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Looking-for-money : simple commodity production in the economy of the Tapah Semai of Malaysia




Gomes, Alberto G.

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This thesis examines the nature of the articulation of the economy of the Tapah Semai, a Malaysian aboriginal (Orang Asli) group, with the wider Malaysian economy. Its primary aim is to document the extent of the market linkages to demonstrate that the prevailing image of the people as subsistence farmers with limited involvement in the market economy is misleading. This view is portrayed in the literature and is held by the Malaysian government which bases its policies in respect to Semai (and other Orang Asli) upon it. On the basis of an indepth village study and a regional socio-economic survey covering all the Semai villages in the Tapah region, it is demonstrated that the Tapah Semai are now deeply enmeshed in simple commodity production as well as commodity consumption. In a detailed examination of how a sample of six households in the study village, Sempak, allocated their time to production, it is demonstrated that the people spent treble the time on commodity production, such as fruit collecting, forest product gathering and rubber tapping, tha* they spent on subsistence production such as swiddening, fishing and hunting. It appears that the villagers allocated more time to commodity production because it was more efficient and productive than subsistence production. For the sample households in Sempak, it was found that in terms of imputed market value, subsistence production produced only one eighth the value of a equal amount of time spent in commodity production. As a result of its low productivity relative to commodity production, subsistence production is in decline. It appears that the villagers’ current focus on commodity production is also linked to their ever increasing desire and dependence on market goods. These market relations are underwritten by a pervasive system of credit and indebtedness which is necessary for the maintemcnce of regular trading relations with several middlemen. A detailed examination of the expenditure of the sample households indicates that about half of their total expenditure was on foodstuff which formed almost all of their food consumption. The commoditisation of the Semai economy is seen to have engendered several changes in intravillage social relations such as the development of private property, the ascendancy of appropriative practices, the appearance of intravillage entrepreneurial enterprises, the commodification and decline in sharing and labour cooperation, all of which are creating incipient social differentiation. This thesis ends with a discussion of the future of the Tapah Semai as simple commodity producers. Although the Semai economy is quite resilient, given its broad nature and flexibility, its continued viability is dependent upon several factors beyond the people’s control. The most crucial factor is legal tenure to an adequate land area. However unless the Malaysian government recognises the current nature of the Tapah Semai economy, the future of simple commodity production among the Tapah Semai is precarious.






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