MALAYA’S EARLY 20TH CENTURY POPULATION CHANGE
MALAYA’S EARLY 20TH CENTURY POPULATION CHANGE 
Malaya’s early 20th century economic development is closely correlated with the growth of foreign workers. Labour force growth was a key driver of volatile economic and population growth. 

The rapid growth of tin mining and rubber plantations led to substantial inflows of foreign workers. Without the inputs of migrant workers both the mining and plantation industries would have faced critical labour shortages.

Chinese and Indians in relatively small numbers had been migrating to the Malay Peninsula for generations, but under British colonialism their numbers increased markedly. Migrants from southern China and southern India, where there was an elastic labour supply, helped to propel the Peninsula’s transition from a trading outpost to the world’s leading producer of tin and natural rubber.

Chinese migrants were mainly drawn to the emerging new towns developing around the tin mines and to the port cities, while the Indians who were always very much fewer in numbers mainly lived and worked in the rubber estates .
Counting the People
A population census is the primary source of statistical information about the size of a country’s (or a territory’s) population and its spatial distribution, as well as its socio-economic characteristics. Historically population censuses have been held every 10-years with similar topics being canvassed. Census information helps guide public policy decisions.

Population census-taking in the Malay Peninsula began during the British administration, with censuses being conducted in the same years as in the UK and according to similar methods. Geographical coverage of Malayan censuses is closely linked with the historical backgrounds of its different territories – the Federated Malay States, the Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlements.

Population census-taking in the Malay Peninsula began during British administration, with censuses being conducted in the same years as in the UK and according to similar methods. Geographical coverage of Malayan censuses is linked with the historical backgrounds of its different territories. The first sequence of censuses in the Straits Settlements began in the mid-19th century and continued in 1901 and 1911. The first census for the Federated Malay States was held in 1891, and repeated in 1901 and 1911. The first census covering the Unfederated Malay States was in 1911. In 1921, the first unified census on a Pan- Malayan basis was conducted, involving the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Malay States. Thereafter Malayan censuses were held decennially, except that the planned 1941 census was postponed due to the Japanese and held later in 1947.
Population Growth and Ethnic Composition
The Malayan population grew very rapidly during the first half on the 20th century, rising from 1.7 million in 1901, to 3.8 million in 1931 and reaching 6.3 million in 1957 (Table 1). This growth was almost entirely due to net inflows of migrants as natural increase, the difference between birth and death rates, was close to zero throughout much of this period. Net migration flows, approximated by the annual average growth rates, show how markedly the inflows varied in the different periods and by ethnic community (Figure 1).
Table 1 Population size (‘000s) by ethnic group, Malaya, 1901–1957
Sources of data: For 1901: Hare (1902); Innes (1901)—estimates were made for the Unfederated Malay States. For 1911: Cavendish (1911); Marriott (1911a and 1911b); Pountney (1911). For 1921: Nathan (1922). For 1931: Vlieland (1932). For 1947: Del Tufo (1949). For 1957: Fell (1960).
Notes: The population figures for 1901 were obtained from population censuses of the Federated Malay States and for Malacca and Penang, with an estimate being made for the 1901 population of the Unfederated Malay States based on the 1911 census.
International labour migration had a very marked impact in changing the Peninsula’s ethnic composition during the first half of the 20th century. 
Malays
In 1901, Malays, including those born in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), comprised some 63 per cent of Malaya’s population, but by 1931 their share had fallen to 49 per cent, despite significant net migration of Malays, mainly from Sumatra and Java, throughout the first four decades of the 20th century (Figure 1). 

The Malays were mainly rice growers and planters of coconuts and other agricultural produce. Immigration from the Dutch East Indies increased the size of the indigenous Malay population. The first generation of Malay migrants clustered together and for a time preserved their own identity. But the distinctions disappeared for the migrants’ descendants, and most local born migrant offspring referred to themselves as Malay. This shifting self-identity and the British tendency to group Malays together made possible because of a basic similarity of appearance, their perception of the Peninsula as their native land, the use of Malay as a common language, and above all a shared religion of Islam.

Chinese

The Chinese population share which had remained around 29 per cent between 1901 and 1921, rose markedly to 34 per cent in 1931 and then to 38 per cent in 1947 and stabilised over the next decade. The big rise in the number and proportion of Chinese occurred over 1921–1947, when its population share rose from 29 per cent to 38 per cent (Figure 1). 

The Chinese were the mainstay of the tin mines, worked on plantations and operated revenue farms which collected various taxes for the government, including from the lucrative opium trade. They were also employed in many other occupations including market-gardeners, artisans, shopkeepers, contractors, and financiers.

Initially the inflows of Chinese workers tended to be heavily sex-selective, thereby leading to a high sex ratio of Malaya’s population. An extremely high proportion of Chinese migrants, and to a lesser extent Indians, were young males who were either single, or if married had left their wives behind before entering Malaya. In the 1930s and 1940s, the sex ratio of the Chinese became much more evenly balanced as the government introduced special schemes to encourage existing migrants to bring their wives and settle in the Peninsula. The result was that the net inflows of Chinese female migrants rose faster than those of males.
Figure 1 Population size, distribution, and growth by ethnic group, Malaya, 1901–1957
Sources of data: As for Table 1

Indians

The fraction of Indians in Malaya’s population rose very sharply in the decades between 1901–1921, from just 6 per cent to 15 per cent, as rubber planting expanded and inflows were at their peak. But the Indian share of the population fell after 1931 and was just 11 per cent by 1947, as many Indian plantation workers were repatriated as a result of the rise in unemployment over the Great Depression years (Figure 1).
Beyond the plantations, Indians were recruited, inter alia, for public works, as police and guards, and also to serve in the lower ranks of the colonial bureaucracy. Most came from Tamil areas in south India. They were considered to be more accustomed to British rule, more amenable to discipline than the Chinese, and more willing to work for low wages. Access to low cost Indian labour migration helped ensure the rubber industry’s spectacular growth and profitability. Since there was work for wives and older children on the rubber estates, Indian migration included whole families. But low wages, indebtedness, poor social status, and physical isolation kept estate Indians apart and they tended to exercise little influence on Malayan society.
Indian migrant workers repairing a road in Penang
Source: National Archives Malaysia 
2001/0052762
The fraction of Indians in Malaya’s population rose very sharply in the decades between 1901–1921, from just 6 per cent to 15 per cent, as rubber planting expanded and inflows were at their peak. But the Indian share of the population fell after 1931 and was just 11 per cent by 1947, as many Indian plantation workers were repatriated as a result of the rise in unemployment over the Great Depression years (Figure 1). 

Beyond the plantations, Indians were recruited, inter alia, for public works, as police and guards, and also to serve in the lower ranks of the colonial bureaucracy. Most came from Tamil areas in south India. They were considered to be more accustomed to British rule, more amenable to discipline than the Chinese, and more willing to work for low wages. Access to low cost Indian labour migration helped ensure the rubber industry’s spectacular growth and profitability. Since there was work for wives and older children on the rubber estates, Indian migration included whole families. But low wages, indebtedness, poor social status, and physical isolation kept estate Indians apart and they tended to exercise little influence on Malayan society.

Population Distribution 

Malaya’s population distribution has long been highly uneven with settlement patterns being concentrated along coastal and river banks. At the beginning of the 20th century, Perak (19 per cent), Penang (14 per cent), Kelantan (13 per cent) and Kedah (11 per cent) together accounted for 58 per cent of the total population. Map 1 shows how the distribution changed markedly over the course of the next half century, mainly on account of international and internal migration flows

By 1957, Selangor, which contains Malaya’s administrative capital of Kuala Lumpur, had grown most increasing its population share to 16 per cent from 10 per cent in 1900, but still below the share of Perak which accounted for about one fifth. Another major population growth area was the southern state of Johore whose share rose from 8 per cent to 15 per cent. The population share of Pahang, the Peninsula’s largest state in land area, had one of the smallest shares throughout this period. Interestingly and reflecting the uneven pattern of development the population shares of the east coast states of Kelantan and Trengganu fell sharply.

Over the first half of the twentieth century the urban population grew steadily. Urban population growth was mainly attributed to migrant settlement being heavily concentrated in towns whose formation and growth were linked to the development of tin, rubber and related infrastructure development, commerce and services.
Map 1 Shares of population by state, Malaya, 1901, 1931, 1957
Sources of data: As for Table 1
Summing-up 
Malaysia’s present-day multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual character to a large extent stems from British colonial rule during the first half of the 20th century. Labour migration slowed due to the Great Depression and somewhat later as a result of a tightening of immigration regulations. The Peninsula’s ethnic composition was delicately balanced with the Malays comprising slightly less than half the Malayan total by 1931: it remained so up to independence.

Apart from the small elite group of Europeans, most of whom were British citizens and who enjoyed a markedly higher standard of living than did other groups, and a small number of Japanese and Arabs, the plural society that evolved within the British colonial economy consisted of Malays, Chinese and Indians. These groups were not homogeneous, with subcultural, religious and linguistic differences existing within each, as well between them. Occupational activity was one economic divide, and religion and customs proved to be further social and cultural barriers. The physical and social distance which separated them precluded a sense of common identity.
Note: For the purposes of this article, Malaya is defined as the Federated Malay States, the Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca - the Straits Settlement of Singapore is excluded.
Further reading:  Sultan Nazrin Shah. 2017. Charting the Economy: Early 20th Century Contemporary Malaysian Contrasts. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

RELATED SITES

ECONOMIC HISTORY OF MALAYA
c/o Asia-Europe Institute
University of Malaya,
50603 Kuala Lumpur


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