Rubber, Race, and Colonial Exploitation by Kontinentalist

The article explores the historical significance of the rubber industry in Singapore and its deep-rooted impact on the present discourse surrounding migrant workers in the country. As recent as July 2023, migrant workers continue to live and work in Singapore under a similar system that is deeply disadvantageous to them, with poor living conditions and employment rights. It sheds light on how this system of exploitation is systemic and historic, and deep-dives into the colonial exploitation within the rubber plantations, illustrating the racialised dynamics, unequal distribution of land ownership, and mistreatment of workers, particularly Chinese and Indian labourers.

The article highlights how European dominance in rubber supply, discriminatory land policies, rigged quotas, and labour systems have led to enduring inequalities, shaping the socio-economic landscape of modern Singapore. The legacy of such exploitation is traced through generational wealth disparities, particularly affecting the Malay population, and the continued reliance on migrant labour. The article underscores the need for empathy, understanding history, and addressing systemic inequalities to mend the divisions in contemporary Singaporean society.

This historical investigation was incredibly laborious to produce. It first started with tedious research in the form of two decades of colonial office records in microfilms. Each annual report spanned more than a thousand pages, and it took a lot of time to sift through it to look for the relevant records. We retrieved data on wages in different regions, volume of migrants, the breakdown on their demographics were sourced from these detailed colonial office records. The story was further supported with supplementary research from journal articles, oral interviews, and further secondary data–this part spanned almost half a year. One of the key visual pieces was also the manual conversion of a historical print map of the spread of rubber plantations in Malaya into digital geospatial data that could be rendered into a map-scrolly.

Because the story was dense in historical fact, we needed a visually-driven and impactful narrative to bring the various components together. There were also multiple smaller stories, such as the different treatment of racial groups by colonisers that needed to be unpacked. To do so, we used large form, comic-style illustrations as the centre of the story, to bring empathy and life to a topic that was hard for laypersons to relate to. The visualisations were largely executed on Flourish and Mapbox, using a variety of dot plots, bar charts, treemaps, and scale comparisons to draw active comparisons across racial categories and business owners.

This story was very successful, and was widely shared on social media within Singapore and circulated in academic circles concerned about decolonising narratives and perspectives held towards race relations within and outside of Singapore, and migrant workers.