Colonisation, migration and prostitution in colonial Malaya



Publication Details

Crinis, V. D. (2005). 'Colonisation, migration and prostitution in colonial Malaya', The 8th Women in Asia Conference, University of Technology, September 26-28, Sydney, NSW, Australia (p. 25). Australia: University of Technology, Sydney.


This paper examines the ways prostitues and domestic workers were similarly positioned within colonial discourses in British Malaya. These discourses sought to separate maids and prostitutes from 'good' women and stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as distinguish between the coloniser and the colonised. A close examination of the archives of British Malaya reflects the marginalisation of Malay women, who were relegated to the home and reproductive sphere, outside standard definitions of waged work. There was little written record concerning Malay women workers, and immigrant women workers were described in the appendices or subsidiary sections of the labour reports. In contrast, prositution was documented in great detail. Given that the largest numbers of women worked in the agricultural sector and were not prostitutes or domestic workers, the colonial governments emphasis on collating reports concerning prostitution and the mui tsai raises certain questions. Why did the colonial officials document the lives of sex workers when the working lives of women were generally ignored? This paper argues that the contribution of female family members to the economy was subsumed within unofficial family support systems, which required little or no intervention by colonial authorities in the plantation and mining sectors of the colonies because workers, by definition, were male. In contrast, the work of the prostitute required official intervention because of its effects on production processes: the prostitute's life was important to the management and productivity of estates/mines and thus required surveillance.

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