Malaysia is the leading producer of natural rubber in the world. About 46% of the total world’s rubber is produced in Malaysia. The rubber plantation was started in Malaysia in 1877. First, the seedlings were brought from the Amazon Basin, and were planted here on a experimental basis. Later, when the rubber seedlings were successfully planted, attempts were made to produce it on a commercial scale. The British people, who colonised the region and introduced rubber tree, provided the capital for clearing the forest and planting rubber trees. They also provided the market for rubber. The skilled labour that was needed was managed from India, particularly from South India.
Conditions favourable for Rubber Growing
The natural home of wild rubber tree (The Havea Brasiliensls) is in the Amazon Selvas. Hence the hot-wet climate of Malaysia is most suitable for its growth. The rubber trees need:
- A mean temperature of 27°C, never falling below 22°C.
- Heavy rainfall above 200 cm., with no drought.
- Deep rich soils with good drainage preferably scrumbly, well-oxidized and acidic in reaction
- Adequate supply of labour is an important factor for the collection and plantation of rubber over large holdings.
But now these have been split into small family-based holdings to reduce the capital investment, cost and problems of employing a large labour forces. Half of total production now comes from small-sized plantations
Area of Production
Rubber can grow anywhere in Malaysia, because of the suitability of climate and soil; but most of the rubber estates are concentrated in the western coastal plains of Malaysia. The plantation in coastal zone gets the advantage of nearest port for it’s export. Yet very low areas are avoided in order not to suffer from stagnation of water. The greatest production is in its Jahore State of Southern Malaysia. Here Rubber cultivation occupies about 4-2 million acres or about 65% of the total cultivated area in the country.
Planting of Rubber Trees
The work of a rubber plantation is done very scientifically. Every tree of a rubber estate is carefully looked after. For this, some special type of labourers are employed. Rubber is planted from the seedlings, and becomes ready for tapping in 6 or 7 years. For making the rubber plants high-yielding, its seedlings are grafted. This is done in a very interesting way. When the seedlings are about 5 or 6 cm. in diameter, buds from the selected high-yielding trees are grafted on to the seedlings. This is done to transmit the high-yielding quality of the “mother-tree”. The graft is, then, kept bound and left for a few weeks. After a few weeks the grafted buds sprout. Then, the old tree is cut off just above the point of union. The grafted seedlings are, then, planted in row 5 or 6 metres apart from each other. In order to conserve the soil and its fertility, some crop covers (leguminous creepers etc.) are planted in between the seedling trees. During the period of its growth, planters take all the measures against pest and diseases. Manure and fertilizer are regularly added.
Tapping is done by wounding the bark of the rubber trees. It is done by making a cut at between one and a half metres from the ground at an angle of about 30° to the horizontal. The cut is about 2 mm. deep. It is made in such a way as to sever the latex tube but not to damage cambian – a paper like skin between the bark and the wood. When the liquid latex flows out, it is collected in vessels. Tapping of the trees is usually done on alternate days. Tapping starts before six in the morning, and the collection of latex is completely before noon. Tapping work is done generally by hand. It is very laborious job and requires considerable skill. There are several tapping system practiced in Malaysia, but the most popular is a “Sloping Cut” made half way round the circumference of the tree.
The latex obtained from the tree is treated chemically at the plantation factory. After the collection of latex, it is sieved to remove the foreign matter. After this, it is put into tanks and coagulated or thickened by the addition of acetic or formic acid. Each tank may have several aluminum partitions that allow the coagulated rubber to be removed in thick slabs. The slabs are, then washed with acid and passed through rollers which press them into the rubber.
Rubber Types and Grades
- Pale Crepe. After coagulation, the wet slabs are passed through a creping machine, and the crepe varies from off-white to pale yellow colour. The crepe sheets are largely used in making the crepe soles of shoes.
- Ribbed Smoked Sheets. Slab rubber can also be passed through a series of rollers; one of the last set prints a simple pattern, such as crisscross. The sheet is, then, hung on rocks, in smoking shed, for 48 hours or more to dry. The smoke is obtained by burning wood or oil. The ribbed smoked sheets are of a dark amber colour. In trade, they are popularly known as “Ribbed Smoked Rubber”. A huge quantity of ribbed smoked sheets is exported to all parts of the world.
- Hevea Crumb. It is made of adding some chemicals in the latex. It is produced in the form of a mass of crumb-like pieces instead of sheets. This new brand is popularly known as the Standard Malaysian Rubber (SMR) or Hevea-crumb rubber. In this form, the rubber can be conveniently compressed and packed for export.
- Skim Rubber. In the process of coagulation, some ten percent rubber is left behind in the liquid of coagulation tank. That residual rubber is recovered by skimming; it is known as Skim Rubber. Skim rubber contains a much higher proportion of impurities, and so it is less desirable.
- Vulcanized Rubber. It is to be noted that the rubber is graded according to International Standard published by the Rubber Manufacturers Association of New York.
The starting of rubber plantations in Malaysia has resulted in the rapid economic development of the area. Roads, railway lines and ports have been developed, and new areas, with all modern amenities, have been settled by the people. The population has increased, and the people now maintain a high standard of living.
Problems of the Rubber Industry
At present, the policies of the Malaysian Government are not as favourable to foreign investors as previously. The Government regulations, regarding benefits and wages to native workers, are more strict, and the taxes are higher. The rubber planters also face the problem of surplus production (it is because the huge areas are available for the rubber plantation), which results in lowered prices and profits. The abundant production of synthetic rubber in the U.S.A. and other countries has also given a great set back to marketing. The synthetic rubber, which is made from petroleum, coal, alcohol or other materials, is obtained at a very low cost of production. Another problem is the need to replace a large proportion of the trees, which are very old, with new ones of very high yield. The Government has laid a special tax on exported rubber, and the money, thus, raised is utilized for the cost of replanting trees. Because of all these hazards, the rubber planters are now converting the rubber estates to that of palm. But it does not mean that the rubber plantation system will discontinue. The synthetic rubber is excellent for certain purposes, but it is not yet as satisfactory as natural rubber for general purposes, such as tyres. As such, with an expanded role of the Government in the management of the rubber plantation, the production of rubber in Malaysia will undoubtedly continue, and, perhaps even increase in importance.
Malaysia produces about 1-5 million tons of natural rubber annually. A major part of it is sent to Singapore or Penang, from where it is exported all over the world. The chief rubber-importing countries are:
(i) Singapore (for re-export),
(ii) Russia and European countries,
(iii) the U.S.A.,
(iv) Japan and
Uses of Rubber
Rubber is used for making innumerable articles ranging from footwear, sports goods, cushions, insulated material for cable, pencil erasers to tyres and tubes.
However, it is its use for making tyres and tubes of automobiles which is of greatest importance. Thus, indirectly, rubber helps in promoting the system of modern transport and communication. Malaysia will continue to play its dominant role in world’s rubber production and export.