Southeast Asia did not escape the effects of the Great Depression that burst upon the Western industrialised world at the beginning of the 1930s. The 1929 crisis formed a watershed in the history of Southeast Asia, leaving neither the economic, social nor political sphere untouched. Apart from destroying markets and stimulating greater collusion between international capital, the Depression also notably brought an era of uninhibited immigration to an end- a policy change that had far reaching political and social consequences. Yet there were two sides of the coin to the crisis- while the Great Depression devastated, in its trail of destruction, it also encouraged positive reforms by revealing insidious structural flaws hitherto unaddressed.
[...] Yet the social impact of the crisis differed for each individual, depending on the dependence of income earners on export production. The Depression could paradoxically prove a time of opportunity-especially for some urbanites. While others reeled from the effects of wage cuts and unemployment, those who retained salaried employment- usually more senior and experienced men- often prospered, experiencing an increase in standard of living as retail prices fell faster than wages. For instance, the real income of the income of Filipino civil servants doubled between 1929 and 1932. [...]
[...] A history of Thai rice industry reveals that in contrast to the dislocating developments on the Mekong and Irrawaddy deltas, distress and deprivation was much less evident in Siam's central plain. The pace of expansion in rice cultivation had been much slower due to a relative lack of capital and a less elaborate and formal credit network. And unlike Vietnam and Burma, exploitation of formerly untilled area remained essentially the prerogative of the peasant. This meant land stayed relatively undeveloped and much more slack was accorded- an advantage during a crisis as there were more options which could be exploited in times of need. [...]
[...] On the latter, it was notably the acute severity of the Depression that had forced all major rubber producers, including the Dutch (previously noncompliant with the earlier Stevenson Restriction Scheme) to cooperate in this collective effort- and a rather fruitful one indeed with the price of rubber gradually rising to about 20.63 cents per pound within a year. Special credit measures were also taken. The colonial administration staved off total disaster too by creating a special loan fund for planters in 1930 and by setting up in 1931 an Indemnification Fund, which saved those estates having to sell rubber below cost price. [...]
[...] The duration and intensity of the Great Depression revealed the unsophisticated, narrow, structurally stagnant and dependent nature of the region's economies. It became clear that in the Western- dominated drive to integrate these local economies into the international circuits of commerce, the latter had been cast as pliant invalids; often the great majority of Southeast Asians who relied on them were left with their livelihoods compromised. Hence perhaps beyond the economic distress and subsequent protectionism it produced, what was most compelling about the crisis was its long-term impact [...]
[...] The next and arguably most profound impact of the Depression was the change in immigration policy, which in turn spawned far-reaching social and political consequences. The Great Depression brought the era of unrestricted immigration to an end forever, marking a watershed in the history of population growth in the Southeast Asia. Poor employment prospects had already led many foreign labourers to leave the country voluntarily. Those that stayed back took up substitute activities to see them through- fishing, hunting or cultivation of rice and vegetable crops to produce extra sources of food and income. [...]
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