Perak State’s dubious land deals: A call to action to stop eviction of Kanthan farmers

132 small farmers in Kanthan, Perak received a lawyer’s notice a few days ago. The letter dated 2nd December 2021 informed them that they were occupying land owned by the Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Perak (PKNP – the State Economic Development Corporation) without the permission of the owner and that they were required to move out within 30 days. If they failed to comply, legal action would be commenced, the letter warned. The PKNP, by the way, is a Government Linked Company (GLC) set up in 1967 by an enactment of the Perak State Legislature. It does not fall under the jurisdiction of the SSM (Suruhanjaya Syarikat Malaysia) but is supposed to submit its financial accounts to the State Assembly every year. The latest Annual Report cum Accounts up in the PKNP website is for 2017.

The land that these 130 farmers are tilling was alienated to the PKNP about 10 years ago through a somewhat dubious deal. In Malaysia, land is a State matter, and thus all power with regard to the alienation of state land is assigned to the “State Authority” and, in almost all the states in Malaysia, exercised by the Menteri Besar of the State. The sitting Menteri Besar is also the Chairman of the PKNP Board of Directors. So, the MB as Chairman of the State Committee approving land alienation parceled off more than 1000 acres of land to the PKNP of which he is the Chairman.

The 132 affected farmers are third generation farmers. This land was opened in the pre World War II period by their grandparents. In 1950 they were forced by the colonial authorities to demolish their houses on the farms and relocate to new villages – there are 3 in the vicinity – Kuala Kuang, Kanthan and Rimba Panjang. This, the Briggs plan, was enforced by the British colonial authorities to cut off the supply lines to the communist insurgents who, at that time, had considerable support among the local population. Since then, the farmers reside in the new villages and tend to their farms located within a 3 mile radius of their new village.

These are a community of small farmers. The PKNP carried out a survey of the 132 farms recently and found that 24 farms (18%) measured less than 2 acres, 41 (31%) between 2 and 4 acres, 27 (20%) between 4 and 6 acres and 19 (14%) between 6 and 8 acres. Only 17% of the farms are more than 8 acres in size and these include the old mining ponds which are used for fish rearing. However these farmers have learnt how to manage the land well and they churn out about 50 to 60 tons of produce per day – corn, brinjal, ladies fingers, long beans, water lily, a variety of leafy vegetables, fresh water fish and oil palm. And all this without any government support or subsidies. The Kanthan region is the largest single market gardening site in Perak State and it is being managed in a sustainable manner by a community with almost 100 years of experience in handling the existing soil and weather conditions. The Kanthan market gardening community is an economic and strategic asset to the nation!

The PKNP, according to its website was set up to implement a long-term strategy to utilize the resources of the state and bring about sustainable growth of the state economy. It however has decided to convert the entire Kanthan area from agricultural to residential and industrial development (Silver Valley Technology Park). Three lots of land measuring some 100 acres in the southern-most portion of the Kanthan region have already been alienated to private developers – Bukit Aneka Sdn Bhd, KM Majubina Sdn Bhd and Banjaran Barat Sdn Bhd. The first developer filed eviction proceedings against the 8 farmers on “its” land. They came by way of an Order 89 application which we managed to defeat – we lost at the High Court but overturned the decision at the Appeal Court. Bukit Aneka has since filed a Writ Summons.

The second developer, KM Majubina sent in a group of 12 young Malay men in April 2021 with two backhoes to clear the 48 acres that had been alienated to Majubina. The PSM helped the farmers block this attempt by occupying the land, making multiple police reports and taking the issue up to the Perak Chief Police Officer – we highlighted the sheer irresponsibility of Majubina (a Chinese owned development company) in engaging a group of Malay men to try and forcibly evict a community of Chinese farmers. It was a tense 3 days as some of KM Majubina’s men were aggressive – they told me that they had been unemployed because of the Movement Control Order and they needed to complete this job as they will only be paid upon completion of the work assigned. Our lawyers managed to get an order under Section 99(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code that mandated that the status quo be maintained (i.e. the farmers retain possession of the land) until the Courts decide on the underlying land issue. KM Majubina called off the hardline approach on day 3, and have since initiated legal action – an originating summons has been filed. The third developer is biding his time.

The KM Majubina episode threw up some illuminating if disturbing information. We found out from the documents filed in the Magistrate Court that the 48.23 acres was not sold directly by PKNP to Majubina. Instead, PKNP sold the land to Matang Sands Sdn Bhd for RM 4.823 million. Matang Sands sold the land a day later to Majubina for RM 5.823 million. Why didn’t PKNP sell directly to Majubina and collect the extra RM 1 million?

RM 4.823 million for 48.23 acres works out to RM 2.30 per square foot. But land price in the area is about RM 15 per square foot. Why was the PKNP monetizing the state’s land assets at such a discounted price? PKNP only received RM 4.823 million for the 50 acres it sold when the actual value of the land is in the region of RM 30 million – an act of charity for the developer? Or is something else going on?

The Kanthan farmers asked PSM for a meeting after receiving the eviction notice, and we held that yesterday, the 11th of December 2021. We told them that we would help them file a defense and a counterclaim in Court. But we also told them the truth – Land Law in Malaysia is very one-sided. The land grant gives ear total rights to the person or company in whose name the grant is registered. This is the Torrens system. There is no provision in the National Land Code for the Court to entertain questions why the State Authority did not alienate the land to the farmers who have been tilling it for the past 80 to 100 years. There is no provision for the Court to question the wisdom of destroying a thriving food producing region in a period when climate change is a reality and food security crucially important. As the law stands, the right of the State Authority to alienate state land is near absolute.

We told the farmers that while it is crucial to file a defense in court to stave off a summary judgement, it is not realistic to hope for a favourable outcome via the court process. For even if the judge is sympathetic, he/she has to stay within the ambit of current laws. We told the farmers that if they wish to defend their farms, they need to sway public opinion and thus put pressure on the State Authority to reconsider its plans to develop the Kanthan area as an industrial park. We need to ask that existing vegetable farming areas in Perak be gazetted as permanent food production areas, and the farmers utilizing the land on these areas be given leases of 10 to 20 years with the proviso that they must use the land to plant food crops. The 50 odd farmers attending the meeting agreed, and we formed a 12 person committee to work on the issue. But it will be an uphill battle!

Can you play a part to help a group of small farmers and also preserve food security? Isn’t it time that ordinary Malaysians wake up to the fact that our land assets are not being managed optimally? Nor are state governments giving enough attention to issues like food security, sustainability of our water catchment areas and maintenance of our forests. They seem to be driven by a desire to maximize short term financial returns. Ordinary citizens have to remind our government leaders that we expect them to exercise the vast powers we entrust to them in a responsible manner.

Jeyakumar Devaraj
Chairperson
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

12/12/2021

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