Rubber and the Indian Community

In the days before tourism, cement or marble production the rubber plantations gave the people a relatively safe and regular income. While the Malays were traditionally earning their livehood with farming and fishing activities, rubber tapping and processing was the domain of the Indian community.

In general rubber or caoutchuk*, belonging to the Spurge family or Euphorbiaceae, came to South East Asia and Malaya only at the end of the 19th century. In 1878 an Englishman named Herry Wickham smuggled rubber seeds from Brazil. Hence, the scientific name Hevea brasiliensis via England to Singapore. A task which, had he been caught, would have had him sent to the gallows. However he was successful and rewarded with the title Sir from the English crown. The coup ended the Brazilian rubber monopoly the rubber became a versatile commodity on the world markets, only to be ended by the invention of synthetic rubber.

Rubber changed the population structure of Malaya too, because the British colonial masters brough in cheap Indian labourer from Tamil Nadu, the southern parts of India.

Even the setup of the population of Langkawi was influenced by this migration and it is mostly influenced by this eastern part of the island, where Indian and Hindu elements are still very much alive. Living proof of this is the Fire Walking ceremony, celebrated every year near the Sri Mariammam temple at Kisap and the rather sporadically organised Thaipusam like religious offerings.

The procedure of tapping, collecting and processing of rubber starts at first light. Every tapper does some 500-600 trees a day. After the incisions have been made, he goes back to the first tree, collects the latex and does his round a second time. The latex is then sent to the factory, where acids are added to form raw rubber by coagulation. The raw rubber is pressed into plates, which are then compacted into blocks weighing nearly one ton, and delivered to the various factories to end up as rubber gloves, surgical gloves etc.

Langkawi has huge rubber plantations although many of them are no longer productive due to a lack of profitability, since the world rubber prices literally collapsed around in 1997 or 1998.

New opportunities have been found in using rubber timber for furniture production and other commercial timber products, so it is very likely that the ‘green’ image of Langkawi will remain for years to come.

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