Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 30 (March 1960)
– 39 –

Picture icon

Where possible, rice fields are inundated by an irrigation system during the first stages of growth, after which the water is allowed to drain out. This pictures comes from Malaya. (Courtesy United Kingdom Information Service, Wellington.)

It was fitting that the Young Maori Leaders Conference devoted one evening to discussing the problems and progress of South East Asia. The lecture given that evening, which is worth preserving, is reprinted here. The author, Theo Roy, a tutor of Adult Education in Auckland, has spent the greater part of his life in Asia.


In recent years newspapers in Australia and New Zealand have featured with increasing prominence, news items about South East Asia—and well they should, since this is no remote area, but literally the ‘near North’ of a predominantly white populated Australasia. Reference to a map will show that South East Asia is sandwiched between the land masses of India and China. It consists of a group of states on a peninsula of the mainland—Burma, Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—and a string of islands containing two states—Indonesia and the Philippines. The population numbers at least 180 millions and consists of people of many races and cultures, but they have certain characteristics and problems in common. This article attempts to give an outline of those problems.

Unlike India and China, South East Asia lies wholly within the tropics. The combination of heat and moisture that is the characteristic climate throughout the year produces luxuriant vegetable growth almost everywhere. Where the natural cover of tropical forest has been cleared by man for settlement, the staple cereal that thrives best in these conditions is rice. Dependence on rice has produced a characteristic pattern in South East Asian society. Rice cultivation is best carried out by small units, and close control must be maintained over irrigation and drainage at all stages of growth. Consequently, the typical basic social unit in South East Asia is the joint family, and the next larger unit is the village, which is more an administrative definition of an area with a unified system of irrigation control, than it is descriptive of a close human settlement. Since the majority of South East Asians live in

– 40 –

villages these are the social units that exert the greatest influence in the affairs of a country. Towns exist only as centres of political administration and entrepots of trade, but the destinies of a South East Asian country lie in the hands of its peasant farmers.

The social structure just described was very well suited to the size of the population in South East Asia, over a long period of its history, but this is no longer true. Over the last century the population has grown enormously, both by natural increase and by immigration. There has also been an increase in the area cleared for human settlement; but newly cleared areas are largely given over to the production of cash crops such as kapok, rubber, tea, coffee and sugar, or are the sites of extractive industries producing tin, wolfram and petroleum. Therefore there has not been an increase in the area under food crops corresponding to the increase in population. Nor has the food been procured elsewhere with the profits from the plantations and mines, because those profits did not go back into the countries that produced them, but to the European nations that held all the South East Asian states, excepting Thailand, under their political control until 1947.

The fact that Europeans—British, French, Dutch and Americans—were in political control of South East Asia (again excepting Thailand, which provided a convenient buffer state between French and British colonialisms), is partly responsible for the rapid growth of population during the last century. To exploit the resources of their colonial possessions efficiently, European rulers found it necessary to replace the feudal anarchy which had existed before their advent with strong central administrations. To ensure a relatively smooth and predictable flow of colonial raw materials to the factories at home, it was necessary to control, if possible, the periodic devastation of the labour force by famines and epidemics. The natural checks on population increase being temporarily abated, the populations of South East Asian countries grew enormously in a relatively short period of time.

In passing, it is interesting to note that the birthrate of Asian populations is no higher than that of New Zealand, and considerably lower than that of the Maori population of New Zealand. Since the Asian death rate is much higher than the New Zealand one, it follows that the actual rate of natural increase of population is lower in Asia than it is in New Zealand. What makes Asian population figures so staggering to the West, is that the total populations to which they apply are so very much larger to begin with—180 millions increasing at the rate of 8 or 9 per thousand each year, against New Zealand's 2 millions increasing annually at the rate of 15 or 16 per thousand.

Having established the reason for recent increases in South East Asia's population, and the

Picture icon

In the jungle, where irrigation is not possible, rice is grown dry and carefully cultivated. (Malaya U.K. Information Service.)

fact that a previously satisfactory ration between population and food producing areas no longer exists, it is possible to examine the consequences. These can be summed up in a single word—poverty. But to understand South East Asian poverty it is necessary to have some measure of its magnitude. One convenient yardstick is national income per head, because this gives a rough idea of how much is available to provide each member of a community with food, clothing, shelter and social services such as education, medical attention, transport, and a measure of social security. In the U.S.A. national income per head is in the region of $2000 a year, in New Zealand it is about $1000 plus, but in South East Asia it ranges from $25 to $60. Again, food intake is a famillar measure for comparison. Allowing for differences in food habits and the balance between the components of different

– 41 –

national diets, it is still evident that, if in Europe and New Zealand average diets supply 3,500 calories, whereas in South East Asia the figure is between 1,800 and 2,200 calories, then the Asian is far worse nourished. Clearly then the immediate result of poverty of this magnitude is chronic malnutrition, which must needs leave sufferers open to the attacks of various diseases to which they may not otherwise have fallen victims. The combined effect of chronic malnutrition and disease is weak and inefficient producers, and where the margin between productivity and subsistence is very small indeed, this can be considered to complete the vicious circle from which no South East Asian country has so far escaped.

Formerly it was possible to blame European colonialism for the state of affairs in South East Asia—and its legacy still remains, but since 1947 all of these countries have emerged as independent states, and now face the tremendous tasks of fulfilling the economic and social hopes of their successful political revolutions. On the basis of their national incomes per head it is possible to deduce easily that there is no margin for saving, therefore capital development must depend on outside aid. Both the Anglo-American and Russo-Chinese camps are anxious to provide this assistance, since neither wishes to see an area whose politics are still undecided fall ideologically to the other side. On the other hand, the fierce pride of newly acquired nationhood prevents these countries from eagerly accepting sorely needed help, if they suspect that there are political strings attached. In some cases, e.g., N. Vietnam, Thailand, the pressures have proved too great and a measure of national independence has been abandoned in return for help, but the majority of these states still remain undecided.

The West, of which Australia and New Zealand form a part culturally and ideologically, has followed two main lines of policy towards South East Asia. The first is a policy of containment (of Communism to the countries it has so far overrun) and the other is a policy of stabilisation (of economics of South East Asian countries in the hope that a full rice bowl will minimise the appeal of communist doctrines). The former has been implemented largely by means of providing military aid to those governments considered by the West to be politically ‘reliable’, and by the formation of defensive regional pacts such as ANZUS and SEATO. The latter has been implemented on a much wider basis by such projects as the Colombo Plan. It is possible that, in providing aid to governments that may be out of real touch with the village communities they supposedly represent, the West may be backing the wrong horses. The example of American aid to Chinag Kai Shek and the Kuomintang is a permanent reminder of the danger involved in making a bad choice of allies. On the other hand economic aid realistically planned and given without political conditions attached appears to be a much safer investment. The only catch is that in trying to carry out both policies the West may find first, that it has not got sufficient surplus funds to complete either plan successfully, and secondly, that the antithetical nature of the policies may result in the possible benefits from each being cancelled out by the antagonisms that are aroused in Asians by the knowledge that the other policy is also being followed simultaneously.

Finally, in dealing with the problem of framing a policy or policies towards South East Asia, any party at all, and the West in particular, must bear in mind that their recent history has left these countries strongly suspicious of anything that even remotely resembles an attempt to reimpose colonial rule in a different guise. Also that hand in hand with the completed national revolutions in these countries are two as yet unfulfilled revolutions—an economic one demanding fairer shares for everyone, and a social one demanding freedom from the control of authoritarian traditional ruling classes. Unless policies are planned so as not to run counter to these strong currents, they cannot hope to succeed. The nation that would deal wisely with South East Asia, must deal with the village communities, and it cannot hope to do this unless it understands, not only their problems, but their aspirations. No country needs to do this more urgently than New Zealand, for after all we cannot escape the simple geographical truth that now, and in future, South East Asia is our nearest Asian neighbour, and what happens there cannot help but affect this country and its people, whatever their race.