Being Mat: Introduction

Rural Resettlement, Social Engineering and Leadership

by Raja Alias and Tunku Alina Alias

In order to find yourself, you have first to lose yourself in the service of others

– Mahatma Gandhi

Co-Author’s Note

My father is a very special man. Not for his achievements which has been plentiful, but because he has been blessed with the gift of loving what he did for a living — being part of nation building — and having had a lot of fun while doing it. Although to my mind he has deservedly been given numerous unsolicited awards, accolades and recognition for his hard work and the single-minded dedication to this country he loves, it is the private, deep pleasure he has derived through his rich and full life of service that is most satisfying to him. Who is this intensely private man and what in his early years made him the driven man that underscored his approach to every task?

Here are some of the anecdotes that he has shared with us, his children, as we were growing up and even now as we sit around meals, reminiscing. Papa has shared some very personal thoughts with me, and in writing this, I am mostly his scribe. I believe that a person’s dreams are windows to his soul.

I also acknowledge my debt to Dr Rokiah Talib and her book “Architect of Felda” for showing me the breadth and depth of my own father. Despite growing up under his roof, and having lived my young life knowing that my father was a very, very busy man, Dr Rokiah made me understand why? She has inspired me to study him, how he did what he did and what I can learn from him. After all, as his daughter, I am one of the few who has exclusive access to this fountain of experience and wisdom. It has proven more challenging than I had thought, but also, very rewarding.

In undertaking this work, as a scholar and researcher I needed to understand the context and history of his life’s work, so I studied his speeches and documents to understand his thought process, the external influences and the internal compulsions that affected the man. Some historical context is necessary and I have included those. I have tried to be brief in describing the tumultuous years of the post-war a pre-Independence Malaya and the ideas behind rural development and social re-engineering in the first years after the independence of the country, but I think it was necessary.

In the last section, I include a short chapter from my perspective, his influence as a father on my development as a human being.


Traditional Malay social structure

The social structure of the Malays before the 20th century consisted of two strata: rulers and subjects, where the ruling stratum was an almost closed caste. For the subjects under customary Malay tenure, all land belonged to the ruler and the peasant was given a right to possess and work the land giving 10% of any income from the proceeds therefrom as tax. However, never would he have had absolute ownership although depending on the particular ruler, he might perhaps be granted some appurtenant rights to succession or to deal with the use of the land. Practically, there was little to be gained from capital accumulation as this only invited confiscation as rulers had a right to everything and anything they could take. It was the role of the chiefs or the rulers to distribute wealth amongst followers. Life was poor, but this was how it had continued for many centuries. For the Malay peasant, their main concern was to avoid the “fighting elephants”[1].

Through the consolidation of British power over the Malay States, state and district administration were taken over by a small group of British who formed the Malayan Civil Service. Malays that had learned the art of administration together with the Indians, and to a lesser extent some Chinese, aided the British Civil officers. This small group of officers (at the end of 1957, there were only 360 members of the MCS) mobilized local resources to build infrastructure, control malaria and provide a favourable climate for foreign investment.

[1] Malay saying: the elephants fight each other, the mice get trampled underfoot.

Tunku Alina·
6 min
6 cards

Read “Being Mat: Introduction” on a larger screen, or in the Medium app!