|Conflict over Natural Resources in South-East Asia and the Pacific (UNU, 1990, 256 pages)|
|5. Conflict over natural resources in Malaysia: the struggle of small-scale fishermen|
The general failure of the newly independent government to implement smoothly the committee's recommendations is clear when government policy towards the industry and small-scale fishermen during the next ten years is examined. The decade from 1956 to 1965 saw the implementation by the new government of two national Five year Plans. These Plans could have provided for the advancement of the fishing community through the correction of the adverse consequences that neglect by the colonial government had produced (and which were identified so clearly by the 1955 fishing committee). But little progress was achieved. No doubt, the Plans included public expenditure allocations for fisheries development and had ambitious schemes to extend fishing co-operatives throughout the East and West Coasts, provide facilities such as jetties, fishing gear, and ice stores, and accelerate the mechanization of fishing boats to enable fishermen to operate in deeper waters. However, the sums set aside were wholly inadequate for the purpose. Amounting to M$2.4 million for the first development plan for Malaya and M$7.2 million for the second, these sums amounted to 0.24 and 0.33 per cent of the total public expenditure budgets respectively, and the public funds committed hardly lent credence to the professed aim of the country's development plans to accord the 'highest priority' to improving the livelihood of peasant fishermen (amongst other peasant groups) by raising output and diversifying and intensifying production. The inadequate allocation of funds was one problem but more important was the absence of a clear-cut policy of fisheries development aimed at the small fishermen community and the lack of an effective administrative structure to supervise ongoing projects.
Some indication of the government's failings in these two key areas can be obtained from an analysis of its policy in the area of cooperatives. The history of the government's attempts to establish fisheries co-operatives which had been suggested by the committee as a means of enabling fishermen to purchase their own equipment and free themselves from the clutches of middlemen-financiers has been examined by various scholars (see, for example, Fredericks, 1973; Gibbons, 1976). Their findings indicate that the experiment with cooperatives was a failure. In the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia between 1957 and 1963, a total of M$1.4 million was loaned by the government to a marketing and transport union formed by 43 fishing cooperatives which supervised its disbursement to fishermen to enable them to buy equipment. An estimated 16 per cent of the 21,000 fishermen in the East Coast were said to have participated in the scheme but only a negligible amount of the loans was repaid and the extent of operations of the unions was short-lived, with the scheme coming to a virtual standstill by l962. The loan-scheme did result in some diffusion of improved technology and provided an alternative source of credit but it generally failed to make much inroad into the entrenched capitalization patterns which were disadvantageous to fishermen and did not bring about significant improvement in the income levels of fishermen. This was the first major attempt made by the government to benefit fishermen through their own organizations and its failure demonstrated the ill-preparedness of the government.
In the West Coast, a redesigned co-operatives scheme was introduced between 1961 and 1966 but just as little success was achieved as with the earlier effort in the East Coast. Of a total of M$841,000 loaned by government to seven fishing co-operative establishments, only 13 per cent was repaid. Three co-operatives had completely collapsed within a few years and few benefits of a lasting nature had been provided to the small number of fishermen who managed to participate in the schemes (Gibbons, 976: 97)
Why did these attempts at fisheries co-operatives fail when they had so much potential to benefit fishermen? In 1968 a paper by the Malaysian authorities reviewing fisheries development since independence attributed the failure of its attempts to organize fishermen into co-operatives to an 'apparent lack of leadership' among fishermen and their low level of education (Anonymous, 1968: 229). 'Good and able leaders are few and far between and in turn when they lack organization and co-operation amongst themselves they can easily fall prey to any unscrupulous middlemen or profiteers,' argued the paper. It was no doubt true that the fishing industry was not served by good leaders, but the critical lack of leadership was more within the bureaucracy than with fishermen. According to Fredericks (1973: 123-4), the Cooperatives Department, in explaining the failure of the East Coast scheme admitted in a departmental document that there was inadequate staff for administrative and supervisory work, share capital requirements were unrealistically high, there was divided administrative responsibilities and authority, and a lack of coordination between the Departments of Fisheries and Cooperatives.
The government also could not claim that the problem of infiltration of co-operatives by influential and opportunistic individuals or interests was unexpected. In many other parts of the world, the history of co-operatives is littered with failures chiefly due to poor management, incompetence, and dishonesty, and a pattern of individuals or groups not representative of the target community's interests gaining control of the co-operative management and monopolizing the activities. The 1955 committee investigating the fishing industry had anticipated these same problems in Malaya and cautioned that the government should ensure 'the provision of adequate advisory and supervisory staff whether under the Department of Cooperative Development or otherwise, since these Associations will for the most part lack that degree of satisfactory leadership without which they cannot hope to survive' (Anonymous, 1956: 5). Neither was the government unaware of the inherent difficulties in trying to organize often dispersed groups of individualistic fishermen to whom the advantages of co-operative production or marketing were not easily discernibly. In more congenial conditions in rural and urban Malaya, co-operatives had failed time and again, thus putting the onus on the government to approach the subject with caution.
The key to the co-operative experiment is the attitude and response of the participants and their perception of the benefits likely to be attained. Without genuine participation by its members, no cooperative venture could hope for success. This was known to the government. At the same time, a selective programme of co-operative establishment with sufficiently trained and motivated government personnel supervising activities, together with stringently administered financial procedures, could have prevented many of the subsequent problems of mismanagement, abuse, and dishonesty which plagued co-operatives and reduced their effectiveness in assuming a leading role in the development of small-scale fishermen.
The immediate result of the unhappy experience with cooperatives was to deter the authorities from supporting their expansion. The defaults on loans were viewed with much concern by the financial authorities and the regulations for credit procurement were stiffened with fishermen being called upon to provide as much as 70 per cent of the capital cost of new projects. Although this large proportion of initial capital investment was later relaxed, the lower requirement was still beyond the resources of most fishermen. One effect was to restrict the opportunities available to fishermen to adopt more productive gear through loans obtained from the public sector which could lessen their dependency on middlemen-financiers. Another effect was to discourage co-operatives from embarking on projects which could bring benefits to members. In the light of this, it is not surprising that even functioning co-operatives failed to provide much benefit to their members and there were few, if any, examples of successful small-scale fisherman collective activity that the authorities responsible for fisheries could point to, so as to justify an increased financial and institutional commitment from the government. It was a vicious circle of failure breeding neglect and inadequate support, which in turn created more failures.
The lack of success of fisheries co-operatives sounded the warning that there were important inadequacies in government policy and the implementational capacity of the administrative machinery entrusted with the task of protecting the interests of small-scale fishermen and developing the industry. However, it failed to lead to any serious review of the problems faced by smallscale fishermen and the fishing industry. Within the Department of Co-operatives, it appears that an investigation was conducted on the reasons for the failure of the East Coast cooperatives scheme but it was mainly an internal exercise, confined to the department and inaccessible to other interested parties. Thus, valuable experience which could have been the basis for improved policy and effective administration was quickly forgotten and lost. That the government's inability to objectively carry out a selfexamination of its weaknesses and initiate the necessary policy changes weighed heavily on fisheries development can be gauged from the fact that when co-operative development in fisheries was encouraged again in the 1970S, the same problems which had dogged the earlier efforts at co-operative establishment were treated by the authorities as if they were entirely new ones.