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The Emergence of an Export Cluster: Traders and Palm Oil in Early Twentieth-Century Southeast Asia


Malaysia and Indonesia account for 90 percent of global exports of palm oil, forming one of the largest agricultural clusters in the world. This article uses archival sources to trace how this cluster emerged from the rubber business in the era of British and Dutch colonialism. Specifically, the rise of palm oil in this region was due to three interrelated factors: (1) the institutional environment of the existing rubber cluster; (2) an established community of foreign traders; and (3) a trading hub in Singapore that offered a multitude of advanced services. This analysis stresses the historical dimension of clusters, which has been neglected in the previous management and strategy works, by connecting cluster emergence to the business history of trading firms. The article also extends the current literature on cluster emergence by showing that the rise of this cluster occurred parallel, and intimately related, to the product specialization within international trading houses.

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