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British Territories, Borneo

Volume 480: debated on Friday 17 November 1950

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12.3 p.m.

It is 21 months since I had the opportunity of drawing the attention of this House to the British territories in Borneo, and I think it will be agreed that to return to the subject today will enable us to assess the position in those territories and also the amount of progress which has been made. I desire especially to draw attention to the economic and social aspects of these territories, and not to say much about the constitutional position of the various parts of the Borneo territory.

I recognise that from time to time we have general colonial debates, but these usually tend to be wide in character and, therefore, it is good that on occasions we should have these short, concentrated examinations of one area. I shall probably ask a lot of questions, and I recognise that they will be so numerous that it will be impossible for the Minister to reply to all of them today. However, I trust that he will pursue his inquiries in order to ascertain the answers. Also, any criticism I may make of the events of the last two years as far as his Department is concerned will be of a helpful character as far as possible, because I realise the difficulties to be overcome in those territories.

Everyone will be aware of the fact that North Borneo, Sarawak, Labuan and Brunei were overrun by the Japanese and that North Borneo, in particular, suffered devastatingly as a result. Nearly all the economic resources, other than the natural resources, were either completely or partially destroyed by the Japanese during their occupation, and the condition of the Colony after the evacuation of the Japanese was desperate for the present well-being and its future development.

While the full light of world publicity has fallen recently on Sarawak owing to the unfortunate assassination which took place there a few months ago, North Borneo and the rest of the territories are not in the news. I do not think there has been any political strife or riot that could attract a commission of inquiry, and it is a pity that, because these territories lack news value, remarkable stories of progress in colonial development and expansion seldom reach the mass of our people. I am therefore, hoping to hear from the Minister today an encouraging report of the progress made since our last debate.

On that occasion I made it clear that the two most important problems facing North Borneo after the war were: first, to make good the terrible devastation caused by the enemy; second, to open up the country so that its known and presumed wealth can be utilised to further the well-being of its people. Sometimes it is thought that the inhabitants of these particular territories are in a very low state of social development. But I would remind hon. Members that only a few weeks ago in this House a Question was asked about the ultilisation of some of these peoples by the military authorities in Malaya. We were informed, either by the Secretary of State for War or the Minister of Defence, that quite a number of these people from North Borneo were being utilised in the fighting in Malaya with great advantage.

Therefore, it is completely wrong to assume that these people are so low in the social scale of development that it would be impossible for them to accept, within a reasonable space of time, full responsibilities as citizens in a modern constitution. I feel that they could be expected to take their stand and play their part in any future constitutional development that might take place.

From recent reports which I have read about the development and progress of these territories, it seems to me that, originally, there was some underestimation of the difficulties and expense of some of the projects which were mooted, when the civil administration took over at the close of the war. I think the authorities have since found that some of these projects are far more expensive and difficult than it was imagined they would be in the first place. It is at this stage that I begin to ask a few questions and I hope that I shall receive from the Minister of State for the Colonies a reply to some of them.

I should like to ask what progress has been made and what steps have been taken to re-cast and, of course, which is just as important, to re-cost some of those original plans. The annual report of the Colony of North Borneo is rather vague on this matter. It merely says:
"During the past year the work of rehabilitation and reconstruction has continued and although the funds available may in some cases have been less than desired it is possible to report substantial progress. A beginning has been made with the construction of permanent housing and office building; additional offices and stores have been built, roads have been extended and repaired bridges re-built and essential services to the public maintained and improved."
In view of the importance of that particular quotation I should like the Minister to enlarge somewhat and to detail some of the conditions that lay behind that particular reference in the annual report. I should also like to bring to the notice of the House the fact that many schemes have been launched and much work done recently in these territories which has cost British taxpayers a lot of money.

While these territories are small in area compared to other vast areas within the Commonwealth and Empire, substantial sums of money have been expended on them. For example, on the evacuation of the territory by the Japanese the full responsibility of the maintenance of law and order fell on the military administration. They had to retain that responsibility until the restoration of the civil administration which did not take place in Sarawak until 1st April, 1946, in Brunei on 6th July, 1946, and in North Borneo on 15th July, 1946. On this particular account alone British expenditure amounted to £1,200,000.

Then we had the scheme of rehabilitation and compensation which was designed, I think, by the Government to alleviate some of the hardships caused by the war and rehabilitate some of the industries in the land. This particular expenditure was estimated at £1,982,333, or nearly £2 million. In addition to those two forms of expenditure we have the expenditure involved in or concerned with the taking over of North Borneo from the Charter Company and making it into a Crown Colony. This particular expenditure amounted to about £2,700,000. I would point out that with regard to these moneys we have this particular position arising because of the expenditure that we made. I will quote the Governor of North Borneo:
"This territory enters into its career as a Crown Colony unencumbered by any millstone of debt and with sufficient sum to repair damage wrought by the war."
I consider that a very important statement, and one which does credit to the efforts made since 1946 to give these territories a chance to have a prosperous post-war existence.

In round figures the sums I have mentioned total almost £5 million in grants of various kind and £1½ million in interest-free loans.

It is a sum of £5,850,000, as my hon. Friend says. This is a noteworthy contribution which we have made. In the debate in February, 1949, I mentioned, and strongly emphasised, three things that were essential to the future development of the territories. One was the need for increased capital investment, both Government and private, and I mention that point particularly because of the debate we had yesterday, and because I think that hon. Members did not make enough of the point. Another thing was the enlargement of the labour resources of the territories and the third was substantial improvement in communications; not an improvement to the extent of trying to catch up with conditions before the war but improved conmunications to develop facilities greater than before the war commenced.

So far as capital is concerned, the Colonial Government and Welfare Act, 1945, provided about £3¼ million for both Borneo and Sarawak and the regional allocation was about a quarter of a million. From what I have been able to discover—I am not sure of the figure—up till June of this year we spent £525,000 of that money. In the debate which we had last month on the Colonial Development Corporation Report, I said that we ought to congratulate the Corporation on what they had been able to do in various parts of the Empire and Commonwealth, but I suggested that they should look at those Borneo territories with a view to doing something more than has been done to develop them economically.

There is only one scheme which I have been able to find was publicly announced, and that is the taking over of the North Borneo Abaca Limited. That is a project to take over and develop the former Japanese hemp estates, but I understand that in that direction substantial difficulties have been experienced. Experiments have been made in Manila hemp and other things of that kind. Favourable trade reports have been made about the commercial possibilities and I trust that the Corporation will press forward with this scheme.

I have been able to find one other scheme which has been mentioned as operating there, but no evidence that it is, in fact, being carried out. I trust that the Minister will be able to say something of it when he comes to reply. The scheme was mentioned in an article in the "Daily Telegraph" last Monday. I tried to find the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) who wrote it, but I had some difficulty in contacting him. He wrote in the "Daily Telegraph", on 13th November, that he knew of a scheme for banana cultivation being started in British Borneo. I do not know of any banana scheme in that country, but perhaps the Minister will look at the hon. Member's article and tell us something about it when he comes to reply. I certainly have not been able to discover any- thing about banana development in North Borneo.

I should like to draw attention to the fact that in 1920 one of the most important products in these territories—they were not called colonies in those days—was the production of coal. It was not away inland. It was near Cowie harbour and accessible to ships. It was reported in 1920 that 65,000 tons of coal were produced, but I know that there is not that quantity or anything like it there today. Indeed, I do not think that now there is any produced in the territories on a commercial basis. It is a fact that conditions have changed since 1920, and we are living in an oil age, particularly from the shipping point of view, and in Brunei there are oil refineries. However, there are still a number of ships which are coal-burning vessels, and I am sure they would welcome the opportunity to refuel in different parts of the island of North Borneo. I hope the Minister will say something today about coal production.

The labour problem is one of the most difficult questions with which we are faced when we are considering these Colonies, and I hope the Minister will have something to say about it. On the occasion of the last debate I spent quite a long time discussing the labour problem, and I was disappointed in reading the annual report to find no suggested solution of this very important matter. How can we recruit a sufficiently large labour force and thereby preserve, for the native inhabitants, labour opportunities in the Colonies? The last thing we desire in any of these Colonies is to see a plural society established.

I had the opportunity recently of reading a book—I do not know if any other hon. Members have become acquainted with it—by E. N. G. Dobby entitled "South-East Asia." It is a book which is well worth while reading, but on page 248 we find a statement to the effect that the Government or the Colonial Office are responsible for importing Chinese labour to assist in the solution of this labour problem. That is a very important matter. I do not think it is true, but I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to say something about it. If that statement is true, it will have a great bearing on the possibility of the development of a plural society in that country, and it can only lead to trouble in the future. While I have nothing further to say on the subject of the labour problem, I do not wish to minimise it and we will be interested to know what the Minister has to tell us about it.

One of the most important conditions attaching to the future development of the economic life of these territories is communications. I know that the war dealt very harshly with their harbours, railways and roads, which were out of commission completely in North Borneo and Labuan. I am rather interested in railway operations in various parts of the world, and it was with some degree of satisfaction that I read in the report that the railways in North Borneo were definitely necessary to the future economic development of the country. Are those railways now in full operation?

Then we have to remember the geographical position of these Colonies. Their position, and particularly that of North Borneo, is one of the most favourable in the Far East. It will be within the knowledge of most hon. Members that it is about 1,000 miles from Singapore, 1,200 from Hong Kong, and 1,500 from Port Darwin. If we think of the position of the island we recall its proximity to Japan, the Phillipines and Formosa, so that North Borneo, detached from the mainland, can, from the strategic point of view, be accurately described as of the utmost importance in that part of the world. It occupies a place that could be utilised very considerably by our air routes all over the world. Could the Minister tell us anything about the provision of airfields and ancillary services, which are so very important and serve a particularly useful purpose, particularly in view of the present political position in the Far East? Borneo is not so far away, yet it is sufficiently far away from the mainland to be relatively quiet.

Then there is the question of shipping. It has been reported that shipping facilities have been increased twofold during the last two years, and that sounds good. Such facilities were still very bad up to two years ago, so that any improvement must be welcome. I would like the Minister to look into this question. While many people today use air routes, the normal life of these territories still depends particularly on shipping, and this brings me to the question of harbours. The harbour of Sandakan is supposed to be one of the finest natural harbours in the world, and is being re-established after having been wrecked by the Japanese. I would like to know what is the position in regard to the harbour being repaired at Jesselton. All these questions are tied up closely with the economic development of these territories.

I want to mention agriculture. It will be a disaster for these territories if they concentrate completely on the production of cash crops. We still find that about 50 per cent. of the exports is represented by rubber. The price of rubber today is such as will encourage the development of that production, but, so far as the long-term view is concerned, I am sure that if that development takes place it will be ultimately harmful to the island's economy.

Then we come to the question of rice, which is a very important import. The wet and dry production of rice should be encouraged. The trade picture which I have already given is also true so far as Sarawak is concerned, if we exclude the oil production and refining of Brunei. I am not going to suggest that rubber production should be neglected, but the history of these territories proves that if they depend too much on one particular and unstable export, it will be to the disadvantage of their economic development.

In conclusion, so far as British Borneo and the other territories included under that heading are concerned, I feel that, on account of the pleasant geographical and climatic conditions which they enjoy they will have a great future, and I trust that the Minister will be able to assure us that substantial progress with many projects designed to bring real prosperity to the territory has been made in the last two years.

12.34 p.m.

I think the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison) has done a valuable service in drawing the attention of the House to the subject now under discussion. Everybody who visits any of our Colonies must be impressed by the value of bringing this and other problems before the House. It is particularly fortunate that the hon. Member has done so at this time, though, admittedly, the subject has not attracted a large number of hon. Members. I want to ask the Minister one question not dealt with by the hon. Member for Nottingham, East. The hon. Gentleman put a great many questions to the right hon. Gentleman, but the Minister has plenty of time in which to reply to them all. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not think me discourteous if I do not stay to hear the whole of his speech, as I have one of those engagements which we have round about 1 o'clock.

The question I want to put to him is this. The hon. Member for Nottingham, East, referred to the danger of the excessive cultivation of cash crops, with which I entirely agree, and said that it is particularly important to diversify the crops. It is well-known that for some years an investigation has been going on into the possibilities of this area for the production of cocoa. Everybody is at present very much concerned about the short-term position regarding world supplies of cocoa, in view of what has happened in West Africa. It would be valuable if the Minister could give us some up-to-date information about the possibilities of cocoa cultivation in this area, and inform us whether examination has proved that we are likely to get an additional substantial source of supply in the course of a few years.

12.36 p.m.

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison) has done a very good service in using the sudden gift of time that has fallen upon the House to draw attention to one of those parts of the Empire which are not discussed as frequently, perhaps, as they might be. Perhaps one of the disadvantages of having a very large Empire is that there is so much to discuss that the House naturally cannot discuss every single item in every single part, so that some part of the Empire may therefore possibly, though quite wrongly, feel, neglected. The hon. Member has asked me a very large number of questions, and I shall try to deal with some of them, but I am not certain that I shall be able to cover them all.

Let me take, first of all, the general position as to the rehabilitation and the general resurgence of the area since the Japanese occupation. I think it could be said that this rehabilitation has been very successfully conducted. We have been hampered by many things, and there has been a shortage of all kinds of labour and materials, yet great progress has, in fact, been achieved.

One of the most striking results concerns the territory of Brunei, were petroleum is now being produced in quantities in excess of pre-war records, so that that field is now becoming one of the most important in the British Commonwealth, and will, therefore, be of considerable assistance to us in our campaign for the production of dollar-earning or dollar- saving materials throughout the Empire. Hardly less remarkable has been the recovery in Sarawak and North Borneo, where the value both of imports and exports in 1949 has exceeded all previous records. There, again, is something on which the territories may be congratulated.

I think the hon. Gentleman would like to know something of the principal development plans that we have for these territories. We want, for one thing, to correct excessive dependence on a single industry. It is not right, however successful that industry may be—and we all know how successful the rubber industry is—for the territories to be dependent on it alone, and we therefore want to diversify production as far as we can. We want to exploit the natural resources of the territories, and the hon. Member for Nottingham, East mentioned coal. There, we have not had very much success. The quality and the quantity of the coal likely to be there do not seem at present to be very encouraging. But we shall continue with our investigations, and we may hope that in future they will be more successful.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Peter Smithers) raised the question of cocoa. That is obviously a very important development. We are looking into the matter to see what can be done. We have by no means neglected it, but it will require some little time before any cocoa industry can be developed there. In view of the difficulties experienced on the Gold Coast with the growing of cocoa, we shall have to take particular care to see that any cocoa industry which can be developed in Borneo will be free from disease and will be able to continue in a satisfactory manner.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, East also asked about railways and transport. He will be glad to hear that those well known features of the countryside in which we in England delight so much, the steam trains, have now been started once again in Borneo for the first time since the occupation. The harbours of Labuan, Jesselton and Sandakan were all severely damaged during the war, and their repair will undoubtedly take some time. We hope to get the plans completed so that their reconstruction can begin in the latter half of next year.

Another point raised by the hon. Member was in connection with the work being done by the Colonial Development Corporation. It is true, as he said, that they are undertaking the development of hemp, and this is meeting with some success, but it will naturally take a little time to develop. They are also taking part in a joint two-year pilot scheme for mechanised rice production. This will involve an expenditure of, approximately, £90,000, and it will be a joint enterprise between the Colonial Development Corporation and the North Borneo Government. I am sorry to have to disillusion the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine), but so far as my information goes he is quite wrong, and there is, unfortunately, no banana scheme envisaged for North Borneo.

The hon. Member for Nottingham. East referred particularly to the difficulty of the supply of labour. This is, of course, a matter of the very greatest importance in North Borneo which, in the past, has suffered from a great shortage of labour. Naturally, this shortage of labour was very apparent right after the war owing to the amount of work that had to be done. Steps are being taken to see how it can be improved. The hon. Member referred particularly to the importation on a large scale of Chinese labour for the growing of rice. At present there is no intention of starting a wholesale importation of this labour for that purpose.

Could my hon. Friend say that there is no intention on the part of the Government to import Chinese labour on a large scale for any other purpose?

I would not say that there is no intention ever to import Chinese labour, but there is no particular scheme at present involving a large and wholesale importation of such labour.

I have dealt with a number of points raised by the hon. Member, but I am afraid I have not covered them all. I think I can say that our task is to conduct the surveys first of all in order to get the essential information, because we have not all the information which we would like to have about the territory. Then we have to see that we improve the roads and the port facilities, and transport generally. We then want to continue with the production of important crops, such as rice, and to test out the production of new crops. When these things have been done I hope that the Borneo territories will then be in a far better position than ever they were before the war.

As I say, we have perhaps thought too little of these territories and of many other outlying territories, but they are territories of very great importance to the Empire and I want to see them get the fullest posible measure of development. His Majesty's Government have done what they could during these past years to see that they got such development and they will continue to do so.

12.47 p.m.

On a point of order. Before my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) raises a new subject, may I have two minutes to say a word or two on the matters we have just been discussing?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that he cannot expect a reply from the Minister.

I do not expect a reply from the Minister; I merely wish to make a brief comment on what has been said. We have now been discussing colonial affairs on four successive days, and today we are discussing a colonial subject in a limited form on the Motion for the Adjournment. When we discussed colonial matters in the Debate on the Address, Mr. Speaker ruled that the Rule against anticipation prevented a wide discussion. When we came to the Second Reading of the Colonial Development and Welfare Bill, that Bill was drawn so narrowly that it was impossible to have a discussion on the wide issues which we wished to debate. Today we are still more limited.

With no desire whatever to abuse the rights of hon. Members on the Motion for the Adjournment, which does, in fact, enable one to raise anything, I wish to mention one thing. In the discussions on the Committee stage two days ago, my right hon. Friend said:
"One day, I hope that we ourselves will propose a world plan for mutual aid."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November, 1950; Vol. 480, c. 1784.]
With respect, I regard that as one of the most encouraging and important statements which my right hon. Friend has made. Although I know that the Minister can only reply with the leave of the House, I would suggest to him that for many years now a general colonial debate has ranged over so many individual matters, with each Member, quite properly, wishing to raise the matter of an individual territory that we have never had a chance of a debate on colonial policy.

I wonder, therefore, in view of this most helpful statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether the Minister would convey to my right hon. Friend the very grave desirability, particularly in view of events in the last few days, of an opportunity for discussing either on the Motion for the Adjournment or in the form of a formal Motion, general colonial policy, not merely with regard to this country, but with regard to the colonial policy of the whole world and of the United Nations.

I can only speak with the leave of the House. I shall naturally convey the view of my hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend. There is, of course, an opportunity for such a discussion when we consider the Estimates, but this, I agree, is only one opportunity, and it might well be desirable that we should have a further opportunity. As I say. I shall convey what has been said to my right hon. Friend who, I am sure, will be only too glad if such a debate can be arranged.