Smallholder Involvement in Tree Crops in Malaya, with Special Reference to Oil and Coconut Palms in Johor, 1862-1963


Geoffrey K. Pakiam

PhD defended at: 

SOAS, University of London


As part of efforts to mitigate the oil palm industry’s harmful impacts in Southeast Asia, scholars have begun showing more interest in smallholder farming arrangements. However, the reasons why most smallholders in Malaya have shunned the crop since its introduction have not been carefully investigated to date. Historians have typically claimed that oil palms exhibited processing cost economies that favoured large-scale farming arrangements. The history of Malaya, with particular reference to Johor, a major site of oil palm cultivation since the 1920s, suggests a different argument.

This thesis contends that Malayan smallholders spurned oil palms because of high opportunity costs, grounded in the counter-attractions of other tree crops. Hevea rubber was especially alluring, with its relatively high cash returns. Similarly important to smallholders, but barely acknowledged by historians, was the coconut palm. First, it flourished in soils where rubber floundered. Second, prior to the oil palm’s arrival, coconut palm products were already domestically popular. Consequently, Malayan processors and traders, key influences mediating demand and supply, had little incentive to encourage smallholders to channel labour into oil palms, when estates began adopting the tree. Third, labour requirements for oil palms were more exacting than those for other tree crop mainstays, including coconut palms. Fourth, government policies affecting the cultivation, processing and domestic consumption of oil palm products helped restrain small-scale involvement, whereas official support for smallholder coconut farming was more forthcoming. These opportunity costs ensured that small-scale oil palm cultivation remained muted, despite significant policy changes favouring smallholders during the 1950s and 1960s.

This thesis contributes to the economic history of Southeast Asia through a detailed examination of oil and coconut palm farming, two important pursuits neglected by historical scholarship. It stresses the significance of a set of overlooked economic actors, incorporating cultural considerations in the process. Lastly, it makes novel analytic links between pre-colonial, British, Japanese, and independence-era polities in Malaya.