​​Political will: When the State champions the downtrodden (Part 1)

ON Nov 30, two incidents happened in Selangor, Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Amirudin Shari announced that the Tanjung Pasir settlers’ issues were being resolved while in Negeri Sembilan, the bus of settlers from Gatco was prevented by police from going to the state assembly to pass a memorandum to their Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Aminuddin Harun.

Both these issues involving settlers have been going on for decades. At the end of the day, every issue needs political will to reach a solution.  

This article will touch on the question of political will and the role of the state.  

Tanjung Pasir, Selangor– The laudable U-turn  

Last week, the Selangor state government led by Amirudin announced that his team has agreed to cancel the lease of 39.01 hectares of land in Tanjung Pasir Ladang Tennamaram to two companies Syarikat Baisan Suria Sdn. Bhd and Syarikat Trilion Project Sdn Bhd.  

The land will now be returned back to the settlers through the Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation (PKPS), which will lease the land for 21 years to the 400 settlers who have applied for it and who have been there for over 40 years.  

Previously, I have written that for the good of the people, it is okay and justified for the state government to make U-turns. So here the state government did use its political will to ensure the settlers got what is rightfully theirs. 

When the settlers of Tanjung Pasir in Kuala Selangor first met me, it seemed like it was an uphill task. When I checked with several state executive council members, I was told that the previous menteri besar had signed an agreement with two companies and it cannot be reversed. If it were reversed, the state government would incur substantial costs. One exco member also coyly hinted to me that I should just go to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). During the conversation, I smelt a rat! 

The injustice of the matter is that these settlers have been cultivating this land for more than 40 years, since 1965 and have spent much money clearing the land, under difficult circumstances in peat soil and flood prone areas. They had to clear the jungle, level the land and make roads.  

Initially, Barisan Nasional (BN) assisted them in giving them plots of land. Since these land plots were located in a river reserve, there was no way that these settlers would ever be given land titles. But during elections, they were always given false hope of land titles. They would then make an application with the authorities but they were always rejected because it was near a river reserve.  

In 2018, then-Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali decided to give the land to two companies for agricultural projects. It is no secret that these two companies are traditionally sand mining companies. Settlers were puzzled and angry as to why these companies were given land to develop agriculture when the settlers themselves are working in agriculture, planting and harvesting palm oil. Why give land to a company when there are many individual settlers already working on this land? 

Things became more tense as the two companies were starting to build roads which encroached straight into the land of the settlers. These communities then organised a blockade and erected a signboard right in front of the road. They dug drains and put-up structures to obstruct the advancement of these private companies. The company had the backing of the local police who said that all their papers were in order and the company could proceed. The settlers were threatened with arrest! 

The settlers reached out to many parties for help including Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), PKR and BN. Tan Sri Noh Omar as the MP of the area said that if it were BN in power in the state, this would not have taken place. For us in PSM, the struggle is rather a class struggle between the many settlers working on the land versus the two companies which apparently had a close connection with the state government. 

There were several flash points in the struggle. The developer started building the road in October 2020. In March 2021, the settlers erected a signboard to stop further advancement by the developer. The project was temporarily stopped but the developer came again at the end of October and was determined to push through. They managed to bring down the signboard and destroyed some trees. The police stood by the developer to arrest settlers who resisted. The settlers then decided to organise a huge protest at the state secretariat office on Oct 29. The conflict went viral on social media.  

I texted Amirudin and he replied to me saying they would review their decision. Finally, with the intervention of the MB, state assemblypersons Gunarajah George and Juwairiya Zulkifli, intervention took place and the work was stopped. So, after much struggle and confrontation, the state government decided to go against their earlier decision.  

This was a great decision and a victory for the settlers. It was also a victory for the Selangor state government who adhered to the wishes of the settlers and resolved this issue amicably. A few meetings were held with the companies as well. 

The Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation (PKPS), the state government agency dealing with the settlers led by Dr Mohamad Khairil also held meetings with the settlers’ leaders V Jayakumar, Bakar Yusop, Francis and Lim Soon Sing, and they agreed to resolve the issue with the settlers’ main demand met.  

PKPS also gave assurance that they will continue to work together transparently and resolve other issues. On the settlers’ part, they also agreed that the land be managed by PKPS and they also said a new survey can and should be conducted to determine who is actually working on the land.  

They agreed if any of the settlers were not cultivating the agricultural land then the lease can be revoked. This is a fair deal. At the end of the day, many settlers benefitted, their income stays intact while the agriculture produced will enhance food security for the people and the country. 

Ladang Sungai Kechil – When the Penang state gov’t backed ex-plantation workers   

On Nov 21, we were probing several housing issues in Nibong tebal, Penang. I was especially impressed by the role the state government played in Ladang Sg Kechil; in not only stopping an eviction but also ensuring that low-cost houses were built for 23 families.  

In this case, the land owner came with a court order to evict the families. He came armed with the court order, a bailiff and the police. Here once again the state government, this time led by Deputy Chief Minister Prof P Ramasamy intervened and stopped the eviction. Here if it wanted, the Penang state government could have easily said that they cannot intervene because the court has already decided. However, the state government did intervene, negotiated and later initiated talks with the developer, Aspen Group to build low-cost houses for 23 families who have lived there for decades. 

When I met some of these elderly women, they told me that this was the first Deepavali that they were happy because every previous Deepavali, they normally get a notice to vacate their houses. Here once again we see that if there is political will from the state government then it can resolve issues even when there is a court order. 

In both these occasions, the question in hand is whose interest should the state government support? Should they support the interest of the settler communities or should they protect the interests of the rich developers? The class interest of the groups is clear and the state has to choose between the two.  

Of course, the state can also play a role in finding other solutions. The state is very powerful, and as long as it helps the people in need, they will continue to get support. – Dec 6, 2021.  

 

S Arutchelvan is the deputy chairperson of Parti Sosialis Malaysia. 

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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