|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|
Our review of fisheries in Malaysia begins with the immediate postwar period when the colonial government began reconstruction of the country's battered economy, and concern for the proper development of the fishing industry was expressed by the authorities due to the urgent problem of adequate food supplies for a population much ravaged by the war. At that time, too, the colonial authorities had recognized that important changes were beginning to take place in the traditional fishing industry, mainly as a result of the impact of modern technology. The High Commissioner, in a foreword to a publication by one of his officers, had sounded the warning that when 'fishing areas receive the full impact of modern technology the resources must not be permitted to diminish' (Kesteven, 1949: I). He also commented that the question of marine resources was 'a problem on which scientific investigation and wise administration' must be turned to since 'unlike the land, the sea has no barrier'. These words were to prove prophetic as the issue of technological change in the industry and its impact on fishermen who could not participate in the change was to become a recurrent problem over the next four decades until the present, when it is still largely unresolved.
Despite the acute perceptivity with which some officials in the colonial administration viewed the problems of development in the fishing industry, the colonial government appears to have done little for the fishing industry in the short interregnum between the war's end and the passing of authority over to an independent government. Rehabilitation of the industry following the gear losses and depreciation brought about by the war was largely due to the initiative of individuals within the fishing community. Similarly, the use of artificial fibre nets and the mechanization of boats came about less through the efforts of the Fisheries Department than the private sector's own interests in improving the industry's efficency and profitability. Preoccupied with a prolonged guerrilla war waged by the Malayan Communist Party and more important political developments, it was not until the eve of independence that the authorities began to initiate a closer scrutiny of the fishing industry. In September 1955, largely at the urging of the local representatives in the Legislative Council, the colonial government established a committee to investigate the fishing industry in view of the fact that 'the occupation of fishing is one of the lowest rewarded in the country' and to suggest 'ways to improve the economic condition of the local fishing population' (Anonymous, 1956: I). Unlike other committees appointed by the colonial government, the committee was not dominated by government representatives who might have minimized the seriousness of the fishing community's problems in defence of colonial economic policies. Ten of its eleven members were Malayans and the strength of local representation appears to be largely responsible for the unambiguous character of its output and the candid recommendations made. The committee's report produced in 1956 warrants discussion as it was in many ways a landmark study that can be used to evaluate the shortcomings of government policy towards the small-scale fishing community during the following years.
The committee prefaced its report by noting that although it was able to provide recommendations in some detail for the improvement of the equipment and operations of fishermen, it did not feel sufficiently confident to provide more than a limited and superficial survey of the marketing and distribution side of fishing, which were extremely complex activities related to the capital structure of the industry. Nevertheless, its main recommendations were directly connected to the question of changing the prevailing ownership and control patterns in the industry. Principally, the committee found that the industry's main problem arose from the dependence of fishermen on financing, and through the loan of boats, gear, and nets, by capitalists who rarely went to sea themselves and exploited the former group by offering them low prices for their catches and charging high prices for the equipment or goods sold. To free fishermen from this exploitative capital structure, the committee proposed that provision be made for financial assistance in the form of boats and gear to selected groups of fishermen. Specifically, the government was advised to encourage fishermen to form themselves into co-operatives or associations which would receive loans in the form of credit for the purchase of equipment, repayable over a certain period with nominal interest and including a non-repayable subsidy of one third the amount of the loan. To administer the co-operatives, the committee recommended the establishment of a Fisheries Board which was set up as a statutory body with an initial capital of M$3 million. Recognizing the difficulty of administering a loan scheme successfully from previous government experience with loan defaults, it emphasized that the Board should be provided with adequate advisory and supervisory staff. Other major recommendations of the committee were directed towards overcoming the 'utter dependence of fishermen upon the sea for a livelihood and upon the almost complete lack of alternative employment' and the inadequacy of amenities and social services for fishing communities. To overcome these problems, it put forward a wide range of recommendations requesting that the government give special consideration to providing land for fishermen, the introduction of cottage industry and agriculture, the construction or improvement of fishing harbours, jetties, and roads, the expansion of training for fishermen, and control over the price of ice.
Clearly, the committee had performed well its task of identifying 'the relevant problems connected with the fishing industry' and recommending 'ways to improve the economic condition of the local fishing population'. Besides meeting with representatives from all sectors of the industry, its members had also visited fishing villages to study at first-hand the opinions of fishermen and the fishing communities. The resultant report was a comprehensive yet thoughtful document which could have been the basis of a long-term programme to bring about the upliftment of the fishing community. However, this did not happen. Although it was a government-appointed committee and despite the presence of three senior members of the Alliance party who were later to reach the ministerial ranks, it failed to make an impact on the incoming government's policies. Except for an attempt at establishing fishing co-operatives and providing them with credit, little was done to implement the other recommendations and the urgency which had prompted the committee's investigation of the poverty-stricken fishing community was quickly lost. Why this happened is not clear. It could be that the recommendations were unworkable or that they became a casualty of the political differences between rival factions of the post-independent government. Whatever the reason, it was to weigh heavily on fisheries development during the next decade.