Colonialism in the eyes of economists

Colonialism in the eyes of economists

I, Phuong, was enrolled in a French language course back in Vietnam years ago and decided to drop out after the second class. The reason for this was irrelevant to my initial goal of improving my skills in the language I love. It was because the teacher, who was very much senior in age and claimed to have had a French education under colonial Vietnam, expressed condescendingly his wish for Vietnam to still be under the protectorate of the mother country. Those kinds of sentiments were not unpopular among the people I’ve been acquainted with.

I have, since then, never stopped pondering over the nature of colonialism – whether it was as benign as the colonisers themselves claimed to have been, of civilising and uplifting the lives of the uncivilised. 

Even though the initial matter in question was on Malaysia’s economy during the period of British colonialism, it appeared that all our speakers – economists, social scientists and historians, despite much debates on the numbers and data sources and methodology, agreed on the importance of understanding Malaysia’s history before ever making sense of anything else.

Whether British colonialism was that benign, whether the white man’s burden was supposed to reduced though civilising the “uncivilised”, the answers for which lie in questioning the motivation of the British, as well as other foreign powers, behind their arrival in Malaysia, and Southeast Asia in general.

Trading, not colonisation, was the earliest reason for foreign powers’ existence in Southeast Asia, which had been observed as bustling in Southeast Asia and South China Since 17th century onwards, first between the Dutch East India Company and the Chinese sea traders.

As Professor Marie-Sybille de Vienne of the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations orientales illustrated, while the Dutch’s multinational venture was the largest at the time, Chinese ships outnumbered theirs, and Chinese private shippings indeed dominated the South China Sea.

Over a century later, representatives of British East India Company arrived in Penang with the aim of setting up a trading post. The privately-run company transformed the island state into a bustling free port before ceding control of the territory, along with Melaka and Singapore as part of the Straits Settlement, to the British Crown in 1867.

As for the specific case of Malaysia’s Penang, Loh Wei Leng, who was formerly with the History Department at the University of Malaya, has done research showing that both imports and exports here did better than Singapore’s after the British government began governing the island state.

However, this positive state of affairs did not last.

“While there may (have been) many benefits, there were unfortunate and even unintended consequences,” Loh says.

She went on to highlight complaints in extracts from the Penang Argus and Straits Times that Penang was not able to enjoy its revenues, which was reallocated towards supporting the port in Singapore. 

In 1913, Penang lost control of her port facilities to the Straits Settlements Harbour Board, which was based in Singapore.

The Dutch East-Indies, which was controlled by the privately-owned VOC, underwent a similar nationalisation process. In 1800, the company was taken over by the Dutch administration.

Now it is safe to say that, in the context of the conference which dissect the tumor of colonialism in economic eyes, the utmost practical motivation of the colonisers, Britain in particular, was first the financial opportunity through trade and subsequently exploitation. 

Malaya, Jomo Kwame Sundaram says, stood out among the British colonies as a “jewel in its crown”. This was due to the economic surplus or profits from the sale of rubber, tin and other commercial products.

The method of looking at colonial surplus is supported by the works of Alec Gordon, who considered it the best way of showing how much colonies were exploited in the period between 1879 and 1960, or the era of Asian plantations. In Indonesia’s context, Alec has revised the initial amount of colonial surplus of 23.5 billion to 54 billion Dutch guilders, or at least 398 million US dollars in today’s terms. The economists in the conference seem very adamant that this method be utilised to discover the amount extracted from colonial Malaya.

As a recommendation to understanding the colonial surplus, Jomo believes it is helpful and important to place the matter in relation to imperialism, the multifaceted theories of which have evolved into a kind of liberal thinking by John Hobson and the notion of finance capital by Rudoft Hilferding.

“”The growth of colonial economy is fundamentally related to the growth of exports… The idea of the trade surplus is also very important because (a colony should not be running with a deficit),” he says. Jomo then explains how the British invited Sumatrans over to Malaya to grow rice for the domestic market, so the colony could be self-sufficient alongside numerous other for-export productions activities.

“‘National income estimates for the Federated Malay States in 1931 show that out of total income from production of S$154 million, rubber and tin comprised S$105 million (68%), while rice production accounted for only S$3 million, or less than 2%,’” Jomo said, citing the work of Martin Khor.

Martin’s studies indicate that British Malaya contributed some  three-quarters of £50 million or $431 million for the defence of the British Empire from 1915 to 1938, which was equivalent to three-quarters of the total estimated foreign tin profits in the same period.

These are not new claims or claims made by Malaysians alone, as multiple Western scholars have described Malaya as the colony that contributed economically and financially the most to Britain.

Apart from having the highest export value per head compared to all other British colonies in 1926, Malaya’s rubber exports were also a critical ingredient in Britain’s financial recovery after World War Two.

To secure that much revenue, the British employed a variety of measures, certainly in their favour: monopolising the shipping industry, aggravating the effects of fluctuations in the balance-of-payments, creating very high liquidity ratio,maintaining low interest rates, to name a few.

“However, the benefits to most of the Malayan population were minimal as wages were low and conditions of life were poor among the workers in the commodity sector, and little had been spent by the British administration on social development. In addition, much of the surplus generated by the economy were not invested for domestic development, but were transferred to Britain to its benefit,” Martin’s work finds.

As a result, the Malayan economy became dependent in various ways (through direct ownership of assets, trade, financial system, public finance, and technology) on the colonial master economy. This has been perpetuated until today as to how Malaysia’s economy is structured on the premiss of capitalism that Dr Elsa Lafaye reflects upon in her book The Development of Malaysian Capitalism, the matter of which will be discussed in a subsequent article.

By Phuong Nguyen Thai Hoai and Samantha Ho of Imagined Malaysia.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Leaders Online.

Tags assigned to this article:
colonial masterseconomy