lazy Malay will never become go-getting like the diasporic Chinese or Indian. Mahathir, possibly the most ill-mannered leader Southeast Asia has ever known, cultivated a softly protective myth about the gentle native who is nobler and better mannered than other races. Worse still, he even offered modern Malays the material incentives to become lazy.

Further reading:

Arndt, H.W., 1987, Economic Development: The History of an Idea, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Booth, Anne, 1998, The Indonesian Economy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A History of Missed Opportunities, London: Macmillan Press

Brown, Ian, 1997, Economic Change in Southeast Asia, c. 1830-1980, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Milner, Anthony, 1995, The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya: Contesting Nationalism and the Expansion of the Public Sphere, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Michael G. Heller ©2014

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