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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

Defining the peasantry

Asking whether FELDA settlers are still part of the Malay peasantry implies a preliminary question concerning our definition of the word peasant. Although it might be useful to review the various meanings the word peasant has been endowed with since the category emerged as a possible subject of analysis in the first half of the nineteenth century-social scientists who specialize in so-called peasant studies indulge in such periodic updating,9 or, as one of them put it, in "conceptualizing and deconceptualizing" (Shanin 1979)-such is not the purpose of this paper. I will only draw upon such sources to outline briefly my own position. Peasants are sometimes defined in terms of occupational and economic qualifications. De Koninck, for one, regards them as "small scale family based agricultural producers" (1984, 271). Yet such a definition fails to convey cultural and political dimensions. As to Wolf's definition, I find it unsatisfactory for other reasons;10 while conveying, although implicitly, cultural and political dimensions, it is too restrictive in economic and occupational terms; not only does Wolf exclude non-agriculturalists such as fishermen but he also keeps out of the peasant category two groups of people who work on the land, the landless labourers and those "who participate fully in the market" (Wolf 1969, 15).11 Instead, I would favour a more comprehensive definition such as Shanin's,12 which has the advantage of covering the social, economic/occupational, cultural, and political dimensions which I feel are part and parcel of the concept.

Yet I still find inadequacies in Shanin's definition, and more precisely with the second item. I think one can no longer stick to a subsistence orientation and, following de Koninck (1986), one should broaden it to include both commercial and subsistence orientations. Moreover, I find Shanin's occupational specificity too narrow, and, following Firth (1950), in order to give proper place to the social and cultural dimensions, I feel one should include among peasants other rural dwellers such as fishermen and craftsmen; it is because peasants constitute and belong to a living community that one cannot admit the exclusion of such non-agricultural occupations. Further, as Firth rightly argued, such clear-cut categories do not always exist in practice, at least not in the Malaysian context (Firth 1950, 503).13

To sum up, one would argue that peasants share a family based economic tie with a village territory, from which most of them derive the main part of their livelihood. They are part of a specific village culture, and they occupy a subordinate social position within a state structure. At the same time, they form a political force that has to be reckoned with.

Expressed in such encompassing terms, this definition fits the Malaysian peasantry. It seems to have been taken for granted by most observers of Malay society, as the phrase "Malay peasants" is taken to be synonymous with "Malay villagers," in the anthropological literature at least. The importance thus granted to the cultural factors (the fact that Malay peasants are part of both a village culture and a village community) justifies the above discussion, which would otherwise appear as mere theoretical juggling.