Pre-1800 data on Malaysia

Quantitative evidence on the economic history of Malaysia before the nineteenth century is scarce. Some information may be found in the published primary materials of early Portuguese officials like Tomé Pires’ Suma Oriental. More data becomes available for the period after the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) took over control of Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641. The VOC archives contain a wealth of information on trade volumes, wages and prices on all its establishments in the east, including Malacca. The TANAP project has digitized the inventories of the VOC archives here: Furthermore, large parts of the VOC archives are currently being digitized by the Dutch National Archives and can consequently be found here: Originals can be found in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague (The Netherlands).

For the eighteenth-century, the Huygens Institute for Dutch History has digitized the contents of all accounts kept by the VOC’s Bookkeeper-General in Batavia. For the 55 years for which the volumes still exist, this source noted down all cargoes that were transported between the Dutch Republic and Asia, as well as among the different establishments of the VOC in Asia. This provides a very good indication of trade volumes, as well as the prices paid for various goods in different harbors in the Indian Ocean area. The database is searchable and the data are downloadable as .csv files here:


The British in Malaysia

The British East India Company (EIC) initially gained formal possession of the island of Penang off the Western coast of the Malaysian peninsula in August 1786. In 1795 the British expanded its power in the region by taking over possession of various territories previously held by the Dutch. Most notably, the British took control of Malacca and in 1800 they gained control over Prai (Province Wellesley) - situated the coast opposite of Penang. In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles founded a British trading station in Singapore and the British formally became in control of the entire island a few years after that. In 1826 these four British territories – Penang, Province Wellesley, Malacca and Singapore – formed the Straits Settlements. The Dingdings (now Manjung) were added to the Straits Settlements in 1874. The Straits Settlements came to be ruled directly as a British Crown Colony from 1867.

The Federated Malay States (FMS) were formed in 1895 and consisted of four states – Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang – that were put under British colonial control in preceding years. In a series of treaties, these states accepted a the appointment of a British Resident, who advised the Malay rulers on all matters of administration. Under these treaties, the Malay rulers remained the sovereign heads of state, but in practice power rested with the British Resident (Nazrin 2017).    

Johor, in the south of the Malay peninsula, accepted British protectorate status in 1885 and in 1914 accepted a British Resident. The other four states of the Malay peninsula – Kedah, Perlis, Trengganu and Kelantan – formally came under British protection via the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. Collectively, these five states are known as the Unfederated Malay States (UMS). Their administration was separate and these rulers retained more autonomy compared with those of the FMS (Nazrin 2017, p. 22).

In 1881, the British North Borneo Company was set up with a charter from the British Crown in order to rule Sabah, then known as the territory of North Borneo. Sarawak was ruled by Brooke family since 1841. James Brooke, a British adventurer who was born in India, became the independent ruler of Sarawak after he had helped the Sultan of Brunei quelling a rebellion. In the years that followed, the Brookes gradually extended the territory of Sarawak, often at the cost of their former patron and ally, Brunei. In 1888, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei attained British protectorate status, but they remained autonomous. Brunei accepted a British resident in 1906.

The different status these various states had within the British colonial administration obviously also has consequences for the availability of source material. In general, the amount of source material is largest for the Straits Settlements as they came under direct British colonial rule relatively early. There are more data available for the FMS than for the UMS, Sabah and Sarawak. We are unaware of any data available on the Malaysian sultanates before the data put out by the British administration.


British Colonial Sources


Vital demographic data on British Malaya can be found in the various censuses. The first census of the Straits Settlements was conducted in 1851 and was followed by censuses each year. The census for 1871 can be found in the Blue Books of Statistics for that year.


The following are available in print at various academic libraries:

  • Merewether, E.M. (1891). Report on the Census of the Straits Settlements taken on the 5th of April, 1891. Singapore, Government Printing Office.
  • J.R. Innes (1901). Report on the Census of the Straits Settlements taken on 1st March, 1901. Singapore: Government Printing Office.                                                                                                    
  • Marriott, H. (1911). Census Report of the Straits Settlements, 1911. Singapore: Government Printing Office.

For the FMS censuses were held every 10 years from 1891 on:

  • The results of the 1891 census were published at the end of the 1891 Census of the Strait Settlements.
  • Hare, G.T. (1902) Census of the Population, Federated Malay States, 1901. Kuala Lumpur: Government Printer.
  • Pountney, A.M. (1911) The Census of the Federated Malay States: Review of the Census Operations and Results, 1911. London: Darling & Son Ltd.                                                    

For Johor, Kedah and Perlis, a first census was taken in 1911 and was published as:

  • Cavendish, A . (1911). Report on the Census of Kedah and Perlis, 1911. Penang: Criterion Press Ltd.
  • Marriott, H. (1911). Report on the Census of the State of Johore, 1911. Johore Bahru: Government Printing Office.

The first censuses that also contained the other UMS were conducted in 1921 and 1931 and data appeared in the following publications:

  • Nathan, J.E. (1922). The Census of British Malaya (The Straits Settlements, Federated Malay States and Protected States of Johore, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Trengganu, and Brunei), 1921. London: Waterloo and Sons Ltd.
  • Vlieland, C.A. (1931). British Malaya: a report on the 1931 census and on certain problems of vital statistics. London: Crown Agents for the Colonies.

The final colonial census was conducted in 1947 and published as:

  • Del Tufo, M.V. (1949). A Report on the 1947 Census of Population, Malaya (Comprising theFederation of Malaya and the Colony of Singapore). London, The Crown Agents for the Colonies.


Blue Books of Statistics, Manual of Statistics

A source that is used extensively by economic historians are the Blue Books of Statistics, which are available for all British colonies. The Blue Books contains mainly statistical materials – on prices, wage rates, production, imports and exports. The Blue Books of Statistics are found in the British National Archives (in London), Colonial Office Records:

  • Straits Settlements: Blue Books of Statistics, CO 277, 1867-1939, 91 volumes
  • Federated Malay States: Manuals of Statistics, CO 575, 1904-1949, 38 volumes


Statistical Abstracts

The information from the Blue Books from all British colonies was summarized in a source titled: Statistical Tables Relating to the Colonial and Other Possessions and Protectorates, or alternatively titled Statistical Abstract for the Several Colonial and Other Possessions of the United Kingdom and was published each year between 1833 and 1912. They can be found in the British National Archives, Colonial Office Records (CO422), but various editions can also be found at libraries around the globe. These also contain the figures from the various Malaysian states.


Annual Reports

The Annual Reports of the Straits Settlements, the FDS and UMS provides some economic data as well as provides a qualitative description of the context of these data. Some annual reports can be found in academic libraries across the world. All Annual Reports are also available at the British National Archives in London:

  • Straits Settlements, Annual Report, various sub-entries in CO 275, 1886-1936
  • Federated Malay States: various sub-entries in CO 576, 1896-1940
  • Johore: CO 715/1-6, 1910-1940
  • Kedah and Perlis: CO 716/1-4, 1905-1940.
  • Kelantan CO 717/137, 142, 1938-1939
  • Sarawak CO 802/1-24, 1900-1965

The individual states of the FMS also produced separate Annual Reports:

  • Perak, Annual Report, CO 438/1-5, 1888-1939
  • Selangor, Annual Report, CO 439/1-4, 1888-1939
  • Pahang, Annual Report, CO 437-1-4, 1888-1939
  • Negri Sembilan, Sungei Ujong and Jelebu, Annual Report, CO 435/1-4, 1888-1929

Additional reports titled Colonial Reports can be found in CO 1071. Here one can find Annual Reports for Brunei (1071/59-81), Trengganu (1071/254) and North Borneo/Sabah (1071/285-289).


Government Gazettes

Detailed qualitative information on appointments of colonial staff, as well as information on legislation, texts on ordinances and other notices. Furthermore, these Gazettes often contained information on average market prices for a wide range of goods, as well as other information regarding the economy, population, sanitation and crime. As in the case with the source above, some of these Government Gazettes may be found in academic libraries in Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. They are also available at the British National Archives in London:

  • Federated Malay States CO 574
  • Federation of Malaya CO 930
  • Johore CO 653
  • Kedah and Perlis CO 819
  • Kelantan CO 928
  • Labuan CO 573
  • Malacca (Melaka) CO 929
  • Negri Sembilan, Sungei Ujong and Jelebu CO 463
  • Pahang CO 466
  • Penang CO 933
  • Perak CO 467
  • Perlis CO 931
  • Sarawak CO 604
  • Selangor CO 469
  • Singapore CO 932
  • Straits Settlements CO 276
  • Sungei Ujong CO 475
  • British North Borneo and Sabah CO 855
  • Brunei CO 985


Departmental Reports

For the 1930s, data becomes abundantly available in various annual reports by the different departments of the colonial administration, such as the Annual Report of the Labour Department, Report of the Agricultural Department, Education Department, Public Works Department, the Annual Medical Report, Crime Reports, Railways Reports and many others.


Post-Colonial Malaysia and Singapore

Penang, Malacca, the UMS and FMS were combined into the Malayan Union (under British protection) in 1946, and renamed into the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Singapore became a British crown colony. In 1957 the Federation of Malaya was granted independence from Britain. Six years later, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore merged with the Federation to form Malaysia on 16 September 1963. Due to political and economic conflicts between Singapore and the rest of Malaysia, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965 thus gaining independence.


Population Censuses

  • Fell, H. (1960). 1957 Population Census of the Federation of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics, Federation of Malaya.                                                                                                                 
  • Chander, Ramesh (1977). General Report, 1970 Population Census of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics Malaysia,                                                                                                                  
  • Huat, Khoo Teik (1983). General Report of the Population Census, 1980 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics Malaysia.                   
  • Huat Khoo Teik (1985). Report on the Post Enumeration Survey, 1980. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics Malaysia.
  • Gim, Khoo Soo (1995). General Report of the Population Census, 1991 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics Malaysia.
  • Rahman, Shaari Abdul (2004). Population and Housing Census of Malaysia, 2000: Migration and Population Distribution. Putrajaya: Department of Statistics Malaysia.                                  
  • Rahman, Shaari Abdul (2001). Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristics, 2000 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia. Putrajaya: Department of Statistics Malaysia.
  • Raof, Wan Ramlah bt Wan Abd. (2011). Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristics, 2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia. Putrajaya: Department of Statistics Malaysia.
  • Rahman bin Hasan, Abdul (2013). Education and Social Characteristics of the Population, 2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia. Putrajaya: Department of Statistics Malaysia.


Economic data

Economic data can be obtained from the following publications:


Further reading

See the research note of Prof. Tamotsu Nishizawa:

In addition, the Economic History of Malaysia project, headed by Sultan Nazrin Shah, contains a wealth of quantitative information gathered from the sources mentioned above:

Also see his recent book:

  • Sultan Nazrin Shah, Charting the Economy. Early 20th Century Malaya and Contemporary Malaysian Contrasts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Last update on Tuesday 10 August 2021 (08:26) by  Pierre van der Eng


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