Subsistence Strategies in Malaysia (2)

Subsistence Strategies in Malaysia




Subsistence strategies is an anthropological term used to describe ways in which a community acquires food. There are four main ways that subsistence strategies have been divided: foraging that involves hunting and gathering, horticulture, pastoralism and agriculture. Since time immemorial the different subsistence strategies have been employed by the various communities as a way of acquiring food. Certain strategies such as hunting and gathering are rarely used but there exist societies that still use this form of strategy. In this essay I will look at the subsistence strategies that exist in Malaysia as practiced by the different societies that occupy this part of south east Asia.

Foraging is among one of the subsistence strategies that is practiced by various societies in Malaysia. In a report by Robert Weismann, he acknowledges disappearance of trees and culture in Malysia for communities who used to be hunters and gatherers. Malaysia has a huge cover of tropical forests that is endowed with wildlife animals. Malaysia is among the various countries whose wildlife is a source of tourist attraction (Weismam, 1994, pg. 9-12). There have been constant concerns by the government on the hunting of wildlife in the tropical rainforests by the communities that reside in these locations main concern being local extinction. Batek Negritos is one of the tribes who lives in Malaysia and practice hunting and gathering. They live in the vicinity of Taman Negara National park that is located in the west side of Malaysia. With the development of the modern world, they have experienced encroachment. Traditionally, Batek were very famous hunters and gatherers. They subsisted primarily on gathering fruits, tubers, shoots, fish, leaves and small game animals for example monkeys. However, use of cash in their economy has led to decrease use of wild foods. In replacement of these they replaced with commercial food for example tea, sardines, biscuits rice and sugar. Collected food are still important to the Taman Negara community affecting their movement in the jungle.

The growing concerns of the extinction of the forests have forced the government to ask the Batek to incorporate agriculture as well as subsistence farming just as the other communities. In 1979, Malaysian government begun pressuring the Batek to abandon hunting and gathering as well as relocate from Taman Negara in a land that was government subsidized in Kuala Atok, a land that was just outside the park. There were several factors that led to a shift from hunting and gathering including the government need to reserve the forests(Tuck-Po, 2005, pg. 90-103). The land was also shifted just outside the park where there were streams of water that could provide water for irrigation. Another reason was that the government was afraid of the communist terrorist who were in the jungle hiding. The government new that when the nomadic group would have met with the terrorist in the forest then they were likely to seek economic intelligence from them. There was a threat of many aboriginal groups aiding communist groups and the government had hoped that resettling would help decrease this through assimilation of aboriginal groups to Malay society. Batek were hunters and gathers and the government forcing them to adopt a new agricultural way of life is an indication of how their values were conflicted with the government values.

Agriculture which is another subsistence strategy is not only practiced by Batek, but most societies have taken up this strategy as a key means of food provision. Agriculture has been named a key part of developing the Malaysian economy as it contributes to 12% of the country’s GDP. It is also a sector that has provided employment opportunities to many with statistics indicating that 16% of the population. Most rural communities practice agriculture which ranges from small scale farming to large scale farming. Farming started so early when hunting and gathering became quite a challenge, the communities started planting a few crops that they could easily access. Large scale farming may be one of the effects of colonization. Malaysia was colonized by the British who set up large scale farming with commercial crops such as cocoa, rubber and palm oil. Even after they were able to acquire their self-rule, these products became key agricultural exports.

Aside from large scale farming, there are still other crops that are available in the Malaysian market from their farming. Such crops include pineapples, coconuts, bananas, durians rambutan and rice among many others. The Malaysian climate is tropical meaning it experiences enough rainfall that can support agricultural (Shamshuddin, 2011, pg. 75-86). The climate is also suitable for the plantation of some exotic vegetables as well as fruits and the Peninsular Malaysia is the part of the world that is known for these kinds of crop. Malaysia has remained as an agricultural country in production of palm oil as it has often been listed as the largest producers. Most of the palm oil is used as an export product while some is retained in order to satisfy the domestic need.

As mentioned earlier, mostly the rural societies engage in agriculture and this is because they have a land where they can be able to engage in agriculture unlike in urban areas where space for agriculture is limited. Rapid urbanization in Malaysia has led to an increase in food security as more land that should be used for agriculture are now being used in the construction of towns. There has always been an association between rural areas and agriculture but with the increase in needs and high food prices in the urban towns in Malaysia, urban agriculture is now being practiced. There are ways that have been developed to help in the agricultural farming and it includes use of vertically stacked layers or surfaces that are inclined or integrated on other structures including warehouse, skyscrapers or shipping containers. In order to ensure successful crop yield, artificial lighting is used, environmental conditions including gases and temperatures are used as well as fertigation (Islam, 2012, pg. 1068-1078). The adoption of these modern urban farming methods by several residents residing in Malaysia has been instrumental in trying to ensure food prices are low.

Horticulture is another subsistence strategy that is used by the communities in Malaysia. Due to the tropical environment flowers, exotic fruits as well as the vegetables really do well. One common commodity produced in the horticulture sector are the tomatoes. There have been protected greenhouses that have traditionally been located on the Cameron Highlands. The land here is scarce and the production tens to compete with the tropical rainforest (Gomes, 1982). Sungei Buhol has often been named as the horticultural hub of Malaysia. Early years of 20th century, lepers used to be sent to the exile of islands such as Pangkr Laut and Pulau Jerejak. In response to this, the government created a hospital facility in Sungei Buhol that would be used to treat the leprosy patients leading to closure of island settlements. Most of these patients although they were healed could not go back to the society and started planting plants including flowers in Sg Buhol. Sg. Buhol supplies demand for horticulture products as well as nursery trees even outside Kuala Lumpur. Many ne flower varieties are often found in Sg Buhol before they are found anywhere else.

Lastly, pastoralism is also a strategic subsistence in Malaysia. Most people in Malaysia are not pastoralist although a few individuals have embraced the livestock business as a source of food. Pastoralism in Malaysia is no longer experienced as most nomadic societies have resulted into agriculture and those who keep livestock do so but no longer practice a nomadic way of life. There are several reason that has seen a decline of cattle keeping in Malaysia including the fact that imported meat is much cheaper is chapter. Buffalo meat that is imported in India is actually cheaper than meat from a slaughtered cow in Malaysia while mutton brought from Australia is actually cheaper than the coast that would have been incurred in breeding sheep and goat in Malaysia. Many people have often complained the fact that beef in Malaysia is price controlled and is most often tagged between the price of RM30 and RM35. However, most farmers believe that in order to make profits then the beef should be tagged between RM 35-38. Livestock farming is often a cost sensitive activity as most of the ruminants need to be really fed and taken care of for two to three years before they get to an ideal weight where they can be slaughtered (Serin, 2010, pg. 21-26).

Rice is one of the main staple diet in Malaysia and is a reflection of Malaysia culture. Almost every single meal eaten in a Malay household will be eaten with rice. It descended from domesticated wild rice several decades ago and because of the good soil in Malaysia was grown in large scale. One meal made from rice is Ketupat which is made from rice stuffed in palm leaf. During the cooking of the rice it expands and fills the pouch, the ketupat is then cut open and the rice served with gravy either chicken or beef. This is a common dish served during festive seasons including Hari Raya. Despite the millions of metric tons of rice produced I the country, overall production does not really meet the needs of the Malaysian and thus the resort into exporting of rice from neighboring countries including Vietnam and Thailand

In conclusion, the four subsistence strategies mentioned above: forging, agriculture, horticulture, and pastoralism have evolved due to the changes being experienced especially technologically. Practicing hunting and gathering in Malaysia is no longer possible as most forests are now protected by the government and hunting of certain wild animals is considered illegal due to the threat that hunting poses including extinction. Most animals that used to be hunted in the past and now contribute to tourism in the country. Agriculture has also experienced changes with urban agriculture being practiced in order to meet the demand of food for the Malaysian population. Horticulture is a source of flowers, fruits and vegetables and the tropical environment has made this possible. Greenhouses are also being used to ensure that all horticultural products produced are high in yield. Lastly, commercialization of cattle keeping killed pastoralism with more people keeping cattle so that they can sell mill or meat. Although livestock keeping is expensive in Malaysia a few individual still practice it.


Gomes, Alberto G. Ecological adaptation and population change: Semang foragers and Temuan horticulturists in West Malaysia. East-West Environment and Policy Institute, 1982.

Islam, Rabiul, and Chamhuri Siwar. “The analysis of urban agriculture development in Malaysia.” Advances in Environmental Biology 6, no. 3 (2012): 1068-1078.

Serin, Tapsir, and Fadhilah Annaim Huda Hashim. “Status and demand of technology for selected beef cattle producers in Peninsular Malaysia.” Economic and technology management review 5 (2010): 21-26.

Shamshuddin, J., and Noordin Wan Daud. “Classification and management of highly weathered soils in Malaysia for production of plantation crops.” Principles, application and assessment in soil science (2011): 75-86.

Tuck-Po, Lye. “The road to equality? Landscape transformation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia.” Property and equality 2 (2005): 90-103.

Weissman, Robert. “Disappearing trees, disappearing culture.” Multinational Monitor 15, no. 4 (1994): 9-12.

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