Cameron Highlands – From Hill Station to Agricultural Heartland

Cameron Highlands derives its name from William Cameron, a government surveyor who brought official note to its surrounding plateau in 1885. Cameron never saw the present site of the Highlands though, having died of sickness in Singapore on November 9, 1886.1

The colonial government continued to explore the area, gradually constructing a road connecting Tapah to the hinterlands.2 Discussions ensued on the Highland’s future, and Sir Hugh Low, then British Resident of Perak, suggested for it to be developed into a health resort with agricultural or horticultural purposes.3

The colonial government had in fact viewed the Highlands as a potential hill station since the 1880s.4 It was commonplace for Europeans to establish hill stations to avoid the hot weather and diseases of the lowlands. Hill stations normally functioned as convalescent homes and holiday resorts;5 Penang Hill and Fraser’s Hill were among the substantial hill stations in Malaya.

While exploration of the Highlands continued, it was not until 1925 that the Cameron Highlands Development Committee was formed to look into serious expeditions and consistent development.

The Beginnings

The years between 1926 and 1931 saw the steady development of the Highlands under the committee. Impressed by the numerous uplands surrounding it, the authorities felt that the Highlands’ potential functions went well beyond being a mere hill station; it could for example become a large-scale commercial agricultural centre.6

In its early days, the zoning of land outlined the development of the area. For instance, the northern part was set aside for holiday, residential and agricultural purposes, according to a report in 1929.7 It included the planning of a township, an administrative area, schools, churches and an agricultural department; followed by services, residences and recreational areas.

(The development of recreational areas resembled the indispensable features of other hill stations in the region such as Nuwara Eliya of Sri Lanka, Baguio of the Philippines, and Brastagi of Indonesia.)

Agricultural development was given priority and in 1925, an experiment station was established by the Department of Agriculture in Tanah Rata. Its major function was to ascertain suitable crops for further large-scale planting, with several crops like tea, cinchona, Arabic coffee, cardamom and a variety of fruit plants such as apples, oranges, cherries and grapefruit being tested.8 It was hoped that the Highlands would soon overshadow Fraser’s Hill in importance, which by the late 1920s was solely a holiday resort with only 39 houses and insufficient facilities.9

Tanah Rata in the 1950s.

The founder of Boh Tea Plantation, John Archibald Russell.

Road construction to improve accessibility to the area persisted, and in 1928 the main road to the Highlands from the 19th mile of the Tapah-Pahang Road – within the range of 1,200 ft to 4,750 ft – was completed.10 A team of workers from Burma was also employed to clear the jungles in Tanah Rata for agricultural purposes,11 and by the time the Highlands was handed over to the Pahang government in 1931, basic roads were already properly laid out. The Highland’s agricultural activities had also expanded to include tea growing.12

In the course of its development, townships such as Tanah Rata, Ringlet and Brinchang emerged. Tanah Rata, which literally means “flat area”, was chosen as the administrative centre of the Highlands. In the early 1930s the townships had very few buildings – there were only 20 temporary shops in Tanah Rata and nine in Ringlet, and a few shacks in Brinchang13 – but by 1936 a village was established in Tanah Rata at the estimated cost of $87,000, inclusive of the building of roads, bridges and drains.14 Basic facilities and amenities were established for residents and tourists; this included shops, tenement houses, hotels, a hospital, market, post office, police station and fire station.15

Lucrative Produce

Tea planting began in the Highlands in the 1920s, driven by international demand. While tea cultivation had already been well-established in Ceylon and southern India, the high elevation and soil condition of the Highlands made it the perfect site for the cultivation of high-quality tea – this was confirmed in 1926 at the Tanah Rata experiment station.16

Later, with hopes to make the Highlands one of the largest tea reserves in the British Empire, a series of policies were introduced to attract more investors and increase the production of tea.17 By the 1940s, tea plantations had spread to cover thousands of acres – mostly centred in the Ringlet area.18

The Boh Tea Plantation is among the oldest tea planters in the Highlands. It was founded by John Archibald Russell in 1929 after he obtained a land concession of approximately 5,000 acres in the valley of the Sungei Boh.19 Tasked with converting the inaccessible jungle into cultivable plantation land, various crops – including tea, coffee and cardamom – were experimented with. Towards the end of 1931, tea became its main commodity; its plantation grew almost tenfold, from 55 to 535 acres.20

In 1934 Boh Tea Plantation manufactured its first commercial black tea using the same process employed in Ceylon and India, and its first consignment was sold in London. The post-war era witnessed its continued growth, and in 1954 it manufactured a record 1,000,000 lb of tea, following increased demand in Britain.21 Today, Boh Tea remains a leading tea producer in Malaysia.

Apart from tea, vegetables were another important commodity. In the early days, vegetable farming was carried out by settlers in their own households, farms or on government land, with the Chinese as the main labour force. Soon, the planting of cabbages, potatoes, cauliflower, peas, beans and other types of European vegetables became common.22

With more permanent settlers in the early 1930s, a more market-oriented trend of vegetable production ensued. This venture was well-received by the increasing number of smallholders, especially when it came to experimenting with new species such as citrus, tree tomatoes, dwarf bananas and flowers.23

Towards the mid-1930s, demand for vegetable produce from the Highlands grew to the entire Malay peninsula – from as far as Singapore, KL, Seremban and Penang.24

Although the market experienced serious competition from Australia and India in the 1940s, the capacity of the Highlands as an agricultural producer remained unchallenged. It continued to thrive, producing 700 tonnes per month in 1946, valuing more than $4,000,000.

The prosperity of the sector was similarly reflected in its agricultural population, which stood at 1,000 against the Highland’s total population of 7,000.25 Its agricultural significance continued after independence and it became the sole place in Malaya where European vegetables were grown.26

Japanese Emigration

While the Highlands were home to various communities – including aborigines, Europeans, and Chinese – it similarly once housed Japanese immigrants.27

The wave of Japanese migration into Malaya began at the end of the nineteenth century, and in 1915 the Nanyo Kyokai society – which sought to understand socio-cultural affairs and form economic bases in the South Seas region, marking the ultimate goal of Japan’s later expansion – was formed.

The emigration project started off by encouraging individual farmers and enterprises to migrate, thereby relieving Japan’s overpopulation problem in its rural areas.28 By then, the fertile soils and mild climate of Cameron Highlands, along with several places in north Borneo and the Malay peninsula, were identified by the society as suitable sites.29

Despite encouragement from the Japanese government, the unpredictability of farming life in Malaya caused some apprehension. It was not until 1932 that the first group of Japanese set foot on the Highlands, with successive batches of migration coming until the end of 1941. Some Japanese farmers worked for the British settlers, while some managed to open their own farms. The Japanese Agricultural Trading Company was formed in 1934 to promote, support and manage Japanese vegetable production in a collective manner.30

Unfortunately, in spite of efforts to persuade the Japanese farmers to stay on, Japanese immigration experienced no significant growth over the course of 10 years. By the end of 1941, only 20 families had come to the Highlands, amounting to several hundred farmers at its peak.31 Furthermore, many from the Japanese community left the Highlands prior to the onset of the Second World War, given the constant failure in planting and severe living conditions – especially after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in China in 1937, which sparked widespread boycott against the Japanese farmers by the Chinese.32

Cameron Highlands Today

Over the decades, Cameron Highlands has transformed from a convalescent retreat into a notable tea and vegetable production site, and today, a popular tourist spot; these activities compose the lifeline of Cameron Highlands. With gradual infrastructural improvement over the years, such as the construction of new highways, the accessibility of the Highlands and its nearby towns has improved. These factors gave rise to its steady population growth over the years, from 27,509 in 1995 to 40,440 in 2015.33

In light of its booming tourist sector, the landscape of the Highlands has rapidly changed, having witnessed an increasing number of developments such as homestays, hotels and commercial shops, especially along Brinchang’s main street. The number of tourists is expected to reach 918,520 people in 2030, compared to an estimated 49,320 residents.34

While many Highlanders derive their income from tourism, the presence of too many tourists has seen some outcry – especially regarding serious congestions along the Highlands’ narrow roads. Furthermore, throughout the years the Highlands have witnessed serious environmental degradation, such as soil pollution and landslides, due to excessive development by the commercial agricultural sector.

Striking a balance between development and ecology is essential, and holistic planning will be needed to preserve Cameron Highlands’ natural heritage.

Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst in Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.

1W. George Maxwell and Sd. William Cameron, Cameron’s Highlands, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1926, pp 125.
2James D. Clarkson, The Cultural Ecology of a Chinese Village: Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, University of Chicago, 1968, p.34.
3Ibid; “History of Cameron Highlands”, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 23 September 1935.
4S. Robert Aiken, Imperial Belvederes: The Hill Stations of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994, p.2.
5Ibid.
6Federal Council Paper Np. 13/32 (File No.:1957/0274806), p.2.
7Federal Council Paper Np. 13/32 (File No.:1957/0274806), p.11-13.
8op. cit., p.6.
9op. cit., p.12-13.
10“Road to Cameron’s Highlands”, The Straits Times, 3 March 1931, p.12.
11Federal Council Paper Np. 13/32 (File No.:1957/0274806), p.6.
12James D. Clarkson, The Cultural Ecology of a Chinese Village: Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, University of Chicago, 1968, p.36.
13Dr Neil Khor, Mariana Isa and Maganjeet Kaur, The Towns of Malaya: An illustrated urban history of the Peninsula up to 1957, Malaysia: Editions Didier Millet, 2017, p.150-151.
14Minutes of the Thirtieth Meeting of the Cameron Highlands Development Committee on the 22nd September, 1931, p.5; Development of the Cameron Highlands up to the End of 1934 and Information Concerning the Highlands. 1935, p.5.
15Dr Neil Khor, Mariana Isa and Maganjeet Kaur, The Towns of Malaya: An illustrated urban history of the Peninsula up to 1957, Malaysia: Editions Didier Millet, 2017, p.150-151.
16“Possibilities of Tea in Malaya”, The Straits Times, 21 August 1933. p.12.
17Preface, The Cultivation and Manufacture of Tea in Ceylon and India 1932, Department of Agriculture; Federal Council Paper Np. 13/32 (File No.:1957/0274806), p.3.
18“Highlands Plantations Flourishing”, Malaya Tribune, 20 March 1940.
19Wong Yee Tuan, More than a Tea Planter: John Archibald Russell and his Businesses in Malaya 1899-1933, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol.83, Part 1, 2010, p.29; Development of the Cameron Highlands up to the End of 1934 and Information Concerning the Highlands. 1935, p.3.
20op. cit., p.4.
21“Boh Tea to Production One Million”, The Straits Times, 22 October 1954. p.12.
22Federal Council Paper Np. 13/32 (File No.:1957/0274806), p.8.
23James D. Clarkson, The Cultural Ecology of a Chinese Village: Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, University of Chicago, 1968, p. 29 & 39; “New Hope for Small Farmer at Highlands”, The Straits Times, 6 August 1937, p.12.
24“Demand for Produce from Highlands”, The Straits Times, 1 December
25“$4,000,000 in Produce from 1,000 Acres”, The Straits Times, 24 1935, p.19.November 1946.
26“Cultivate Highlands for Vegetables”, The Straits Times, 26 June 1962.
27Akashi Yoji, “The Nanyo Kyokai and British Malaya and Singapore 1915-45,” in New Perspectives on the Japanese Occupation in Malaya and Singapore, 1941-1945, NUS Press Singapore, 2008, p.21-32.
28Ibid.
29原不二夫著,刘晓民译,英属马来西亚的日本人,厦门大学出版社,2013, p.89.
30op. cit., 101.
31Akashi Yoji, “The Nanyo Kyokai and British Malaya and Singapore 1915-45,” in New Perspectives on the Japanese Occupation in Malaya and Singapore, 1941-1945, NUS Press Singapore, 2008, p.25.
32Ibid.
33Lim Hin Fui, Woon Weng Chuen and Mohd Parid Mamat, “The Orang Asli and Ecotourism Development in Cameron Highlands” in Cameron Highlands: Issues and Challenges in Sustainable Development, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2006, p.87; 金马崙大发展(下):聚焦大自然 金马仑不要城市, 東方日報, 17th May 2016.
34金马崙大发展(下):聚焦大自然 金马仑不要城市, 東方日報, 17th May Lim Hin Fui, Woon Weng Chuen and Mohd Parid Mamat, “The Orang Asli and Ecotourism Development in Cameron Highlands” in Cameron Highlands: Issues and Challenges in Sustainable Development, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2006, p.87; 金马崙大发展(下):聚焦大自然 金马仑不要 城市, 東方日報, 17th May 2016.2016.



Related Articles