SPECIFIC localities are frequently of immense importance; this importance may of course alter with changing vogues in transportation and communications, but in some instances it endures for centuries. With the opening of the Cape route to India, Venice lost much of the position it held in the Middle Ages. St. Louis dropped behind Chicago when river steamboats gave way to railroads and the Great Lakes became a great trade route. But London, at the mouth of the Thames, has been an important center since pre-Roman days and bids fair to continue to hold place. So, too, New York at the mouth of the Hudson seems secure in her position of power -- though just what effect air travel ultimately may have on the commercial map of the world is not yet settled. British territory at Gibraltar covers less than two square miles, but it is adequate to dominate the entrance and exit of the Mediterranean.

Panama and Singapore are the two great gateways to the Pacific, the ocean of the future. In the Canal Zone, with 553 square miles area, the United States holds (let us hope for peace rather than war) one of these great gateways. Opposite lies Singapore,[i] an outpost of British dominion. Ships trading between the Pacific and other oceans must pass through one of these two gateways or else make a roundabout and expensive journey. Singapore, then, is one of the critical centers of the world, and the forces that control it and the resources of the people resident around it offer subjects well worth study.

In considering this Singapore region one commonly thinks in terms of British, Dutch, Japanese and American interests. While all four of these nations have significant positions in relation to the Straits, it must not be overlooked that the people who actually live there are overwhelmingly of the Malay race. At present their political activities are controlled by these outsiders, but whether a small foreign minority can permanently remain in a dominant position in a country if the native population will the contrary, is open to question. But these are problems of the character and wishes of the Malays, and though they must not be forgotten in any study regarding the future of the region they cannot be taken up at this time. Nor will this brief article deal with the plant and animal wealth of the Singapore region. Attention will be directed principally to its mineral resources.

Mineral resources are of particular importance to the development and maintenance of a culture such as now characterizes the western world. Minerals are the materials which nourish the growth of modern civilization. They are absolutely essential for the enrichment of life and the building up of permanent wealth. Indeed, the great bulk of the world's heritage of tangible material riches from generation to generation consists of mineral products. Accordingly, in considering whether the region around Singapore is ever likely to become an important center of civilization of the western type, the presence or absence of adequate mineral supplies is a consideration of first importance. Furthermore, this great commercial gateway's relation to mineral fields is also significant.

In considering the rôle of minerals in the strategy of nations both for war and peace we distinguish three classes: first, the "tonnage minerals," such as coal and iron, which enter into modern industry so extensively that any particular country's lack of them puts it under bonds to keep the peace; second, the "pound minerals," such as copper and lead, which, while highly important and useful, can be purchased at a price and even stored in quantities sufficient for the prosecution of a short war; third, the "ounce minerals," such as platinum and gold, which are essential and expensive but of which an adequate supply can be smuggled through even in time of war if sufficient credit for their purchase be available. In evaluating the minerals of any region, and assigning them to a particular class, we naturally are able to speak only from the point of view of present technology of production, or its probable development. Changes in technology may at some time in the future materially alter the present status.

At the present time Malaya's most significant contribution to the international trade in minerals is in tin -- a "pound" mineral -- and in petroleum -- a "tonnage" mineral. The region yields 60 percent of the world's supply of tin, and it is of a grade that fixes the standard for all other countries. Of petroleum the Netherlands Indies yields about 2 percent of the world's supply; while the amount has increased steadily from year to year, its ratio to the world's supply as a whole has remained substantially the same.

The tin comes mainly from a belt stretching from Southern Burma, through Western Siam, the length of the Malay peninsula and into the islands of Banka, Billeton and Singkep in the Dutch territory. Production in the past has been principally from placers, and lodes have not as yet been found in number and size sufficient to warrant belief that the present rate of production can be maintained when the placers become exhausted. At any rate, the area seems certain to lose its dominant position among the world's tin fields.

As regards petroleum the situation is quite different. So far, the fields in Sumatra have been skilfully husbanded in order that advantage may be taken of their strategic position as producers of high-grade crude oil for the Eastern market. The highly competitive and economically wasteful methods that have attended the great expansion of American production have not been permitted in the Indies, and while there are now American as well as Dutch-British interests in the fields, it is to be expected and hoped that the same conservative course will be followed. Throughout the East Indies and in the Philippines are areas of rocks similar to those that elsewhere yield petroleum in quantity. They afford favorable fields for prospecting, and while the only determined and well-conducted venture as yet made in the Philippines did not result in finding oil, it is entirely probable that as the world demand becomes greater larger supplies will be found in the Singapore region. Siam and the Malay states of the peninsula are not likely to prove important in this connection.

As for coal and iron, those two great wonder-working twins of modern industry, Malaya is neither barren nor is it (if present methods alone be taken into account) in a position to play any large part in the world's trade and industry. Coal, especially, is far less abundant in quantity or satisfactory in quality than might be wished. There is one mine in the Federated Malay States and there are a number of small ones in the Philippines. Persistent efforts and a considerable expenditure of public money have failed to result in opening a colliery of any size or significance in the Islands. Sufficient is known of the geology to make it reasonably clear that neither in the Philippines, the Malay States nor in Siam will any large body of workable coal be found, or any quantity of coking coal, that most essential requisite to a modern steel industry. In the Netherlands East Indies and Borneo coal is present in quantity. In general, it is of low to moderate heating value and needs special facilities for burning with economy. All search has so far failed to develop from these coals any satisfactory coke for use in making iron and steel.

This is all the more unfortunate since both in the Philippines and in the Netherlands Indies large iron ore resources are known to be present and well situated for mining and transportation. While moderate amounts of hard ores are known, the great reserves (and they are truly great, running into hundreds of millions of tons) are of the lateritic type, of which the value was first recognized in Cuba. Such ores require preliminary preparation to prepare them for furnace use, but the necessity for this preliminary processing is offset in part by their occurrence at the surface in excellent position for cheap mining and near deep water both in Cuba and the Far East. A more important factor in preventing their wide use is the presence in them of nickel and chromium, which influence the character of the iron made from the ore without being in the correct proportions to give the latter proper characteristics for many uses. They yield a special iron, or steel, or particular value for some uses, such as rail making, but not desirable for foundry work or as making sheets and ship plates. Much study has been directed toward removing these secondary metals and recovering them as valuable by-products. If this technology is placed on a working basis, Malaya may make important contributions to the world's iron supply. Until then the not too brilliant prospect seems confined to the possible shipping of nodulized iron ore to Japan or North China.

Tropical regions are those in which bauxite as well as lateritic iron ore are most commonly found. Bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is made, is known to be present in widely scattered areas in Malaya, but so far no adequate survey has been made to determine its distribution and availability. It is entirely possible that after water power has been developed there the region may become an important source of supply. There is manganese, too, but whether in quantities more than enough to supply local needs is not certainly known.

Of the "pound" minerals in general -- copper, lead, zinc and others (except tin, already discussed) -- it need only be said that while they are present and widely distributed no mines or districts of world significance have as yet been found and there are no particularly brilliant prospects. As to the "ounce" minerals the situation is different. Platinum, gold, silver and diamonds all occur, and in Sumatra three really great gold mines and one manganese-silver mine have already been developed. In the Philippines and elsewhere smaller deposits have been mined. As rich mines of the rare and precious metals are found from time to time, they will by so much increase the purchasing power of the people of the region and help to develop trade.

Let me now sum up. In general, the mineral resources of the region are varied and may be expected to contribute materially to the world's trade and industry. Its petroleum and coal, supplemented by water power, may be expected, as elsewhere, to lengthen the arms of men and put power in their hands. No large development of the heavy industries based on iron and steel is to be anticipated, despite the presence of great iron ore fields, unless a new technology is developed. The region may become an important source of the light metals, seems unlikely to yield the ordinary non-ferrous metals in quantity aside from tin, chromium and possibly nickel, has at least moderate resources in manganese and other minor minerals, and may be expected to continue contributing to the world's supplies of gold, silver and diamonds. Just what the Malays or those who control them will make of these resources is field for another study.

At the present time, Malaya's chief mineral significance derives from its being the dominating source of the world's tin. That mineral is peculiarly necessary under modern conditions of life because its non-toxic quality permits its use in the manufacture of food containers; with modern emphasis on the storage and wide distribution of food, a metallic container has advantages -- and no entirely satisfactory substitute for tin has yet been found. The demand for tin increases faster than geologists and engineers bring in new supplies; they, and the research workers who are trying to develop substitutes, are in a race against the exhaustion of known deposits.

The region's second significant feature is the presence of the only large oil fields known to exist in the very heart of the densely populated Far East. To the extent that western modes of living come to be more generally adopted, these oil fields will prove increasingly valuable. To a less degree the coal fields of Sumatra, midway between those of New South Wales, India and China, also occupy a strategic advantage. Perhaps in the long run they may prove even more important than the petroleum fields, since the handicap of low quality will probably be overcome as technology is improved, and on the score of quantity there is every reason to believe that the coal outranks the oil. When the latter becomes scarce the coal will still be abundant.

But the big resource, the one that in the long run is likely to prove most important of all, is the iron ore. In present conditions it is under heavy handicaps, but such a great body of the world's most significant metal, even though it is of low grade, seems certain to be requisitioned in course of time. How rapidly this will happen, with all the resultant changes in the industrial life of Malaya, depends on many world factors quite separate from the mere presence or absence of minerals in this particular region.

[i] Cf. "The Strategy of Singapore," by Nicholas Roosevelt, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Vol.7,No.2,p.317. Also see "Ores and Industry in the Far East," by H. Foster Bain, published in 1927 by the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

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  • H. FOSTER BAIN, Secretary of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, for some years engaged in geological explorations in the Far East.
  • More By H. Foster Bain