This study attempts to relate questions of rural leadership to the constantly changing social and economic environment of a rural district in Malaysia during the twentieth century. The study itself began as an effort to analyze a single instance of structural change in Malay village leadership which occurred while the author worked in Sik District as a Peace Corps Volunteer ( 1968-1971). A research proposal was developed positing a traditional pattern of behavior which could be identified as traditional leadership, the better to contrast this with the bureaucratic style of the district's new penghulus (headmen of a mukim, or subdistrict).
As research progressed, it became obvious that there was in fact no single traditional leadership pattern to be discovered, but rather that over time adaptations were regularly made whenever a significant change in Sik's social and economic environment occurred. Although the study has retained rural leadership as a primary concern, it has been found necessary to relate it to Sik's social and economic history.
Within the present century Sik has been transformed from an isolated and largely self-sufficient frontier region into an administrative unit of a modern nation-state, and its residents are tied into the cash economy of rubber production. The first Malays in the area probably came from Patani in southern Thailand, seeking refuge during the period of Thai-Malay warfare in the 1820s and 1830s. The small river basins of Sik's predominantly hilly terrain provided adequate wet rice land to support what must have been a relatively small population. Trade goods, chiefly dammar (a resin), rottan, and rice, flowed out of the district along the Chepir and Muda Rivers in exchange for the few but necessary import items, such as iron tools. The descendants of these immigrants still speak a dialect easily distinguishable from migrants who in the twentieth century came from the crowded coastal rice plains of Kedah, Province Wellesley, and Perak.
The introduction of rubber early in the present century gave the hilly terrain of Sik a new economic utility, but population growth was inhibited by the difficulties of communication and transport by river. This restraint was removed by the construction of roads and bridges designed to facilitate troop movements during the Emergency of