The Gatco settlers’ saga -The great PH betrayal

The Gatco settlers have been betrayed many times by many parties. They thought all this would end with PH taking power in 2018. How better to describe this than to take a line from Marx, “History repeats itself; first as tragedy, second as farce.”

The two statements on the issue by DAP and PH Exco YB Veerapan that were carried in the Tamil media on 25 November and 29 November 2020 were a shocking example of the worst kind of betrayal. Veerapan said that the remaining Gatco Settlers and buyers will only be offered 4 acres and 2 acres of land respectively and that this was final. This goes against all the actions, statements and rhetoric the PH leaders especially those in Negeri Sembilan had been saying all this while.

Meeting between YB Veerapan with Gatco settlers and PSM in YB Veerapan’s office, where he announced that the original settlers would receive 8 acres of land each.

MIC leaders had a field day, and rightfully so, attacking Veerapan and his counterparts especially YBs Ravi Munusamy, Gunasekaren and Arul Kumar. The main issue of contention was – previously these PH leaders were standing alongside the settlers fighting for 8 acres of land whereas BN and MIC had agreed to accept the 4 acres offered by the BN Government that was then in power. This conflict between the 8 acres settlers and the 4 acres settlers resulted in many arrests, fights, destruction of property and even racial flashpoints.

Veerapan’s feeble defence was that he never said that they would offer the settlers 8 acres. This was an outright lie. The least Veerapan could have said was that it was not possible given the circumstances etc. He could have apologized but arrogance seems to be a big problem for this first-term government. Worse still the settlers had to read and get this news from the newspaper and social media. I am writing this article to state the truth of the matter.

Upon PH winning Federal Power and State Power

On 9 May 2018, PH won a historical election victory ending 60 years of UMNO-BN rule. In Negeri Sembilan, the PH Government also wrested the state for the first time and formed the State Government on 25 May 2018. The victory brought much joy and hope to the Gatco settlers because the PH leaders had also stood firm together with those supporting the fight for 8 acres against the offer of 4 acres for original settlers and 2 acres for buyers made by the previous Chief Minister Mohamad Hasan.

The settlers and the people clearly remember PH leaders including the current MB standing together with the settlers in attacking the BN Government’s offer and solution to the Gatco issue. The evidence is overwhelming as these PH leaders were seen in the many demonstrations standing with the settlers, to the extent of getting arrested. All these flashbacks cannot be erased from memory or swept under the carpet.

YB Ravi with the settlers demanding their 8 acres of land at the PKKNS office

The position taken then by these PH leaders was that the settlers were cheated, short-charged by the Mat Hasan Government which practiced corruption and cronyism besides colluding with Tamarai Holdings, a subsidiary of the Lotus group.

To express their joy and happiness at the PH victory in the State, the Gatco settlers organised their first public gathering outside the state government office on 1 June 2018, less than a week after PH came to power. They carried a huge banner with photos of the PH leaders.

In the memorandum they handed over on that day, they called for all logging activities in their land to be stopped and wanted the new Government to expose the corruption and hanky-panky during the BN Government era. There were many issues such as the sale of the land to Tamarai Holdings without open auction and below market price, as well as the contract given for logging of the rubber trees. This was supposed to be the time of redemption and a time to rectify and expose such misdeeds. In fact Prof Jomo one of those appointed to the Council of Elders by Dr. Mahathir declared that there were many 1MDBs and cited Gatco in Negeri Sembilan as one of them.

First meeting and first assurance

Most settlers as well as the settler’s lawyer R. Kenghadharan, who turned up to meet the new leadership, were not very happy to see the the gate leading to the state assembly still closed in spite of the new government taking charge. Some PH leaders immediately blamed PSM for instigating the people and said that they had just come to power and it was unfair to put such a huge demand during their first week in power.

Nevertheless after the gathering, the state government appointed 4 Indian PH leaders – Ravi, Veerapan, Arul Kumar and Guna to meet with the Gatco committee. The Gatco 8 acres committee was represented in the meeting by the settlers’ lawyer R. Kenghadharan. PSM was strictly denied an invitation as the new government were conveniently looking for someone to blame. R. Kenghadharan briefed the four PH YBs in detail and explained the rationale behind the 8 acres claim – which was in fact in the agreement that stated that the original settlers must be given their 8 acres. At this meeting, the settlers and their lawyers were assured that the new government would pursue their claim for 8 acres as promised earlier.

The settlers were happy and invited the ADUNS to come to Gatco in Jempol, near the border of Pahang and brief the settlers directly.

YB Veerapan at GATCO on 30JUN 2018 in the home of Cikgu John, telling him that original settlers would receive 8 acres each and the others would receive 4 acres each.

From the horse’s mouth

On 11 July 2018, 3 PH leaders YB Guna, YB Ravi and YB Veerepan went to GATCO settlement at around 2.30pm and addressed around 60 settlers there. They said that the State Government will offer original settlers 8 acres of land and buyers 4 acres of land. YB Guna was very confident and said the issue will be resolved by 31 August 2018 whereas Veerapan and Ravi took a more cautious stand and said that they would resolve the issue latest by the end of 2018.

This public pledge by the three leaders is always cited each time I ask the settlers if they indeed made the promise. Just to check their sincerity, I told them to make a Statutory Declaration (SD) that these leaders did indeed promise them 8 acres and today we have not one but more than 30 individual SDs from settlers who attended the meeting and who vowed that the PH representatives made the promise in public. Now would these three assemblymen also sign a SD stating that they did not say this?

Veerapan repeated this in the State Assembly?

Tamil dailies Malaysia Nanban and Makkal Osai published the news that YB Veerapan stated in the state assembly on 26 September 2018 that 170 settlers who earlier agreed for the 4 acres for original settlers and 2 acres for buyers will be given their land as earlier promised and stated that the remaining settlers will be given 8 acres and 4 acres of land respectively.

We in the PSM have tried on numerous occasions to get the Hansard but the so called PH “transparent” government have denied our request on several occasions. They asked us first to write in. When we wrote in, they wanted to know what we wanted to do with it etc. What is the secrecy they want to protect when even the parliamentary hansard can be obtained by the public easily? Why can’t the state assembly public discussion be made public?

2018 deadline ends with unfulfilled promises

On 13 October 2018, a by-election was forced by PKR in what is known as the PD move in which Anwar Ibrahim stood as candidate and won. During the campaign period, some PKR supporters brought the Gatco settlers to campaign for PH and use the occasion to further hurl scorn on BN for not fulfilling the 8 acres promises for Gatco settlers.

As the year 2018 was ending, we seemed to get the impression that the PH Government were not going to resolve the Gatco settlers issue as they had promised in July. We sought a meeting urgently and on 29 November 2018, we got an appointment with YB Veerapan, the exco in charge of the Gatco issue. I attended the meeting along with PSM State leader Ghandi and John Cantius, the secretary of the 8 acres settlers committee. We asked him about the promises made as well as the deadline which was approaching. I also told him that he must meet the people or at least give them a letter if he couldn’t fulfill the 2018 deadline. When asked about the process, Veerapan said that they will first settle the 2 and 4 acres for those who previously asked for it and then with the balance land, settle the 8 acres for those who were fighting for it.

Veerapan spoke about win win situation and said that he will try for 8 acres and no promises. He also reprimanded our committee for asking 8 acres for the buyers as well, saying this was unfair. I agreed with him and said that we could agree for 4 acres for buyers. Just before we left, a thought crossed my mind and I asked him a question. Wouldn’t the first batch of people who are given 4 – 2 acres protest and make noise if they know that the State Government will be giving the second batch 8 acres? And he told me that the pro BN settlers only asked for 4 and 2 acres so they had no business demanding anything more. So at this meeting, Veerapan’s position was still that they will resolve the first group and then try to get the 8 acres for the second group as promised. He also assured us that he will notify us if they could not fulfil the promise by the end of the year but it was looking more and more certain that they would not keep to the deadline.

Sit-in protest and meeting the MB

The next milestone in the struggle was on 12 February 2019 when more than 100 settlers organised a protest and sit-in outside the Negeri Sembilan state secretariat office. They wanted to sit in until they could meet the MB because they were not happy with the continuous delay and wanted some answers from the Chief Minister. After waiting for more than 6 hours, they were finally assured that a meeting with the Negeri Sembilan MB would be organised and Veerapan gave them a letter to that effect, after which they dispersed.

On 20 February 2019, 10 settlers were invited for the meeting with the new MB Dato’ Seri Haji Aminuddin bin Harun. In the meeting the settlers questioned and raised many issues especially on the subject of who had been given the tender to log the rubber trees as these rubber trees were planted by the settlers and they should be rightfully compensated. They also urged the state government to use the land acquisition act to recover the remaining land from Lotus as this scheme was meant to eradicate poverty among the people then. The MB asked for 10 days to discuss with his officers before giving any feedback.

On 7 March 2019, once again YB Ravi initiated a meeting between the settlers’ leader and the MB. The state was again facing a by election after the Rantau seat fell vacant when the court cancelled Mohamad Hasan’s uncontested win. So the settlers believed that this meeting was arranged to thwart any plans they might have of organising any protest at this time which may hurt the image of the PH state government.

The MB in this meeting said what the previous BN Govt did was a political gimmick – promising to give the settlers land but not fulfilling the promise – and that his government will give land by 31 August to those seeking 4 and 2 acres, and then resolve their 8 acres demand after that. The MB kept asking them for patience and asked them to give him time to resolve the issue.

30 March was the nomination for the Rantau by-election where the previous MB Mat Hasan would be contesting. Now one team of PH supporters again sought the Gatco peoples’ support and asked them to lodge a police report against Mohamad Hasan for corruption on the Gatco land matter. PSM and myself distanced ourselves from this action because it became apparent to us that PH members were just using the Gatco settlers for their own agenda when in fact PH had yet to deliver on the 8 acres promise.


Nevertheless with the encouragement of the PH members, the settlers lodged a police report against Mohamad Hasan on 28 March 2019; 2 days before nomination day. The report was lodged at Seremban 2 police station with around 40 settlers in attendance.

Land titles given to first batch

The mantra by PH leaders each time they were confronted with the question of the settlers demanding 8 acres was ‘let’s resolve the first batch first and then we will resolve yours’.

Finally on 29 November 2019, land titles were given to the first batch which was 4 acres for settlers and 2 acres for the buyers. The following week, the media reported that 170 titles were given to the first batch and that the rest would be given later. It was not reported in the news how the government wanted to settle the remaining settlers fighting for 8 acres.

The numbers did not tally

The settlers who were fighting for 8 acres started to get restless. Because it is a known fact that if additional land is not obtained from Tamarai holdings, then the PH Government would not be able to fulfill their promises to the 8 acres settlers.

Based on our calculation, we would need 888 acres of land for the second batch which comprised of 82 original settlers and 58 buyers receiving 8 and 4 acres respectively. Since Lotus had given the State Government 1206 acres, and out of this, 594 acres had been given to the first batch, so we estimated that there would be a shortage of land and that an additional 275 acres of land would be needed to fulfill the promise. On the question of if there was additional land, that shouldn’t be a problem because the original amount of land acquired by Lotus was 4,700 acres.

We organised a press conference to highlight this on 14 January 2020 in KL. As the PH leaders who were our allies before this became less and less cooperative, we finally wrote a letter to the Menteri Besar on 12 June 2020 reiterating all the earlier promises as well as earlier discussions. We also highlighted the need for the state government to acquire additional land.

Veerapan had always been telling the people that he would be calling them for a meeting. Then at one point, he said that they will open counters in Jempol so that the settlers can prove that they are the original settlers. But nothing of that sort happened. What finally happened was the PH Government betrayed the settlers and ended up giving them the same offer which BN had promised all along.

Today it is finally proven that this political coalition of hope is hopeless. They have gone against the very demands they supported in the Gatco settlers’ struggle and worse are still justifying their reversal. Veerapan is not to be entirely to be blamed and other PH leaders who used these settlers to advance their own political ambitions must also be held responsible.

In the final analysis, what the settlers got today is worse then what they had more than 40 years ago. They initially had 10 acres, then it was reduced to 8 and now PH has successfully reduced it to 4.

Background

Gatco stands for The Great Alonioners Trading Corporation Bhd, a company incorporated in 1977 by the National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW) to facilitate a land development scheme for its members. It is similar to a FELDA scheme, only that the majority of the settlers participating in this scheme are Malaysian Indians compared to Felda schemes which are dominated by Malays. Therefore Malaysian Indians do have a strong sense of attachment to the plight of these settlers’ who are dubbed the largest community of Indian land settlers.

The settlement covers 4,700 acres of land and was awarded by the Negeri Sembilan State Government. It was a deal made by the Negeri Sembilan born P.P. Narayanan, NUPW’s General Secretary and Isa Samad who was the Chief Minister of the state then. NUPW mobilised its members from all over the country to this land promising them a future and a fortune. Each settler had to pay RM7,600 which was a huge sum at that time to participate in this scheme. Each family was then provided with one acre of land for housing and ten acres for planting sugar cane and were given a 66-year lease.

Out of the total 430 settlers, 280 settlers were Indians, 120 Malays and 30 Chinese and they moved into Kampung Serampang Indah which is more fondly called Kampung Gatco; located near Jempol, Negeri Sembilan. It is a rural location, just 60 kilometres south of the Pahang border. The nearest town is located 40km away at Bahau.

The sugar cane plantation venture collapsed in the early 80s. Gatco then went into planting rubber trees and to cover the cost, a new agreement was signed that each of the settlers had to surrender 2 acres of land which would be used to settle losses and do the replanting of rubber trees there. So this was how the 10 acres became 8 acres.

Continuous mismanagement plunged GATCO into debt and it was declared bankrupt in 1983. Gatco failed to settle its loans from Bank of Commerce (now called CIMB) and the land was subsequently surrendered to Pengurusan Danaharta Nasional Berhad (Danaharta) before liquidators Singam and Yong took over in 1996.

In the original agreement, according to the settlers they should be given the first opportunity to buy the land if it was up for sale, but what later transpired was the land was suddenly sold by the liquidators to Tamarai Holdings Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Lotus group of companies who bought the land way below the market rate. The settlers claim that they were ready to buy the land but suddenly Tamarai bought the land through some backdoor deal. In September 2017, 2 Directors of Lotus were detained and investigated under the MACC for matters relating to GATCO land.
Lotus bought the land from the liquidator for only 16 million (RM 4,000 per acre). This was the original price of land not taking into account the value of the rubber trees planted there. The value of the rubber trees alone can fetch up to RM 6,000 per acre. So that is why the rubberwood has become the main flashpoint in the battle between Lotus and the settlers. This is also the reason behind the arrest of the settlers years ago on 18 July and 24 July 2017 where 28 elderly settlers and later 30 settlers from Gatco were arrested, chained and remanded. This had created national outrage as the video of them being chained together and brought to court created a massive outpouring of sympathy and anger among the public. The images were testimony of slavery in modern times. The settlers were arrested for blocking lorries carrying rubber wood out of the Gatco settlement. The settlers claimed these rubber trees belonged to them and removing them was an encroachment on their right to livelihood. This resulted in many arrests, torching of lorries and cars, break-ins and vandalism etc with both parties blaming each other for the violence.
Division within the settler community emerged when suddenly the land lease was extended to 99 years by PKNNS, a State Government agency. As compensation, Lotus surrendered 1206 acres to the government. As a result of this, on 15 Jun 2015 the Negeri Sembilan MB, Mohamad Hasan declared that the 4-decade problem in Gatco had been resolved with the government offering original settlers 4 acres and 2 acres for buyers.

Since the offer of 4 acres was made, the Gatco settlers have been in two camps, one supporting the Menteri Besar who agreed to offer 4 acres while another half of them are in the 8 acres camp. They believe that they are entitled to the 8 acres and have taken Lotus to court as well as stopped Lotus on the ground. PH and its front line leaders in the state had stood with the 8 acres settlers and promised that their misery would end when they came to power.

YB Anthony Loke, opposition leader of the Negeri Sembilan state assembly receives a memorandum demanding the 8 acres from Gatco settlers

So after decades of betrayal, PH has just joined the club and done exactly the thing they said they would not do. NUPW was blamed for reducing the 10 acres to 8 and now PH joins BN in reducing the 8 acres to 4. The settlers continue to fight among themselves while both BN Government then and PH Government today have ended up conceding the land to Lotus.

S.Arutchelvan
Deputy Chairperson
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

7-12-2020

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