HC Deb 14 February 1949 vol 461 cc906-20

Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

9,51 p.m.

Mr. Harrison (Nottingham, East)

There is no doubt that recent unfortunate events in Malaya have tended to overshadow happenings in other neighbouring British territories, and I believe that a necessary public service will be performed tonight if we turn our attention to the economic position existing in the Colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak. It seems to me that, when we consider these territories in South-East Asia, we should carefully adjust any considerations we may make to the general changing background which at the present time exists in the Far East. Future policy in British Borneo must be influenced by recent happenings in China, the potentialities in French Indo-China the Dutch East Indies and Burma, and that the significance of the recent Asian Conference held in Delhi must be borne in mind.

The Colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak are the latest additions to the British Colonial Empire, or, at any rate, the latest additional responsibilities of the Colonial Office, having come under their jurisdiction only since the end of the late war. Prior to this arrangement, North Borneo was administered by a chartered company. While constitutional matters are not the subject of this Debate, it is interesting to note that, despite great pressure, Tory Governments were opposed to accepting responsibilities in Borneo, and it was left to a Liberal Government to accept that measure of British interests in that island. To say that they accepted that responsibility in a manner that might have proved disastrous is borne out by the fact that, immediately, they handed over responsibility to a private concern. While a chartered company was responsible for North Borneo, Sarawak was an independent State under the rule of a Rajah.

During the recent war, the whole of the island of Borneo was overrun by the Japanese, with all that such an occupation meant, and particularly was this the case in British North Borneo. After liberation, both Sarawak and North Borneo were under a military administration, and came under the Colonial Office in June, 1946. This is a comparatively short time, and also a time of unusual difficulty, which must be taken into consideration.

My chief object tonight is to ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies for an account of his Department's stewardship, to ask what economic progress these two Colonies have made, and also, what is equally important, what plans of development have been prepared for the future of these Colonies? To be precise, we should speak of the Colony of North Borneo, which includes British North Borneo of the chartered company, Sarawak and the Island of Labuan, which was formerly part of the Straits Settlements. Together, they have a total area of 30,000 square miles, a sizable area, but with a population of only 330,000. Most of these people live in the coastal belt, leaving the interior of the island largely undeveloped, uninhabited jungle. I might say in passing that the hinterland contains very few of the dangers of the time when stories were told of the wild men of Borneo.

In assessing the possibilities of any country, the state of its communication services are very important. It must be said that even before the late war such services in Borneo were very poor. A small gauge railway ran along the west coast and there was also a short branch line of some 20 miles. In addition to these rail facilities, there were about 103 miles of metalled roads serving the main towns and estates, and a further 100 miles of gravelled roads. This, in total, does not amount to much in the way of modern transport facilities, and most of the territory was served by bridle paths and canoes only. With such scant communication services it is not surprising that no thorough survey of the territory has been undertaken.

Only coal among the minerals was mined commercially, and those operations ceased in 1931. The economy of the whole area was entirely agriculture. For the most part the native populations are very primitive people, though the most important local tribe, the Dusuns, are rather intelligent folk. Prior to the war, Chinese immigrants comprised one-sixth to one-fifth of the population and provided most of the artisans, shopkeepers, clerks and technical subordinates employed by the Government and commercial firms.

To this undeveloped country the war brought many untold disasters only revealed after its liberation. Most of the chief towns and villages have been destroyed. Of the 890 Government buildings in North Borneo and Labuan, 614 were completely destroyed and 266 badly damaged. The native peoples were dispersed, while the Chinese suffered severely, many of them being killed by the Japanese. This applies particularly to the Chinese who were in Government service. The railways were extensively damaged, rolling stock was destroyed and the main bridges blown up. As for the roads, they required re-metalling and the gravel roads re-laying. One could expect under such conditions that the harbours and ports would also suffer, which was the case at Sandakan and Jesselton, whilst in Labuan the port of Victoria practically ceased to exist.

I am sure it would be of general interest if the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies would give us some information as to the steps taken to both rehabilitate and develop this valuable Colony. For a territory which is situated in the tropics, it is one of the most healthy for white folk to live in. The widely spread mountains and hills permit the development of temperate climatic resorts. Another feature of great importance is that the region is situated below the typhoon area. As its native name implies, it is "The Land Below the Wind." One important consideration, when considering the Colony's development, is the establishment of regular communications with the outside world. Before the war, the Straits Steamship Company ran a regular weekly service between Singapore and the local ports. There was also a steamer service to Hong Kong, Japan, and the Dutch East Indies, whilst a local service operated along the coast.

Here are a few questions I wish to ask the Under-Secretary of State tonight. Have regular steamship services been resumed, and on what scale? Has it been possible to provide an air service? What steps have been taken to re-open the ports and improve them? Have the roads been repaired? Have steps been taken to widen and improve the roads and also to build new ones? There is a strong local opinion that in immediate importance new roads would be more advantageous than new railways. What steps have been taken to re-build the towns?

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. G. Wallace.]

Mr. Harrison

Is it intended to plan the new buildings carefully to avoid some of the mistakes that have been reported recently in the case of Singapore? Whilst it can be assumed that the towns will be re-built in the main on the old sites, have the authorities enlisted the aid of experienced town planners?

Most of the questions I have put to the Minister up to the present are concerned with rehabilitation. I want to proceed to matters concerning potential developments for I feel that I am right in assuming that the transfer of the territories from the Chartered Company was to permit a more reliable expansion of the economy of the Colony. In the two and a half years that the colony has been the responsibility of the Colonial Office I feel that, notwithstanding the difficulties, tentative plans should be in existence for agricultural and industrial developments there.

Could the Minister tell us if steps have been taken for a geological survey of the Colony to discover any mineral resources that might be suitable for commercial exploitation? I understand that the Powell, Duffryn Company have examined the coal resources. Have they reported yet and is the report available and, also, is it intended to resume mining operations? It is not difficult to imagine what a valuable contribution to the future of the Colony a local coal supply would be. I trust that the Minister will not consider my inquiries too numerous, for it would be a good thing if we could arrange for this Debate to reflect a comprehensive picture of the Colony's affairs.

To turn to agriculture and forestry. Before the war the export trade was predominantly based on rubber. Timber came a poor second and other products exported were comparatively few. Have steps been taken to re-organise the rubber industry? What of the timber trade, in view of the vast forest resources that exist there? Are any plans in hand to develop a more diversified agricultural economy? These are quite numerous questions, but I trust time will permit the Under-Secretary to reply to some of them, if not to all of them. Dr. Cheesman, in a recent report, suggested large-scale cocoa production in Malaya, Borneo and Sarawak. Have the initial experiments in this direction been conducted?

One of the unusual features of pre-war North Borneo was the fact that, whilst the Colony had one of the lowest densities of population in the Far East and, in addition, was totally an agricultural economy it was dependent on imported foodstuffs. In view of the comparative shortage of rice, can the Minister say if the question of increased rice production has been considered, both the wet and dry production, and also the mechanised production of this valuable food? I stress the mechanised production because of the shortage of reasonably skilled labour.

What educational facilities have the authorities in view for the local inhabitants? One of the most important questions that I can ask the Minister is, what is the attitude of the Government to the question of introducing immigrant workers. By that I do not mean indentured workers. I cannot imagine that idea being adopted.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

That is 50 questions.

Mr. Harrison

I am sure the Government will do their best to answer at least 49 of them. If they have not the opportunity to reply to some of the questions in this Debate I hope they will do so at some other time. I understand that there is a decided objection by the local inhabitants to the idea of accepting unlimited Chinese immigrants, for to permit the native peoples to prosper and develop a careful limitation of Chinese immigrants will be necessary. The Chinese with their greater experience would make progress very difficult for the native populations. We have had many unfortunate experiences recently of the difficulties of plural societies, but has any other source been found to supply the necessary clerks, technical subordinates and shopkeepers? What about the teeming millions of Malays living in that part of the world? Are they a possibility in that direction?

My final question concerns the Colonial Development and Welfare Schemes. The allocation to North Borneo under the 1945 Act was £623,370. From a copy of the "Board of Trade Journal" of 5th February, we are told that the local government have drawn up a 10 year plan of economic development of the colony. Has the Colonial Office approved this plan?

To Sarawak I have devoted little time and considerably less than to North Borneo, for one reason that the devastations of the Japanese were not so great there as in North Borneo, although many of the conditions that exist in North Borneo are to be found also in Sarawak—an undeveloped hinterland, a low density of population, lack of adequate geological information, large untapped forest resources and some dependency upon imported foodstuffs. In answering specific questions concerning Borneo, I should like the Minister to relate his replies to comparable problems in Sarawak.

I am fully aware of the fact that I have asked the Minister many questions in the short time I have taken up, but I do impress upon him the really great need for him to consider these questions and, if he cannot deal with them all tonight, I trust that he will deem them of sufficient importance to make known on some other occasion, publicly and widely, some of the Government's reaction to them.

10.8 p.m.

Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

In the few minutes left, I should like to put one or two points more to the Under-Secretary in addition to the 50 questions already asked. In doing so, may I point out that we are approaching the ideal which I hoped we would attain when I last raised this topic and which was that in this Parliament we should at least spend half an hour every day, in discussing Colonial questions?

One sees from a study of North Borneo one remarkable fact that, despite the depredations while the island was in the hands of the Japanese, there has been a most remarkable recovery. A great deal of credit for that is due, I think, to the Military Government organisation which was hastily got together in this country about the time when we were considering a Military Government organisation for Europe. They have done a good job of work, and the people in their administration of that country have now something upon which to build. It is heartening to know that there is one part of our territory where there are no housing problems. There seems to be no shortage of houses there. The people have so many houses at their disposal that within seven or eight years they can knock them down and build them again.

One of the dangerous aspects of affairs in North Borneo is that touched upon by the hon. Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Harrison)—that a country situated in a wonderful climate in the Inner Antipodes should be importing food. A rice-eating population needs to import rice. That is nothing new, unfortunately. I see from the figures of 1938 that they were doing the same thing then.

I should like to ask the Under-Secretary whether it is not time we made a big drive to ensure that native populations, especially in Africa, are given every means at our disposal for increasing their capacity to produce their own food. The position in the Colonial territories is reaching almost a crisis. Countries like Borneo which fed themselves before the war, are being so pressed into producing commercial products, groundnuts and that kind of thing, that many of them are rapidly leaving their villages and are not producing the food that they should produce to keep themselves and their families, as they did in 1938.

One sees that Borneo is roughly about the size of Ireland, whose basic industry is that of producing food, not only for itself but for export. I hope that we can get into Borneo modern machinery and the modern technical ideas which have been developed in this country and Australia by research. There should be a drive to send these ideas and machinery to that small country, to ensure not only that it shall be able to feed itself, but that the country shall join in the world scramble for the production of primary products. For many years, the problem of this country and the rest of Europe will be to secure primary products from those areas.

In this connection it is heartening to find from the report for the last year that an eatable commodity was exported from North Borneo, and that was dried and salted fish. Representing as I do a fishing port in this country, I know that Borneo is therefore our competitor, but I know also that there is such a shortage of these eatables in the world, that none of the people in North Borneo or Yarmouth will suffer if there is an increase in the export of commodities of this kind. Could not this export be linked up with some planned scheme applied to North Borneo? It is a small country which would probably lend itself to experiment, although not at the expense of the population. The experiment would be of benefit to the area, and to all the people in the Colonial Empire and in the world at large, and it should be concerned with the importation of machinery. Perhaps we should be able to learn a lot, which could be transmitted to other territories, especially in East Africa, and probably the West Indies.

Another question is that of communications. While the Japanese were in North Borneo, they did quite an amount of good work in certain respects. They constructed airfields and landing strips which, before their arrival, did not exist in the island at all. We can see that the island is quite well placed. It is about 1,200 miles from Hong Kong and 1,500 miles from Australia. There might be a useful development not only in air traffic, but in the use of the very good harbours in commercial development in that part of the world.

From our point of view, as administrators of Colonial Territories, the aspect of defence should not be forgotten. I do not talk as an expert, but it seems to me that we should build up a peaceful defence system. As I see the matter with the few facts at my disposal, I think that North Borneo would perhaps lend itself to defence purposes for Australia and other parts of the world which come under our rule. It would be interesting if we could know something about that from the Under-Secretary.

This is one of many Debates on Colonial subjects which we have had recently. We shall have many more short Debates on these various parts of our magnificent far-flung territories. At home we get answers to Questions from the Government Front Bench and it can be seen that a great interest is taken in those Questions, especially from this side of the House. However, that is not the way to tackle this problem. What we need for our Colonial Empire is a great economic council interlinked with the Commonwealth, so that we can proceed with the bringing out of these primary products to the industrial nations of the world and increase the products of industry on the spot where the minerals can be obtained. That cannot be done piecemeal. The day has gone by when an individual could go out and do some- thing of that kind. We must now have a great central council possessing great drive, and the only place where that can be set up is in this country, with the help of the Dominions and the Colonial Empire.

10.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Rees-Williams)

I am sure that the House is obliged to the hon. Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Harrison) and the hon. and gallant Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) for raising and supporting this subject. I am very glad that the hon. and gallant Member for Great Yarmouth paid a tribute to those members of the Military Government who went into Borneo and Sarawak at the end of the Japanese occupation, because they did a great work and we are very grateful to them for what they have done. We are also very grateful to the civil administration which took over from the military administration not long afterwards. Most of them had been imprisoned by the Japanese and many of them were suffering from years of malnutrition and disease contracted during their imprisonment, and yet in many cases they refused to take leave and carried straight on with their work, thus bridging a gap which might otherwise have occurred in the administration of these territories. This is about the first occasion on which we have had an opportunity of saying that, and I am sure that the House will join with me in expressing our gratitude to those officers of the administration who did such good service in those difficult times.

I have been asked to give some account of our stewardship in those territories, territories which have come into the Colonial Empire during the last three years. It is quite impossible to do so fully in 13 minutes, but I shall tell the House some of the more salient facts which arise. First of all, it must be remembered—the hon. Member for East Nottingham brought this point out—that both territories are primarily agricultural. They depend on rubber and other agricultural products for their export trade. In fact, North Borneo depends on rubber to the extent of 60 per cent., and both of them import about half the rice they require. It might be thought curious that countries like North Borneo, which is the size of Scotland, and Sarawak, which is the size of England and Wales, the former with a population of some 330,000 and the later with a population of 500,000, have to import one half of their staple diet, but that is due to the fact that the territories are relatively undeveloped.

In fact, 90 per cent. of the area of North Borneo is forest and a large percentage of Sarawak is either forest, mountain or swamp, so that actually the population lives to a large extent around the coast, and that is where development has taken place. The mineral resources in North Borneo have been very little explored. The same conditions apply here as throughout the rest of the Empire. The Tories with the great interest that they professed in the Empire did not seem to have much interest in finding out what was there.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedford)

I cannot let that pass. Is the hon. Gentleman aware the only economy in the Supplementary Estimates issued last week is an economy on the Colonial Survey. In every other way the Government have overspent what was voted to them.

Mr. Rees-Williams

That is partly due to the educational policy of the hon. Gentleman and his friends before the war, when they did not train enough surveyors.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

That is untrue.

Mr. Rees-Williams

As to Borneo, the mineral resources there are thought not to be great; the timber resources are excellent and will be exploited in due course in accordance with the best timber and forestry requirements. So far as Sarawak is concerned, the oil resources which at one time were thought to be considerable, are believed to be of little consequence. However, in the small territory of Brunei, which lies between Sarawak and North Borneo, there is a considerable amount of oil, and at the present moment that little territory is providing more oil than Trinidad. It also provides a curious nut which provides the cream for much of the chocolate creams which we eat—

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

Which we cannot get.

Mr. Rees-Williams

And is also used in cosmetics. Well, when we do get it, it is not cream but a curious nut called the Illipe. I mention that because that is the sort of thing that Tories would like to develop and did, in fact, develop.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

And which the people want.

Mr. Rees-Williams

What is our policy in these territories? It is to develop them for, and with the co-operation of, the people. As the hon. Member for East Nottingham said, we have to repair the devastation of the war. Ninety per cent. of the buildings in the towns of North Borneo were destroyed, and we have to make up for much of this destruction and also for the neglect during the war years to repair what needed to be repaired. We have to investigate the material resources, and the hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear that the geological survey is about to begin, and that there is a soil survey and forestry research scheme in Sarawak.

We also want to develop the human resources. The history in both Colonies is one of backwardness and lack of educational facilities, and we have large development plans which will be put into hand to remedy this state of affairs. We want to reduce the reliance upon imported foodstuffs so that more rice can be grown. We hope to experiment with the mechanised production of rice, and there is already in North Borneo a plan for an irrigation scheme for wet rice such as my hon. Friend mentioned. We want also to reduce the dependence on rubber as the main cash crop, and so diversify the economy of these territories.

That is our general economic policy, and now I will turn to some of the specific questions. In shipping I cannot claim that there is a very frequent service operating between these territories and Singapore or elsewhere. There is, however, a steamship service between the main ports and Singapore fortnightly, and with Hong Kong, Australia and the Philippines at less regular intervals. So far as the air is concerned, there is one air service operating weekly on the route Singapore—Kuching—Labuan— Jesselton, that is, running up the coast nearest the mainland of China between Singapore and the North part of the Island of Borneo. There is an airfield at Kuching, and also one at Labuan, and with the assistance of the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund we propose to make both of them into airfields which come up to the international airport standard.

The North Borneo railway suffered severe damage as to track, bridges and rolling stock during the Japanese occupation, and we are therefore trying to bring it into service again. Of course it is already in operation, but not in full operation. That is largely a question of getting the locomotives and rolling stock out there. The gauge is a narrow one and it is difficult to persuade manufacturers here to supply that type of equipment, for it means supplying something which is not generally used. They are not as keen on supplying locomotives and wagons for the narrow gauges as for the more common gauges. We are, however, taking this matter up with manufacturers. We are stepping up the progress of road construction and it is expected that the rehabilitation of all the roads in North Borneo will he completed in 1950. There and in Sarawak we are building new roads with a view to opening up the interior and extending the road systems on both West and East Coasts, in order to tap the agricultural areas and to link up the centres of population.

I was asked about town planning. I am glad to say we have now been able to obtain the services of a town planner, and he has been appointed. We had to wait for some time until we could get the right type of man. He is now busily engaged in planning the towns of North Borneo. We thought it better to have these plans properly prepared before starting to spend a lot of money on reconstructing the towns and villages, so that in future they would he laid out in accordance with the best modern methods. We are having a geological survey prepared of the two colonies and have a combined geological survey department for them, with the chief geological surveyor stationed in Kuching and an assistant geologist in each of the territories.

We feel that in the past too much of the Colonies' economy has depended upon rubber. To a large extent, of course, it is still the mainstay of those areas, therefore we have taken every possible step to bring the best types of rubber tree into production. For this purpose we have established in North Borneo a clonal seed nursery and a bud-wood plantation, again out of the resources of the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund. So far as timber is concerned, we have taken considerable steps to secure the opening up of the forests and to see that the best possible timber and forestry practice is maintained. We are looking into Dr. Cheeseman's Report on cocoa. It is possible that in North Borneo there may be some prospect of producing this commodity, but there is not likely to be much probability of it in Sarawak in the near future for the soil is not really suitable.

Altogether, I feel that we can give a good account even in the short time of our stewardship. Under the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund and other funds we have approved expenditure of some £6 million in North Borneo and a lesser sum in Sarawak, because that area, of course, was not damaged to anything like the same extent as North Borneo. These sums will be of considerable assistance and will enable the Colonies, with their own local resources, to provide a much higher standard of living for the people than ever before. I have not time now to go into details of our educational and health policies. They, too, are in accord with our general economic plans and will march side by side with them. With all these plans in operation the House will, I think, realise that our stewardship is one of which it can be indeed proud.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.