Colonialism in the eyes of economists


, , ,

Originally published on 28 July, 2029 in TheLeaders-Online.Com –

Source: The Leaders Online

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.

31 July, 2021



It’s when the booze invades the father’s
sober wisdom, when
the clashing of

carpentered tables and chairs,
ceramic bowls and plates
on the cement floor,
and the ruthless palm
on mom’s face

wrenches his heart.

Peeking past the hibiscus hedge that’s even
taller than him, which
turns dark green,

the corrugated tin roof and
the wooden walls and
the blood-paint-coated windows frame

go shivering.

A drop of tear drips into
the shattered void,

he finds he’s only
five years old.


Kuala Lumpur, 16 January 2020

500 Word Short Story #2

I jerk myself up abruptly from last night insomnia of dreams and unfathomable images. A little ray sunlight sneaks through the slit between the blood-red curtain. Tropical morning heat does not get any cooler when filtered through such colour. It is seven o’clock in the morning. I grunt to myself: “Urgh, forgot to set the alarm.”

Kicking off the blanket, I reach my hand out to the nearby desk, foraging for the air-con remote control – “Urgh, where the heck are you?” My neck muscles are aching, as if they were retracted whole night through thanks to the tension of all the events in my dream, intertwined, but which were from different time and space. Taking a deep breath in and then out, I pull myself up and sit still for a few minutes, hoping to regain the energy that has been wholly consumed by the chase and run between me and memories.

Finally, I see the remote control, which is tugged under the pillow rather than on the desk.  In fact, instead of changing the world by making my bed, finding the remote control every morning is the right thing for me start off the day. The peep when pressing the on/off button still always disturbs me: whether that sound comes from the device or the air-con itself? well, who cares.

Throwing both legs down, hands leaning on the bed, I close my eyes just to feel how much sleepiness can actually weigh me down. One more deep breath so I could feel ready to get off bed. I press both hands on the mattress to give a little push while spring myself up using my body core. Trudging towards the windows, I pull open one side of the curtains, which produces a rattling sound of the trolleys sliding against the hanging rack. In an instance, all I can see but a glaring white shed of light and a black shadow dashing by the windows. “A crow! You boy are earlier than me, heh?”

It is still a weekday. Is it?

The chilling floor turns warmer as long as feet are in touch with it. The distance from bed to the windows then to the bathroom feels pretty much longer in a weekday’s morning. There are obviously some chatter of the senior citizens doing morning exercises, the pounding of the basketball against the cemented floor and onto the backboard—which sometimes go down through the hoop, at other time just bounces off and hits the floor again.

Everything is just happening right there in the playground that can be seen clearly from my room windows.

But the morning heat, the series of commotion, the black bird’s figures seems coming from a far-fetched sphere of existence. Not until I turn the water heater lever to hear the rumbling of the motor inside, and feel the warm water rolling from my head to the back of my neck, then down my spines and all the way to my feet does the worldly consciousness come back to life.

Kuala Lumpur, 27 October 2019

500-word short story #1

(A personal attempt at making the raining evening a little more worthy)

“[…] And I must tell you this is not a love story.

This is the story of someone who is, innately, yearning for being loved, and yet at the same time, unabashedly –I would rather say hypocritically– denies all love that is offered to him, through his pretentious attitudes and what he proclaims “necessary rationality.”” (Unknown author)

He halts for a second, lifting his eyes to look through the glass wall of the café, after which is a neatly-trimmed row of shrubs that acts to provide certain privacy for its customers. This point of view always allows him to see passers-by with a holistic perspective, which he calls his personal vantage point, while they can only catch a glimpse of his strongly-built upper body. His well-groomed hair are what stand out, a style to which he has been loyal since he had his heart broken –well again he proclaims– “for the last time.”

Despite the youthfulness that shines from his complexion, his eyes –he always fails to admit that everyone else except himself can recognise without second thought– contain the sadness of the stagnant water from a no-where-to-be-found sea. “A ridiculous recognition,” he spits out half-jokingly to his friend when he tells him that, “I can see that you have read enough rubbished romance, so go and rub off those cheesy thoughts out of your mind and do something more rational, please!”

“Gruhhh, yeah, this is how I define rational to you, dickhead.” Unhesitantly his friend dashes towards him and mercilessly squeeze his head by both hands, leaving a messy pile of black hair and a pair of flaming eyes, “You are the one who needs to, well, rub off whatever fucking past thoughts and move on, my boy!” 

He throws down his shoulders defenselessly and starts to tidy up the dishevelled wisp of hair, hiding the tiny white streak underneath, while launching his ‘civilised’ counter-attack to his friend, “I forgive you since you never understand the difference between memories and remnants. And such ‘coup d’etat’ should be stopped, or else I will have to employ strict measures towards you!”

Every single time like this, his friend would do nothing but smirk and raise his chin with an even more teasing and challenging face. He knows he has been seen through by his friend.

And both know it would be easier to say than do.

A ding of the call-bell at the order counter pulls him back from the brooding thought. A couple has just entered and is waiting to order their drinks.

He has been looking out to the glass wall all the while, left hand holding the book resting on his left thigh, thumb in between the last pages. He eyes down on his right hand on the chair arm that has been forming a tight fist, opening it up to see the four red marks left by the fingernails inside his palm.

The privacy granted by the well-trimmed row of shrubs gives him the impression that passers-by could never spy on what is happening inside the café at his table. “Such another way average author and an insulting ending,” he whispers to himself. Gently shaking his body, slotting the bookmark back into the finished book, he gathers his stuff while calling out for the waitress to bring the bill. 

He has just enough time to dog-ear the ending page, half of which is blank, before dropping the book into his brown-leathered sling bag when the bill arrives.

Petaling Jaya, 7 September 2019.