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close this bookConflict over Natural Resources in South-East Asia and the Pacific (UNU, 1990, 256 pages)
close this folder5. Conflict over natural resources in Malaysia: the struggle of small-scale fishermen
View the document(introductory text...)
View the document5.1 Introduction
View the document5.2 The 1950s early developments in the Malayan fisheries industry
View the document5.3 The experience with fishing co-operatives, 1957-1965
View the document5.4 A decade of trawling development, 1960-1970
View the document5.5 The poverty eradication programme of the 1970s: new deal for small-scale fishermen?
View the document5.6 Policy developments in the 1980s
View the document5.7 Conclusion
View the documentReferences

5.5 The poverty eradication programme of the 1970s: new deal for small-scale fishermen?

The adverse impact that major policy decisions in the 1960s regarding trawling development had on small-scale fisherman interests could have been cushioned by other policy initiatives in the transformed political context of the 1970s. This was because in the aftermath of the May 1969 violence in the nation's capital, the government decided on a new economic policy (commonly referred to as the NEP) to eliminate what it regarded as the major factors underlying racial conflict in the country. There are two prongs of the NEP: one aimed at restructuring the economy such that Malay participation in the modern sectors would be greatly increased and the perceived identification of race with economic functions would be removed, while the other seeks to eradicate poverty through a variety of development programmes aimed at the poorer groups. Since the fishing community contains a high proportion of poor as well as Malay households, the implementation of the NEP held much hope that the fishing community's long-standing grievances would finally receive the attention they deserved.

In fact, a promising start was made with the establishment of a new public authority, Majuikan (Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia), in 1971 as a parastatal corporation under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to take charge of fisheries programmer. The establishment of Majuikan, to a great extent, mirrored the government's disappointment with the Fisheries Division and its inability to provide institutional support for the development of the fishing community. It also represented an effort by the government, through a separate public body, to participate in such aspects of the fishing industry as production, processing, and marketing, which the Fisheries Division was not equipped to do. This aim of the government can be deduced from Majuikan's objectives, which include developing and exploiting fisheries resources in accordance with sound fisheries management practice, generating employment opportunities in the fisheries sector by expanding and modernizing fish production and related secondary industries, and supervising, promoting, and undertaking the economic and social development of Fishermen Associations. Thus two broad roles were defined for the new body: on the one hand, fostering the social development of artisanal fishermen and, on the other, engaging in commercial operation in competition with the private sector.

To build up Majuikan and finance its activities, the government allocated large amounts of public funds to it. This can be seen from a comparison of the allocations to fisheries in the four Malaysia Plans up to 1985. In the First Plan period, fisheries was allocated M$22 million. The Second Plan saw the allocation to fisheries almost doubled to M$42 million but since the total public expenditure budget was also substantially increased, fisheries' share of total public expenditure in fact dropped to 0.41 per cent compared with 0.49 per cent in the earlier Plan. With the Third Plan came a dramatic increase in the allocation to fisheries to the sum of M$323 million or almost eight times the previous Plan allocation. This amount, about 1.0 per cent of the total public expenditure budget for the period, was a formidable injection of public funds and a considerable portion was set aside for Majuikan's development and its programmes. The Fourth Plan (1981-5) further increased public expenditure allocation to fisheries to M$434 million or about 1.1 per cent of total public expenditure.

Unfortunately, no detailed accounting of how the organization has spent the money is available but the indications from public statements are that the thrust of Majuikan's expenditure has been towards commercial operations. The major investment of Majuikan has been in a programme to develop trawler fishing in the East Coast with M$24 million being spent to construct a large number of trawler vessels of 40 tonnes and above to exploit the South China Sea offshore resources. During 1971-80, a total of 152 boats were launched under the programme, whose expressed purpose was to increase Malay fisherman participation in the modern sector with Majuikan initially acting as a caretaker to the trawlers until a fixed period of time had elapsed and ownership of the trawler boats could be transferred to the selected fisherman participants. According to the programme's publicity, a substantial number of fishermen would benefit if the scheme proved successful. This objective, however, was clearly unrealistic since the proposed beneficiaries (several hundred boat owners and fishermen involved in construction work) would comprise only a tiny minority of the East Coast fishermen estimated at 35.000 The fear that an elite class of fishermen was being created by Majuikan's programme has been compounded by evidence indicating that the authority's management of the new fleet has been an operational and financial disaster.

Trawling is only one of a wide range of ambitious projects being undertaken by Majuikan. Other projects include joint ventures with foreign capital on deep-sea fishing in the East Coast and Kuching, and the establishment of aquaculture farms, processing plants, ice factories, and marketing complexes in various ports. As with the trawler project, most of these other activities, designed with predominantly commercial objectives in mind, have had to rely on a considerable amount of government financial support. Concentrated in the main fishing ports, it is likely that the new facilities will mainly service the offshore industry, leaving the thousands of small fishermen seattered in the hundreds of small fishing villages still lacking in infrastructural support. It could be that such heavy investment is necessary as an inducement to the private sector to invest in commercial fishing and to enable Majuikan itself to engage in commercial development, but if so, the purpose must be clearly expressed and must not be confused with the needs of traditional fishing communities, which are of a different nature.

Little else is known about Majuikan's activities but from the above evidence, there is a need for the authorities to explain which Majuikan projects are intended to help traditional fishermen and in what way, and which projects are commercial with little or no direct relation to improving the well-being and welfare of traditional fishermen. This distinction is necessary because, as one fisheries development expert correctly points out, '[T]he strategy of planning artisanal fisheries must be related to welfare criteria of assisting fishermen in a social as well as an economic context. This may be contrasted to the aims of modern commercial fishery, which are more concerned with increasing productivity' (Lawson, 1975: 10).

Apart from the question of the distribution of social and economic benefits which affects the fishing population's interests directly, other questions, such as the economic cost/benefits of the programme and the extent to which subsidization of a public organization having virtual monopoly powers is justifiable, must be answered by the authorities managing Majuikan. This is especially so since the projects involve substantial amounts of public funds and it has been found by one consultant who had access to privileged data, that 'the commercial operations directly managed by Majuikan are incurring substantial and in some areas heavy losses' largely as a result of a lack of sufficient expertise over too many functions (Moore, 1976: 3).

The ambiguity that surrounds Majuikan's activities and its precise role in the socio-economic development of small-scale fisherman communities has clearly become one of the major obstacles standing in the way of a consistent government policy towards these communities. This ambiguity has troubled Majuikan ever since its establishment and is an issue addressed by a number of missions of international development agencies during the 1970s advising the Malaysian government on fisheries development (Crutchfield et al., 1975; Lawson, 1975; Moore, 1976). All these missions agree that there is a need for the authorities to clarify the responsibility and functions of Majuikan, especially in terms of its relationship to the Fisheries Division. As explained earlier, Majuikan had been set up mainly because of the dissatisfaction with the performance of the Fisheries Division and the desire to create a more appropriate institutional framework for overall fisheries development. However, in doing so, the authorities have unwittingly created a vague division of responsibility between the two institutions which has been detrimental to the interests of fishermen.

A number of examples can be cited. Until Majuikan's formation, the development section of the Fisheries Division had been responsible for the drawing up of development programmes and the implementation of schemes, including subsidies, grants, and other assistance to fisherman organizations. When Majuikan was formed, it was entrusted with control of Fishermen Associations which were to be the main vehicle through which government assistance to traditional fishermen was to be channelled. The impact of this transfer of power from the Fisheries Division to Majuikan has been documented in the case of one Fishermen Association. In early 1973, the Geting Fishermen Association in Keiantan established an open auction scheme for its members. The scheme was a success and together with the sale of ice and fuel, brought in a monthly income of more than M$3,000 to the Association. In March 1974, a Majuikan commercial fisheries scheme was established in Geting. At about the same time, overall central control of Fishermen Associations was transferred to Majuikan while local supervision was in a transitional stage between Majuikan and the Fisheries Division. In September and October 1974, the Association found itself in financial difficulties and Majuikan Headquarters, despite opposition from the members of the local Association, transferred its marketing and input supply functions to Majuikan. As a result, the Association collapsed and ordinary fishermen were said to be boycotting the Majuikan marketing scheme because of the low priority given to them.

Another example of traditional fishermen's interests being adversely affected by the lack of clear division between the two departments in their functions is the proposed programme for the integrated development of artisanal fishermen in the East Coast undertaken by the Fisheries Division. The basic purpose of the programme is to improve income opportunities of fishing communities both within and outside the fisheries sector. To succeed, the programme requires strong and independent fisherman organizations that can function as pressure groups for community development. However, with management and policy control of these organizations located in a separate government body, it is difficult to envisage how the Division can carry out its work successfully. This is especially so since Majuikan also has interests in trawler development along the East Coast which obviously are contrary to the interests of the great majority of small-scale fishermen and which, if successful, could depress the standard of living of inshore fishermen through increased competition for limited stocks.

To defuse the 'unhealthy rivalry' between the two institutions which could result in both failing to attain their basic goal, namely the development of fisheries in Malaysia, it would be better if Majuikan could take primary responsibility for commercial activities, that is, control over the operation of fishing fleets, joint ventures, processing plants, and commercial marketing, while the Fisheries Division handled socio-economic development, including financial support and subsidy programmes. This separation is required because there is no way in which Majuikan can presently meet both production targets for the nation's fisheries and economic and social development goals for the traditional fishermen without serious internal pressures on the organization and the need for compromises.

Even if the government does take decisive action in clarifying the allocation of functions between the two organizations responsible for fisheries development and the interrelationship between them and other departments engaged in activities which impinge on fish resources, it should be manifestly clear that its efforts would still come to nought if the organizations are not provided with competent and dedicated staff who will work for the interests of small-scale fishermen. Such staff must be willing at critical points to stand up against vested or opportunistic interests and exercise control and guidance which can assist the broad mass of small-scale fishermen and bring about their development in an orderly fashion. Otherwise, the outcome is an expansion of the bureaucracy and the drawing up of policies dictated by weightier economic and political interests.

Besides the establishment of Majuikan to improve government capacity to develop the fishing industry, the government has attempted to initiate changes at the level of fishermen co-operatives to enable them to participate in the new development programmes. Earlier we had seen how co-operatives, as an instrument to improve fishermen welfare, have been largely discredited by the experience of the 1950s and Ages. Various studies which have looked closely at these experiences at the local level have identified, among other factors, bad management and inadequate supervision of schemes as being responsible for their failure. In the early 1970s, the authorities decided on rebuilding fisherman organizations to act as conduits for the increased government assistance which was to flow into the sector and to enable the fishing community to participate in new economic and social activities. This was mainly done through the establishment of Fishermen Associations the transference of responsibility over the new Associations and existing Fishermen Co-operatives from the Departments of Fisheries and Co-operatives to Majuikan in 1974 and the amalgamation of the associations and co-operatives into a new organization called Koperasi Nelayan.

Two levels of the new organization have been established by Majuikan: one at local level, referred to as Koperasi Nelayan Kawasan, and the other at national level, Koperasi Nelayan Nasional, which is to engage in trading, fishing enterprises, finance, credit and loan services, and education and training. Forty-two local-level Koperasi Nelayan had been established in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak by 1985. To ensure that the new organizations could carry out the planned activities, the government made available a grant of M$23.8 million during the Fourth Plan period to be used as a revolving fund for the association and co-operatives to finance their activities. Whilst these efforts at building local organizations of producers which can sell cheaper inputs, provide easier access to credit, and initiate schemes to improve the common welfare are to be lauded, the priority given to the establishment of a formidable organizational structure is premature. Even though the various government-sponsored fisherman organizations have a substantial number of members-it was estimated that by 1977 there were 40,000 fishermen enrolled as members of these organizations or 48 per cent of all fishermen in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak-there is little participation in their activities and the authorities have assessed that only 14 out of 98 of these organizations could be considered to be active. Until the local-level organizations can function effectively, there seems little use for the national organizational structures that are being created by the authorities.

One of the key problems in the development of Fishermen Associations has remained unchanged since the earliest attempts to build up fishermen co-operatives - the short supply of committed management staff who are sensitive to the aspirations of the fishing community and strong enough to withstand the pressures that will invariably he exerted. Judging from past experience in fisheries and other sectors where active government intervention has taken place, it would require a new breed of managers from those presently available who can meet these exacting requirements and initiate the necessary projects which can enable the associations to function effectively. At the same time, caution must be taken against the opposite tendency of too much bureaucratic control of fisherman organizations. Since a cooperative or producers' organization is by definition a small-scale body comprising members from a specific area who share common benefits, its ideal form is where the community itself is involved in project identification and solution-seeking. Over-management can lead not only to insensitivity to the communnity's needs and the setting up of priorities different from those that the fishermen desire, but can also stifle local initiative and result in a situation of dependency of the fishermen on bureaucrats. The means to establish the correct balance between a lack of management and over-management in such a way that local initiative and participation is stimulated rather than retarded unfortunately still eludes the government. Until this admittedly difficult pre-condition is obtained, cooperative organizations of fishermen or any other impoverished producer community will remain either dormant bodies unable to provide any meaningful service to its members or captive organizations of vested interest groups working for narrow ends.

We have outlined so far the delivery systems through which the authorities are attempting to implement the development programmes aimed at eradicating poverty among small-scale fishermen, an objective promised in the New Economic Policy. In doing this we have briefly considered the developmental activities of Majuikan, the new organization assigned to restructure the fishing industry and improve the livelihood of fishermen, and found it more oriented towards commercial ends than relieving the poverty of small-scale fishermen. At the same time, the various fishermen organizations through which the fishing community was to participate in the new programmes have also been found wanting.

In addition to these measures aimed at the fishing community as a whole, the government has attempted to provide direct assistance to individual small-scale fishermen through the granting of subsidies. The granting of subsidies is not a new idea for helping fishermen, having been used intermittently by the authorities in the past to fund inputs at below market rates and offer fishermen increased access to engines, boats, and nets. It was hoped that this form of direct assistance would increase the incidence of ownership of productive assets among fishermen and therefore their productive capacity. Since non-ownership of the necessary means of production is commonly held to be an important factor forcing the fishermen into a subordinate position with respect to the financier-traders and hence subjecting them to poverty. the subsidy programme was seen as playing a role in helping to free non-owning operators from their bondage to owners of the boats and gear.

The new schemes were initially introduced in 1972 to fishermen in the East Coast as a result of a M$1.5 million allocation under the Second Plan. Initially very generous to the favored few recipients who received gear and engines on a full-grant basis, the level of subsidy was subsequently reduced in 1973 and 1974. As with other government subsidization schemes, the scheme quickly ran into problems of 'political interference and abused (Lawson, 1975: 25). In late 1974 it was suspended with only one-half of the sum set aside having been put to use. However, it was restarted in 1976 with greatly increased funds made available under the Third Plan. The new allocation of M$70 million reflected to some extent the country's extremely favorable fiscal position in the late 1970s which enabled the authorities to inject more money into the depressed peasant agricultural and fishing sectors. At the same time, it was a recognition that the small-scale fisherman community deserved a higher level of public assistance to subsidize their low incomes until such time as development plans for the community began to take effect.

The main application of the scheme has been in the East Coast where, according to government estimates, the distribution of M$142 million worth of subsidies has benefited thousands of fishermen and helped increase production considerably. Between 1976 and 1980, an estimated 15.000 fishermen received subsidies in the form of nets and other equipment whilst 1, 846 were provided subsidized engines. The value of the scheme to recipients is undoubted but whether the subsidies have reached the really needy fishermen is open to question. According to its present regulations, the scheme is available only to bona fide fishermen with Fishermen Association members receiving first priority and members of Fishing Co-operatives, second priority. At the same time, participant fishermen must only operate unpowered fishing boats or boats powered with an engine of less than 45 hp. However, according to field interviews conducted with fishermen in five villages in North-east Malaysia, it is mainly people of influence (who have obtained membership in the various associations and co-operatives in one way or another) or well-to-do fishermen who do not deserve the assistance who are selected to receive the subsidies. As evidence that poor fishermen are not benefiting, it has been pointed out by respondents that according to existing policy, the grant of subsidies is being confined only to engine and boat owners. This has resulted in the exclusion of the poorest fishermen who do not own their own boats or whose boats are in bad condition. The question posed by one boatless fisherman is apt. 'Siapa yang lebih miskin Orang yang memiliki bot atau orang yang hanya ada tenagapenjual tenaga? Bukankah ini satu skim untuk menolong orang yang lebih kaya?' (Who is poorer? Someone who owns a boat or someone who is merely a seller of his labour power? Isn't the scheme only to help people who are more well-to-do?) Another cause of complaint is the rule permitting people who work on the sea for only 90 days a year to qualify for subsidies. According to most interviewees, many part-time fishermen generally have other sources of livelihood such as padi land, dusun (fruitland), or petty businesses and therefore they should not be permitted to apply. One full-time fisherman exclaimed, 'Ninety days in a year is really not fair! They work only one quarter of a year on the sea. And yet they receive assistance.'

Even among the successful applicants interviewed, some dissatisfaction was expressed with regard to the working of the scheme. One common grouse was the length of time said to be required to process applications. Some applicants for prawn nets, for example, alleged that they received the nets only after the prawn season had passed, so that they had to wait for the next season before they could use the subsidized nets. Many instances of unsuitable gear and engines were also reported and some respondents said that the difficulty of getting replacements often compelled them either to underutilize the engines or to sell them off discreetly.

All these problems emphasize the need for the authorities to monitor more closely the progress and effectiveness of the subsidy scheme. However, whilst correction of administrative problems or the weak implementational capacity of the personnel managing the scheme is possible, the problem of preventing domination or monopolization of the scheme by better endowed fishermen with greater economic or political leverage is more difficult. Given the existing unequal access at both local and national levels, it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospect of the subsidy scheme serving the interests of the great masses of poor fishermen. Beyond the question of the equity of subsidy distribution looms the larger one of the resource base which will surely be affected by a drastic increase in technological levels of a large body of fishermen. Thus, it is obvious that subsidies to artisanal fishermen working the inshore zone in the West Coast will result in over-capitalization and bring about a faster rate of diminution of already endangered stocks. In other words, subsidization, beyond a certain stage, is counter-productive and should be regulated not only with welfare considerations in mind but also within the larger matrix or market impact and the availability of fish resources or else it could create more difficulties than it resolves. Because of this, it is necessary that the concept and practice of subsidization should be linked closely to the question of surplus fishermen and its operation cover both retained and displaced fishermen.