Monday, 25 May 2020

Malaysia: memories of Penang and the Kinta Valley

In the 1980s I had four memorable visits to Malaysia and I hope that this blog posting might put me in touch with some of the many people that I met in that fascinating country, in the same way that my recent blog on Egypt brought me, and Antonio Peres, back in touch with our host in Cairo, Prof. Refaat Boulos.
In 1981 I spent 9 weeks in January-February and 4 weeks in July as a visiting lecturer at the Universiti Sains Malaysia on the beautiful island of Penang.
I wonder what became of the 4 students that I tought during my first visit:
Nine weeks was more than enough to present a short course on mineral processing, so I had plenty of time to explore the island, and to spend a couple of weeks back-packing in Bangkok, Singapore and Bali, but the highlight of both trips was the time that I spent on the mainland in Ipoh in the Kinta Valley. Here for the first time I saw the contrast between the mining and processing of tin in Cornwall, from hard rock ores, and the processing of alluvial deposits on a very large scale.
The tin mining industry was at the time of my visit the major pillar of the Malaysian economy.  The country was producing almost 63,000 tons of tin annually, accounting for 31% of world output. It was the world's leading producer and employed more than 41,000 people, the most important area being the Kinta Valley, the world's most productive tin field. Perak was the wealthiest state in Malaysia, its capital Ipoh being fondly known as “The City of Millionaires”. During my time in Ipoh I was hosted by Mike Joll of Osborne and Chappel, co-author of a book on Malaysian tin mining. The last time I saw Mike he was living in Helston, Cornwall, so I would love to know what became of him.
Dinner with local miners in Ipoh (Mike Joll is 4th from left)
Dinner at SEATRAD (South-East Asia Tin Research and Development)
By the end of the 19th Century, Malaya (now Malaysia) was the world’s largest tin producer and the Cornish industry, once the world's largest producer fell into rapid decline. The mines in Cornwall were very deep, and mining and processing were expensive, comminution of the hard rock being followed by gravity separation on shaking tables, calcining to burn off arsenic, and, in the 20th century, removal of sulphides by froth flotation. Due to large amounts of fines, and poor liberation, recoveries were low and concentrate grades typically lower than 40-60%. Although the alluvial ores were of much lower grade (as low as 0.02% tin) compared with the hard rock ores of Cornwall (around 1% tin), mining could be carried out at a relatively vast scale, no comminution was necessary, the minerals were coarse and fully liberated and very simple, cheap gravity methods effective in producing concentrate grades of 70-75% tin.
Chinese miners were the main producer of Malayan tin ores before the British came. The British brought in dredges, which increased tin production tremendously but the smaller gravel pump mining operations were most commonly used in the Kinta Valley. In these mines the ore-bearing ground is broken down by high pressure water jets known as monitors, the resultant slurry being pumped to a huge wooden sluice box, or palong, down which slurry flows over a series of baffles, behind which the cassiterite and other heavy minerals settle out. Periodically the flow is stopped, the baffles are lifted and the heavy mineral concentrate is sluiced out. Primary tin concentrate is further processed in a secondary concentrator or ‘‘tin shed’’ involving wet and dry gravity methods, magnetic and electrostatic separation, by-products including ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite, xenotime, and struverite.
Gravel pump mine
Palong concentrators
It was also interesting to see women toiling in the +30C heat to further recover cassiterite by panning, using wooden pans called dulangs. By 1900 the dulang had become widely used by groups of independent women (dulang-washers) to undertake freelance mining operations. During the 19th and 20th centuries it is estimated that dulang-washers recovered almost 150,000 tonnes of tin in concentrates, or over 2% of the country's total production.
Dredges are very expensive and were operated by large multinational companies, but they are highly efficient machines which can operate practically non-stop and lower grade deposits can be profitable because of the high tonnage of material treated. The dredge is essentially a floating mine where mining and ore dressing are done on board. The ore bearing earth, in flooded paddocks, is dug by chain buckets and broken down by monitors, jigs being used to concentrate the ore. The main disadvantage of dredges is that they cannot recover heavy minerals lying between limestone pinnacles, which are often very rich in tin.
In July 1985 I was back for four weeks at the University in Penang but this time accompanied by Barbara, Amanda and Jon.  
Amanda, Barbara and Jon exploring the Penang capital, Georgetown
With local children on our favourite beach at Batu Ferringhi
In the photo below I am with USM staff Radzali Othman, Tuan Basar, Abdul Latiff and Kok Keong Cheang. Where are they now I wonder?
During our 4 weeks in Penang I made only a very brief trip across the water to the Butterworth tin smelter but the tin operations on the mainland were blissfully unaware of the crisis that would befall on them 3 months later.
At the Butterworth tin smelter
Apart from a fairly recent stop-over in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days my last visit to Malaysia was in 1988, to give a presentation at the International Symposium on Research and Development in the Extractive Metallurgy of Tin and Related Metals, a very low-key affair as the Malaysian tin industry had suffered very rapid decline since my last visit.
Malaysia had been the world's largest tin producer until October 1985 when prices dropped by 50% and more than 300 tin mines stopped their operations. By 1994, the country's production had fallen to 6,500 tons, with only 3,000 people employed in the industry. The only tin dredge remaining was not producing tin, but was open as a tourist attraction.
Visiting the remaining tin dredge with ISRADEMT delegates
By 2016 Malaysian tin output was only 3,500 tonnes, and by then the country was ranked 9th in the world for production. It seems unlikely that the Kinta Valley will ever be a major producer again, as no new deposits have been found, whereas Cornwall, whose tin mining days were eclipsed by the Malaysia finds, is set for a possible revival.
Whatever happens, we have very fond memories of our time in Malaysia and of its very friendly people.


  1. Barry,
    I did not stay in Malaysia long but spent a week in Penang with my wife in one of my closest friends in Penang---what a beautiful country- I am talking 0f year 1969. Then we traveled by ship from Penang to Chennai in India.Nature, Nature, beauty and beauty.
    Good summary on tin mining, Barry but it is unfortunate that fine particle processing by dry beneficiation techniques did not get developed though the issue was on the Table for so long.

    1. Beautiful country indeed, TC. Re the processing, the initial concentration was, of course, wet due to the mining methods, but dry processing was carried out in the final 'tin shed' particularly magnetic and electrostatic separation to recover ilmenite, monazite, zircon etc

  2. A very enjoyable read. I really do think we are blessed to be in an industry that takes us to these exciting and interesting places.
    Luke Rogers, St. Ives, Cornwall, UK

  3. Dear Dr Barry
    It's always great to see the history in Mineral Processing through MEI. Such a detail information is very difficult to obtain. We just refer some places but hardly know it.
    It's good to see the Tin Processing plant and also to know that Mineral Processing is quite old and still young......

    Thanks for sharing the information.
    I hope same time you might have visited India to Indian School of Mines??

    1. Thanks Rama. I spent 2 weeks at the ISM in Dhanbad in 1989, see posting of 18 September 2012

  4. Cool post, thanks for sharing. A few years ago I had the pleasure of doing an audit at Minsur's San Rafael plant near Puno, in southern Peru. They have spirals, jigs, tables, pretty much every piece of process equipment you could shake a stick at. They even a sweetheart ore sorting plant that is one of a kind in South America. From this blog I now realize how far we've come!

    Hudbay Minerals

    P.S. I didn't realize Amanda was the older sibling. And Jon is a spitting image of you from the '80s haha!

    1. Hi Pete. Thanks, and I am sure Jon will be very pleased to hear that you think he looks just like me!

    2. Minus the dodgy moustache though....

  5. Hi Barry, I passed on a link to this article to my mate Ron Goodman in Melbourne which brought out a flood of memories and thoughts from him, which I'd like to share with you. Ron was Metallurgical Superintendent at Renison through the 70's and largely responsible for the surge in recoveries and throughput that eventually resulted in Goldfields becoming Renison Gold Fields in Oz. Anyway, this is what Ron wrote back.
    "Thanks for that Jerry
    I identified with it and was lucky enough to visit there through the fact we sold tin to Eastern Smelters in Penang and Straits Trading at Butterworth which was also a Base for the RAAF in the region - Sabre Jets were the machines when I visited.
    I had the opportunity to visit Ipoh and had dinner with the Chinese Miners who operated hydraulic
    mining palong and dressing plants. Wonderful banquets with a bottle of Cognac each and a suckling pig in the centre
    I stayed at the GM house of Straits Trading Jack Oates a New Zealander and great bloke.

    In regard to Peru and the San Rafael Minsur tin mine I was engaged by Minsur to review that plant after Fujimori became President and the threat on Nationalisation was lifted. One of the things I introduced were spirals which they had no knowledge of. Peter Davies at SWMS airfreighted a single unit to me to demonstrate to them. Now the place is full of them. One of the major reasons is that the plant is on the side of a mountain in the Andes and level space is at a premium.

    Anyway my experience somewhat parallels Barry Wills and Penang is one of my favourite places.
    The famous Eastern and Orient Hotel is there built by the same brothers who built Raffles in Singapore Sharkie Brothers from Armenia. Mad Dogs and Englishmen days - the likes of Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward stayed there - just magic hotels. I've still got good friends in Malaysia but most are retired now
    I did visit Osborne and Chappell too when they ran the big dredge operations - British FW Payne 24 cu ft buckets as I recollect. Anyway lucky to have been part of it
    If you know how to pass on the thoughts that flooded back on to Barry please do so
    I could write a book about it all.

    1. Hi Jerry/Ron. Great to hear from you both. Ron, I am sure that we have met some time in the past- your name really rings a bell.
      Some great shared memories too. I also remember the bottles of Remy Martin, and how the miners showed their ignorance of a fine cognac by diluting it with water and drinking in half pint glasses! Yam Seng!
      My first night in Penang was spent at the E&O Hotel, and I would go into Georgetown often for a meal, after watching the sun go down and enjoying a beer on the E&O's sea wall.
      Wonderful times, and please do write a book about your experiences!

  6. Barry we have crossed paths a few times at conferences, including Edinburgh I think. I also dined in Georgetown, down the road from the E&O, always raised a smile when I visited a Chinese Place called "The Star View" ( Starve You I thought it was !) Features of the E&O were the "Whispering Gallery" off the Lobby, and the 80 year old breakfast waiter who crackled when he walked - so much starch in his uniform. Pip Pip Ron g

    1. Thanks Ron. I remember the Gallery. You were at Minerals Engineering '98 in Edinburgh?


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