Controlling Land, Culture, and Identity in the Malay Agricultural Settlement of Kuala Lumpur, 1899–1920s

Joanna Lee

1Monash University, Clayton, Australia,

Established in 1899, the Malay Agricultural Settlement (MAS) at Kuala Lumpur, British Malaya was intended to do two things: protect traditional Malay peasantry from the feared ill-effects of encroaching socioeconomic development, while also preserve what the British imagined to be ‘traditional’, rural Malay ways of life. Even as the growing influx of foreign migrants and indentured labourers changed the socioeconomic landscape of Malaya, British officials anticipated Malay peasants continuing to provide a permanent, agricultural foundation for their colony. For much of its initial founding, however, the MAS was plagued by administrative error and dysfunction, as British colonial constructs of Malayness were predicated on inaccurate assumptions about Malay culture and land-use. Examining this haphazard situation through the lens of colonial cultivation policies surrounding padi (rice) and rubber, I highlight how simplistic understandings of Malayness led to British officials constantly being blindsided by peasants who acted in decidedly un-peasantlike ways. In doing so, this paper seeks to foreground the tensions that British officials perceived between socioeconomic development and cultural preservation, so as to reveal the incoherent nature of British Malaya’s colonial administration.


Joanna Lee submitted her PhD thesis for examination in October 2019 through Monash University (Australia). Her research is centred on the environmental history of British Malaya, with a particular focus on environmental perception and imperial networks.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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