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Ethnic Patterns of Urbanization in Peninsular Malaysia, 1947-1970

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Notwithstanding the popular nostalgia for the good life in small towns and rural villages, there is a sound rational base for the secular drift from country to town during the last century throughout the world, in countries large and small, rich and poor. In almost every situation, it is clear that those in urban areas have greater access to educational institutions, are exposed to more diverse employment opportunities, and receive higher incomes than rural residents. These differences in economic opportunities and rewards are generally apparent to all. And so inherent in the process of urbanization and the consequent widening of rural-urban disparities is the potential for increased tension with the prevailing distribution system. Rural people, traditionally distrustful of cities, often interpret the growing socioeconomic gap as exploitative in character and pressure political and economic institutions for redress. Yet, most urbanites do not feel advantaged as they compare their plight to more successful urban residents, not to the disadvantaged rural population. In spite of these tensions rural-urban divisions only rarely become the dominant political groupings in a society. Rural to urban migration provides an individual alternative to collective political organization, and governments are often successful in using symbolic politics to allay rural discontent. Yet when rural-urban inequities reinforce other societal divisions such as ethnic groups, the potential for public protest and governmental initiatives is heightened. Such is the case in the plural society of Peninsular Malaysia where the largely rural Malay community is disadvantaged relative to the more urbanized Chinese and Indian minorities. And since the political base of the government is heavily dependent upon rural Malay support, recent public policies are intended to minimize socioeconomic disparities across ethnic communities. One strategy is to increase the proportional representation of Malays in towns and cities. In this paper we review the empirical trends in ethnic patterns of urbanization from 1947 to 1970, prior to advent of explicit public policies to eliminate ethnic inequalities in residence and in socioeconomic rewards.' These trends are interpreted in light of the intent of current government policies.

Affiliations: 1: Sociology Department, Duke University


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