By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

About a hundred metres from what was the main structure of Fort Lukut in the district of Port Dickson is a now-fenced-up well known as the “Perigi Beracun”, once filled with toxic liquid into which criminals were lowered as a form of capital punishment. This cost-effective venue of death was made more reliable by the presence of sharpened stakes at the bottom – over ten metres deep, judging by the thud of a stone dropped from the well’s entrance.

This factoid was just one of many obtained during a visit to the district of Port Dickson last week. Overall, the trip reaffirmed my belief that there is just so much local history out there. In particular, the undulating story of Lukut can offer several pertinent lessons for policymaking today, particularly regarding local autonomy, accountability and natural resource management.

The settlement’s first wave of prosperity began in 1824, when Raja Busu of Selangor, with his Sultan’s blessing, formed an administration and encouraged migrants and entrepreneurs to establish tin mines in the area. He had nearly complete autonomy to govern as he wished, and his policies resulted in the proliferation of a wealthy town. However, in 1834 he introduced a policy that was to be his undoing: a 10 percent tax on all tin extracted within his jurisdiction. There being no consultation with the public on this unilateral levy, a mob descended upon his palace and murdered him and his family.

A second wave of prosperity began with the appointment in 1846 of Raja Jumaat of Riau to administer Lukut on the Sultan of Selangor’s behalf. Raja Jumaat had proven himself to be financially adept, and his administrative skills and vision were evident not only by the continued growth of the city but also the remarks of his friend Captain McPherson, the British Resident in Malacca: “Lukut is far better than Selangor; in fact, it can be likened to a European district”.

However, in order to avoid his predecessor’s ignominious fate, Raja Jumaat built a fort complete with the aforementioned well, water pools and other luxuries. Later, his son and successor Raja Bot built rattan kickball courts within the grounds. Both administrators were never at risk from a domestic uprising, though: they didn’t impose unreasonable taxes and the poisoned well took care of troublemakers. Instead, the fort was besieged in the 1870s when regional instability encouraged neighbouring rivals to invade the tin-producing area, resulting in armed conflict that destroyed Lukut’s physical and economic infrastructure.

The political instability and demographic shifts resulted in an exchange of territory between the Sultan of Selangor and the Undang of Sungei Ujong in 1878. Lukut thus ceased to be part of Selangor and became part of Sungei Ujong, which itself formed part of the federation of Negri Sembilan. (Had this not happened, Negri Sembilan today might not have a coast, since the traditional luaks (districts) and the clans were all inland as a result of historical migration and settlement.)

What can we learn from these two rises and falls of Lukut in the nineteenth century?

Firstly, it’s that local autonomy, when wielded by capable administrators with a sense of belonging and emotional attachment to the land, can produce spectacular results. However, the first downfall, caused by the implementation of a sudden tax, occurred perhaps because there were no checks and balances in the system of government to challenge the untrammelled power of the executive. At the very least, more public consultation prior to the imposition of the tax might have dampened the dissent.

Lukut’s second downfall, while caused by externalities, stresses the fact that neighbouring areas naturally get envious of one’s success. Before the days of the Federated Malay States this meant armed conflict, but today that envy can be turned into greater competition between neighbouring authorities, by empowering local people to run more of their own affairs. But with the Election Commission ruling against local elections, this desire to competition and choice might have to be bottled up for some time yet.

Ultimately, however, the roots of both downfalls can be traced to the presence of a lucrative natural resource. Then it was tin, and today it is oil: and the debates over taxation and subsidies and state-federal powers are really just an updated narrative of what happened in Lukut a century and a half ago.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

An edited version of this article was first published in The Sun on 26 March 2010.

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