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close this bookAgricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics (UNU, 1988, 305 pages)
close this folder9. Are Malaysian land settlers (new) peasants? Antropological observation of a nascent Community
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentPresentation of a Felda scheme
View the documentDefining the peasantry
View the documentFelda settlers versus malay peasants
View the documentEmergence of a new community
View the documentConclusion
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Felda settlers versus malay peasants

In attempting to determine whether FELDA settlers are peasants, one ought to go through the literature written by social scientists on the Malay peasantry on the one hand and that dealing with FELDA settlers on the other. It is interesting to note that neither body even raises the labelling issue; studies dealing with the Malay peasantry do not mention FELDA settlers in one way or another (Firth 1950; Fatimah Halim 1980; Wan Hashim 1983; Zawawi 1984). De Koninck is the only author who clearly takes sides by including FELDA settlers among Malay peasants (de Koninck 1986),'4 while Zulkifly's position is ambiguous; he implicitly treats them as a distinct category when he writes about "the peasantry and the smallholder sector" (Zulkifly 1983, 43-44), yet his smallholder sector includes the village rubber smallholders. In my view, the latter cannot be regarded as distinct from peasants, while the land tenure system in FELDA schemes makes equating settlers with village smallholders debatable.15

As to the studies devoted to FELDA settlers (Alladin Hashim 1979; Abu Hassan Othman 1982; Rokiah Talib 1983; Singh 1968; Bahrin and Perera 1977; Bahrin 1981, 1982; Yui Huen Kwan 1980), none tackles the issue of their structural relationship with (other?) Malay peasants.16

The next step towards answering the initial question involves the processing of our own ethnographic data in the light of the four dimensional definition outlined above.

To start with, the first criterion as expressed by Shanin (1971, 14), "the family farm as the basic unit of multi-dimensional social organization," poses problems. In FELDA schemes, while the nuclear family does represent the basic social and residential unit, it does not act as a working unit, at least in oil palm schemes; the male settler is the main, if not the only, producer as women are physically unable to handle the fruit bunches, which can weigh up to 50 kilos or even more. Besides, as stated earlier, the income generated by the settler's labour is not directly proportional to the latter because of the block system that treats income and production on a team basis. In the same way, while each settler is meant to work within the limits of a particular piece of land," it would be difficult to regard this as "family land," not only because-during the period of repayment of the loan at least-the relationship to the land is closer to share tenancy than to a full ownership right but because such land has neither been transmitted via kinship ties nor been bought from a known individual; neither has it been gained from the forest by the personal efforts of the settler himself. Put another way, the legal relationship that ties the settler to the land is mediated via FELDA, whereas in a Malay village community the land either belongs to the cultivator himself or to some person whom he knows; the mediator is not an anonymous entity. We will come back shortly to the crucial problem raised by the tenure of land in FELDA schemes.

The occupational criterion that is part of the definition of peasantry being rather flexible, it still applies to FELDA settlers' work; although specialized to the extreme, work in the scheme is clearly agricultural. 18

However, questions emerge when one considers the identification of peasants with a traditional culture which includes a village community. One of the decisive factors of Malay village culture is a pattern of residence organized along kinship ties and according to a specific perception of the natural environment (e.g. the role of the river19 or of the sea front in the location of the village). In FELDA schemes, the residential organization has no social basis, and the actual location has nothing to do with the people's worldview. Malay culture plays no part in the location of dwellings in relation to each other or in relation to the natural environment.

Further-and here we come back to land to make a basic point-even though such was not the case before the advent of British colonialism, land is a commodity in a Malay village, and, if one may say so, it is a "living" commodity. It has both a historical and a socio-economic value. It has a historical value in the sense that the cultivated territory as a whole tells the story of a settlement process for a given community, and each particular lot tells the story of a long line of individuals, of their efforts, their failures, and other biological data, such as the number of their dependents, etc. Moreover, land has socio-economic aspects because it can and does circulate; it can be divided, taken away, accumulated, or rented, and as such it is a medium of communication between villagers, a medium that is ruled by a complex host of social forces including customary law.

In FELDA schemes, land is allocated on an individual basis, but even when the loan has been totally repaid,20 it never becomes private property as it does in a village. Until now, the agency has been granting a form of group ownership; for the future, it seems to be in favour of a shareholding system. Whatever alternative, the settler only acquires the right to maintain one lot: the latter cannot be divided up or sold or rented, and nothing but the main crop can be grown on it. Yet, as long as the settler lives on the scheme, he can have his agricultural work carried out by someone else, whether a settler or not, or he can choose one from among his heirs to succeed him. However, if he decides to move out of the scheme, he forfeits any right to the land, both plantation and house lot, as well as to the house itself. Land is thus immobilized,21 "deep-frozen" into an artificial equality, insensitive to the passage of time and to the impact of socio-economic forces, and, as Raison wrote, "such a systematic immobilization can prevent the scheme from ever having a life of its own" (Raison 1968, 62). Yet, as the same author himself admits, such a tight control on land is a necessary condition of land settlement schemes if one wants them to be successful ventures both for the organizing agency and for the settlers (Raison 1968, 61). This is only one aspect of the rigid economic supervision generally exerted on settlers' activities which further results in a curtailing of spontaneous community dynamism.

Such restriction is especially conspicuous in the political sphere. The only avenue for settlers' representation is the institution of the block leaders (ketua belok), who are elected by and amongst the block members. In traditional villages, leaders enjoy religious significance (being orang lebai, "pious men," or imam, prayer leaders) and/or economic status (being landowners and sometimes cattle owners or civil servants); such criteria play very little part in the selection of block leaders. One could argue that ex officio members of the JKKR-the scheme development body-conform to the socalled traditional qualifications, being school head, government midwife, scheme policeman, however, apart from the school imam, who is both an ex officio JKKR member and a settler, none of the other officials (who are posted on the scheme) really shares the settlers' needs and problems, and none has any reason to defend the settlers" claims if any come to their notice. As to the block leaders who do sit on the JKKR as well, few of them have the assets deriving from education and official position that the other JKKR members possess, and because of that, most of them lack the oratory selfconfidence and competence of the latter.

The block leader, then, plays the rather vulnerable part of a go-between, ever open to criticism, and when he fails to satisfy the expectations of either party (his fellow block members or FELDA cadres), he is no longer accepted. Tensions sometimes run so high that resignation is the only alternative left open. It also happens that a particular block can be managed smoothly. Yet, in all cases, the block leader is in a rather uncomfortable position from which he derives no prestige. In fact, it is worth noting that most block leaders are "ordinary" settlers in a further sense: they are often satisfied with the income obtained from plantation work and do not necessarily look for extra income, they may not even be the most industrious settlers in their respective blocks.22 So neither in economic nor in political terms can the block leader meet the conditions required to be a "leader of men" (penimpin), and the settlers are not assured of effective representation. The scheme community thus lacks some of the factors that usually permit the development of political life in spontaneously organized settlements.23

It seems, therefore, that the major attributes of a peasant community are lacking-land mobility, cultural integration into the natural environment, reflection of the social order in the spatial distribution of the population, political dynamism. It is thus at least questionable to use the label peasants when discussing FELDA settlers.