Modern Asian Studies

Research Article

Measuring Living Standards in Different Colonial Systems: Some Evidence from South East Asia, 1900–1942


a1 University of London Email:


This paper investigates the evidence on living standards in colonial economies, with particular reference to South East Asia in the decades from 1900 to 1942. Various measures are investigated, including availability of basic needs, demographic indicators, especially mortality rates, anthropometric measures and wage data. The paper concludes that in spite of the growth in GDP which occurred in most parts of the region between 1900 and 1940, improvements in living standards were modest, and by the late 1930s most colonies had low educational enrolments and high mortality rates. The Philippines had probably the highest living standards in the region, using educational indicators, mortality rates and per capita GDP estimates. But even in the Philippines rice availability per capita was low, and nutritional levels among some segments of the population were also below acceptable standards.

(Online publication March 30 2012)