Mindere Welvaart Commissie: Dutch Pleasantry in Developing the Welfare of the Indigenous Indonesians
Tirto, September 26, 2020, Author: Tyson Tirta, Editor: Fadrik Aziz Firdausi, Translator: Madito Mahardika
The Dutch colonial government established the Mindere Welvaart Commissie (Less Welfare Commission, MWC) to realise the Ethical policy. However, the 12 years of work was deemed meaningless because its data was expired.
In the history of colonial Indonesia, the Ethical policy was implemented by the Dutch in the early 20th century. Academics described how the Ethical policy was prepared by the Dutch as a means to “give back” to people in the colony, especially on Java.
The policy was initiated by Dutch liberal factions, spearheaded by a member of the Dutch Parliament Conrad Theodor “Coen” van Deventer and a journalist from De Locomotief Pieter Brooshooft. Both urged the Dutch colonial government to create a welfare improvement program for the Javanese people. It was because of the hard work of the Javanese that the Netherlands was able to reap a financial surplus of 823 million guilders.
The proposed policy was then fiercely opposed by Dutch conservatives. They were worried that the Ethical policy might potentially create national consciousness amongst the people in the Indies. Social psychologist Ashis Nandy in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (1983: 72) writes: “the political ideology of the Ethical policy, which was about building more schools, health services and political decentralisation, was covered by [Dutch] fears of Indonesian nationalism.”
It took 30 years for both parties to debate the idea of the Ethical policy in the Dutch Parliament. Then, along with the growing political influence of liberal factions in the Dutch Parliament, Queen Wilhelmina approved the implementation of the Ethical policy on Java in 1901.
As a start, the Dutch East Indies colonial government established the Mindere Welvaart Commissie (MWC) on 15 October 1902. In the Encyclopedie van Nederlandsch Indië (1921: 751), it is written that the MWC was tasked to provide guidelines for state policy-making in order to draft regulations that were socially and ethically acceptable. More specifically, MWC was assigned to research the economic condition of the indigenous population on Java and Madura. Exceptions were made to the territories of sovereign Javanese kingdoms and privately owned lands.
The colonial government then appointed H.E. Steinmetz, the Resident from Pekalongan, as the Chairman of the MWC. The structure of the MWC consisted of two commissions: the Hoofdcommissie or the Central Commission; and the Afdeelingcommissie or the District Commission. The District Commission was tasked to research the welfare of the people, whilst the Central Commission was tasked to develop research guidelines (leidraad) and supervise its implementation.
Steinmetz recruited 11 members, which consisted of 7 Dutch and 4 indigenous regents for the Central Commission. The four regents included the regents of Demak, Sumedang, Panarukan, and Ngawi. They were appointed directly by the Governor-General on October 31, 1902.
Steinmetz’s decision to recruit and assign them to the Central Commission was based on three reasons. First, the regents were able to speak Dutch fluently. Second, they were representatives from West Java, Central Java, East Java, and Madura.
Third, they had contributed greatly in the development of their regions. Sumedang Regent Raden Adipati Soeriaatmadja, for example, built irrigation for rice fields, increased livestock yields, banned the use of fishing poison, and in 1901 founded the Afdeeling Bank, a community bank dedicated to help farmers.
Euphoria over the Ethical Policy
Following the appointments of the four regents, the Resident from Banten, J.A. Hardeman, and the Regent of Serang, Prince Aria Achmad Djajadiningrat, took part in the MWC as well. Prince Aria welcomed his appointment because, as the new regent, it was an opportunity for him to get to know the people better.
In the Memoirs of Prince Aria Achmad Djajadiningrat (1996: 237), he wrote, “The assignment from the Resident was a good opportunity for me to learn more about the condition of my people. Once the assignment was completed, I could use the results of the research as a reference for the future.”
Prince Achmad also praised Steinmetz in his memoirs. According to him, Steinmetz had designed guidelines and provided clear guidance so that researchers could obtain accurate data on economic, social, and administration issues in society.
The Dutch East Indies government hoped that the involvement of indigenous officials could improve their image as colonisers and they also wanted to obtain a comprehensive analysis about the perspective from the Bumiputra (indigenous Indonesian groups).
However, contrary to Prince Achmad’s optimism, Snouck Hurgronje responded negatively to the research plan. In the article “Ethical Policy and Economic Development: Some Experience of the Colonial Past” published in the Lembaran Sejarah Journal (vol. 3, 2000: 218), C. Fasseur mentions that Hurgronje believed that the establishment of the MWC was mere excitement about the implementation of the Ethical policy.
The MWC research, according to Hurgronje, who served as an adviser to the colonial government, would only be a waste of time and effort. He argued that the data that the MWC wanted to collect was, in fact, already available at the offices of local officials and did not hold any significant importance. Therefore, Hurgronje refused to participate in the MWC.
Despite the criticism, the activities of the MWC proceeded as planned. In its first year, the MWC focused its work on preparing research guidelines on general welfare. In terms of its initial operational funding, the Central Commission borrowed 56,430 guilders from printing firm G.C.T. van Dorp.
On 2 January 1904, Steinmetz wrote a letter to Governor-General Willem Rooseboom to inform him that the MWC was ready to carry out its duties. Within a short time, the research guidelines were approved by the colonial government and disseminated to all residencies in Java.
J.S. Furnivall in Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy (2009: 416) states that the research guidelines contained 533 survey questions compiled into 56 pages of documents. The research, which consisted of complex survey questions, was assigned to the District Commission.
The results of the District Commission’s research were then grouped into nine categories of livelihoods, namely fisheries, poultry farming, dairy farming, transportation, agriculture, trade and industry, irrigation, law and regulation, and rural economy.
As a research basis, the MWC established the hypothesis that the Javanese people lived in poverty. Nugroho Notosusanto in Hindia Belanda: Studi tentang Ekonomi Majemuk IV (the National History of Indonesia IV, 1993: 129) wrote that at the beginning of the 20th century, the average income of each family per year was no higher than 80 guilders. From this very low income, the [colonial government] even levied 16 guilders taxes.
The Lengthy Research, Expired Data
Exactly as Hurgronje predicted, the MWC was only able to complete its research twelve years later. The results of these studies were then compiled in three document bundles at the end of 1913. The data were arranged based on residency and used the same numbering of questions for each residency. For example, questions from numbers 431 to 468 were questions related to fisheries, this numbering applied to all residencies.
Hurgronje was again right about the futility of the data obtained by the MWC. The long duration of the research made the data irrelevant and expired, not valid anymore. The data from the MWC report also turned out to be different from the Village report archives compiled by Dr J.W. Meyer Ranneft between 1919-1923.
The data from Ranneft’s report, who at that time served as Adjunct-Inspector at Agrarische Zaken en Verplichte Diensten (Agricultural Affairs and Compulsory Services), is different from the data presented in the MWC report on the situation on Java, even though it was collected at the same period in which the research was done.
The inaccuracy of the MWC data, for example, can be seen in the data of population growth and its relation to poverty. The MWC data shows that population growth did not necessarily make people poorer. Meanwhile, Ranneft data shows that population growth has contributed to the poverty of people.
Why did the MWC take so long to collect data? One of the contributing factors was that people were confused about answering so many and complicated survey questions. Javanese people were not used to the presence of interrogating researchers. Therefore, they often tried to avoid answering the questions or responded in perfunctory ways.
Furthermore, their research was also hampered because the regents had other official tasks that took up their time. Besides that, the surveys did not run smoothly because of local customary laws as well.
Nevertheless, the MWC still submitted the data they had collected to the Dutch East Indies government in 1914. Unfortunately, the MWC reports and recommendations were not well received by the colonial government. Apart from the fact that the Ethical policy had lost its momentum, the attention of the colonial government and the Kingdom of the Netherlands at that time had been drawn into World War I. The efforts of 12 years of research conducted by the MWC, in the end, did not have any effect on improving the welfare of the people in the colony.
Tyson Tirta is an alumnus of the History Studies Program at Universitas Indonesia and holds a postgraduate degree in history from Kingston University, London. He wrote a bachelor’s thesis on the Mindere Welvaart Commissie and compiled a postgraduate thesis entitled “Favourable Interregnum: Stamford Raffles and the British Administration in Java, 1811-1815”.
Snouck Hurgronje believed that the establishment of the MWC was mere excitement about the implementation of the Ethical policy