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  • Planters, Estate Health & Malaria in British Malaya (1900–1940)
  • Liew Kai Khiun (bio)

With the emphasis on the health of plantation workers, this article explores the contestations between planters and the state over the demarcation of public health responsibilities in rubber estates. Arguments over the provision of hospital beds and medical staff were complicated by new understanding of the epidemiology of malaria, which raised questions of anti-mosquito drainage works in common areas. The experience of British Malaya provides a critical appreciation of interactions between the developments in public health and diseases with that of the notions of property and governance in the context of colonial Malaya. It serves to reveal the dynamics of the state–civil society relationship in not just shouldering the burden of public health, but also negotiating the political contours between business interests and the colonial state in British Malaya.

In this [the Malaya Pavilion] area in Wembley Hill, displayed are the resources of the richest, if perhaps the least known of British dependencies. The name of Singapore is at present too much before the eye of the reading public in connection with plans for a great British naval base in the orient, but the names of the Malayan states of which Singapore is the administrative focus, and where it derives its wealth and commercial importance, are still largely unfamiliar to English ears except when they had been mispronounced from the lips of shareholders in rubber companies. It will be the main aim of the Malayan section of the exhibition to remove this prevailing ignorance of what was known to ancient and medieval Europe as the 'Golden Chersonese' and to familiarize the Englishman not only with the names, but with the history, products and the future possibilities of British Malaya.

The Rubber Growers Association on 'Malaya at the British Empire Exhibition, 1922'1

Introduction: 'The Highest Form of Settlement'

Beginning with travellers' tales, the imagination of Malaya was vigorously promoted to the British public by the inter-war decades. Its products as well as its arts and crafts were elaborately displayed in the annual British Empire Exhibition and other trade shows, attesting to the contributions of the colony to the British empire. A large proportion of this undertaking was predominantly the efforts of joint-stock rubber companies under the umbrella of the Rubber Growers' Association (RGA). This commitment was the result of the exponential growth of the rubber industry in the late [End Page 91] nineteenth and early twentieth century with British Malaya as a major player in commercial agriculture. From small market gardens, the investments in rubber resulted in the massive expansion of plantations, at a rate that had even threatened to displace the subsistence economy of rice crops.2 Spearheading this expansion were the armies of mainly Tamil migrant labourers whose health and well-being became crucial to the productivity of the plantations.

This article elaborates on the participation of plantations in the area of estate health, a subject largely secondary to the reiterated narratives of commercial agriculture or labour. Represented by the plantation companies and their managers, colonial society pioneered the development of estate health infrastructure. A significant point of contention was the fundamental differences expressed on the notions of individual responsibility and private property against mandatory collective obligations. This was articulated through debates on the organization of preventive health projects as well as responsibility for the provision of medical facilities.

The negotiations between state and colonial civil society as well as the moulding of biomedical practices through estate health will be discussed in three areas. The first concerns contentions over the responsibility for the development and ownership of medical facilities and public health projects. These ranged from the transport and quarantine of labourers, custodianship of estate hospitals, regulations pertaining to the living and working conditions of coolies to that of anti-malaria drainage works. In the midst of these debates, the planting community also generated its own literature and discourse on the management of estate health. Lastly, it was in their experience with estate health that the development of the scientific study of malaria was intimately linked to the demands of commercial agriculture.

'With almost catastrophic suddenness…': Reviewing Writings on Plantations



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pp. 91-115
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