Development of the Tin Industry in Malaysia

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Tin has been in existence since the Bronze age when the mix of tin and copper gave the world its yellowish-brown alloy. In its raw, unrefined state, tin looks like tiny rough grey-black pellets some perhaps a little larger than bird seeds, others more refined. Whereas the first area of prominence for the industrialization of tin was Cornwall, England around 1500 B.C., the country from which tin eventually dominated the world was Malaysia.

Along its spine Malaysia has great mountains formed from granite or quartzite, and tin ore owes its origins to the granite of those huge ranges.

Historians suggest that tin mining near Sungei Lembing, Pahang probably dates back to pre-historic times but mining in Malaysia on any industrial scale did not begin in earnest until around the 1820s, following the influx of Chinese immigrants to the country. Two centuries earlier, Dutch and British traders had introduced the natives to tin and taught them how to barter it on favourable terms.

As far back as the 16th century, Westerners were already displaying a lack of understanding towards mining in the East: they believed that machinery was the most efficient way of extracting tin ore from Malaysia’s soil. Even Thomas Raffles got it wrong! In the early 19th century he believed that British skill and capital was the way forward when in fact Malaysia’s tin industry cried out for cheap labour in great numbers.

Chinese traders first visited Malaysia in the 14th century and whilst tiny clusters of Chinese settled in Melaka, where tin was eventually mined, Chinese immigrants only arrived in numbers after the 1780s. Indeed, by the 1840s, a time which stands out in the annals of the Malaysian tin industry as the period of great discoveries of tin riches, many Chinese arrived in Malaysia at the invitation of Malay rulers.

Although Sungei Lembing saw one of the largest underground tin mines in the world, excavation of tin largely took the form of deep open pits with the perimeters of a football pitch. This was because the Chinese labour force had a superstitious dread of working underground, hardly surprising when they had to face the perils of flash floods, falling rocks and suffocation. Another popular form of tin mining was dulang washing – a method where the tin was separated from the soil by sieving it in water with the aid of a wooden conical-shaped pan, a task usually performed by females. Smelting (heating and melting) of the tin often took place on site when the liquid was poured into small boxes to form an elongated pyramid shape known as a bidor.

After the 1840s, more and more Chinese immigrants arrived in Melaka and moved on to Negri Sembilan and Selangor, where some became wealthy tin miners or businessmen. In 1860, the mines of Melaka were abandoned because of their poor returns, at which time mining flourished in Lukut, Kanching and Ampang in Selangor. By 1865, Chinese miners were swarming all over the mines in the Malaysian states and Straits tin was in popular demand in the British and European metal markets because of its improved quality. In the Dulang method of tin mining Kampar mining 1880s, when Malaysia was the number one producer of tin in the world, the Kinta Valley in Perak had become its most important tin-mining region.

In the pioneering days, and long before the late 19th and early 20th centuries when construction of proper roads and rail began, transport of the tin out of the jungle was by means of internal waterways, human porters, bullock-drawn carts and elephants.

Because of the reluctance of Malays, farmers contributing to the food chain, to work for a set wage heavy reliance was place on Chinese labourers. During the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, repeated drought, famine and flooding drove tens of thousands of men to Malaysia annually. Chinese mining methods was labour-intensive and the miner’s life was a harsh one in a brutal and unforgiving jungle terrain where the death rate was high: miners were unaccustomed to the tropical heat and suffered greatly from such diseases as malaria and beriberi (a nutritional disease) and were encouraged to smoke opium as a means of helping them through their daily lives. Needless to say, vast numbers became addicts, and opium soon reached the status of the highest tax revenue earner, after tin.


Most miners travelled to Malaysia with the help of loans from agents, they were then bound to mine owners for a year or more and all were paid six-monthly in arrears. In effect, they became economic slaves to the mines. Upwards of 3 million men immigrated and since most never returned it has been said that they died working the mines. In the mines of Larut, Perak alone, the death rate was put at 50 per cent annually!

By 1890, the position of the labour force had so improved that miners were able to save substantial sums and by 1895 the Malaysian tin industry had reached the position of world dominance.

Other forms of mining that came to prominence much later on were opencast mining using mechanical shovels, gravel pump mining, where the pay-dirt was blasted with jets of water and the material driven to the surface by means of pumps, and dredging, where a huge mechanical contraption operated like a massive bucket, which was first introduced to Malaysia in 1913. Just before World War I, the limestone caves of Perlis came to the attention of European miners who introduced more modern methods of mining to those employed at the time. Using dynamite they blasted open small crevasses to enable the workforce to get at the tin.

In the early 1930s, laws were passed restricting the immigration of men, but did not exclude women so that between 1933 and 1938 the number of Chinese women arriving in Malaysia was placed at 190,000.

Ironically, for such an industrialized nation as Japan, during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia from 1941 to 1944 Malaysian tin production was at its lowest. The Japanese actually dismantled the railroad from Ipoh to Tronoh and used the tracks on the infamous Thai-Burma railroad.

In the mid-sixties, and when Malaysia still retained its 1880s status of the world’s largest tin producer, the country had over 1,000 gravel pump mines, 600 of which were in Perak and 200 in Selangor.

Also in that decade, the world’s largest dry-excavated opencast tin mine (extracting the pay-dirt mechanically and treating it at the surface) was to be found near the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, which had its origins in tin.

Whereas in the late seventies Malaysia was supplying the world with over 60,000 tons of tin annually, a figure that represented 30 per cent of world output, and employed over 40,000 in the industry, by 1994 the country was producing only 10 per cent of this tonnage.

In the mid-eighties the world price of tin crashed by 50 per cent and Malaysia’s tin industry declined dramatically. The crash was largely due to low deposits and escalating operating costs.

One of the great survivors of Malaysian tin however, and a source of much pride to the country, is pewter which contains over 90 per cent of tin in its alloy, and is produced by the world renowned Royal Selangor company, which came in to being in 1885, at the very height of the tin industry.


With its global brand and unique decorative and artistic products, the company serves as a wonderful reminder to the world of the ability of Malaysia to achieve number one status in areas to which it sets its sights.

The Dulang Washer, a novel by Paul Callan, takes place in the tin-mining camps of Perak’s Kinta Valley, where only the strongest and bravest survive … and the strongest and bravest of them all is Aisha, the beautiful solitary dulang washer who labours to support two families.The Dulang Washer is available in all good local bookstores.
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Source: The Expat Magazine February 2012
This article has been edited for 
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