This paper attempts to explain how, in Southeast Asia, the strong patron-client bonds which joined peasants to local elites tended to break down during the colonial period—particularly in directly-ruled low-land areas. By examining the effects of social differentiation, the commercialization of subsistence agriculture, and the growth of colonial administration on day-to-day class relations in the countryside, it is possible to show how a relationship the peasant once viewed as collaborative and legitimate came increasingly to be seen as one of simple, if unequal, bargaining or of outright exploitation.
Patron-client relationships are seen as a pattern of exchange of goods and services in which the balance of exchange is related to the legitimacy of the relationship. In particular, physical security and subsistence insurance are minimal services the peasant anticipates in exchange for his deference. In the pre-colonial period the greater availability of alternative social mechanisms such as the kindred and village, the existence of unclaimed land, and the absence of strong outside backing of local powerholders served to provide minimal guarantees for clients, with the social and demographic impact of colonialism strengthened, the bargaining power of elites and moved the balances of reciprocity to their advantage the protective power and coverage of deference relations eroded. The result was a loss of legitimacy by agrarian elites.