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Malaysia: Kampong Hakka -– when 100 years of community residence does not matter

By S. Arutcheclvan, general-secretary, Socialist Party of Malaysia

October 3, 2013 -- Socialist Party of Malaysia/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The first Monday of every October is designated by the United Nations as World Habitat Day. The main purpose to celebrate this date is to reflect on the basic right of all to adequate shelter. The UN has dedicated one day to highlight the plight of people fighting for shelter as it seems that the right to a home is one of the most fundamental human rights. With this, let me argue the case of kampong Hakka in Mantin, Negeri Sembilan.

When I first stepped into kampong Hakka a year ago, I was amazed that a Chinese new village complete with temple, community hall and school existed in this village and I was further shocked to learn that all the people living there have been declared illegals just because some rich company has bought their land.

When I looked at the structure of their homes and their lifestyle, I was convinced that these villagers have a history to talk about. They have lived here for many decades. Most of the villagers were elderly people as their children had left to more urban town centres. Their economic activity varies, with most of them being petty traders and self-employed.

I then met a whole bunch of them in the community hall. I was warmly welcomed and they related to us about their plight. I listened and posed them two major questions which would determine my attitude if I was to continue working with them.

The first question was, do they think that they have a right to stay in their current homes, and the second was, if someone else claims they have the grant titles to their land, will they move out? They responded strongly that they have rights, they spoke how their forefathers came many years ago, how they built this village and said that they will fight to be here. I was shown a photo of the village taken in the year 1960s where there were only two buildings in Mantin town. I realised the rest of the village must have developed after the village was set up. Some questioned me, where do you want us to go?

Looking at all angles, I was convinced of their plight. Along with friends from Community Front (CF), an organsiation of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), we decided that the people have a legitimate right to struggle and that they have a genuine case.

During our discussion we also learned many disturbing issues, among them that some villagers have already taken compensation and left. The amount that has been given ranged between RM 1500 to RM 7500. The amount is low by any standard. Many claim that they were either cheated or threatened into accepting. When asked what would their demand would be, the remaining villagers wanted to stay put on the current land, or failing that they want to be given a plot of land or a house in the same location. I thought their request was reasonable.

History

The Hakka villagers claim that their village is more than 100 years old. They trace their history right back to 1860. Most of them came from Hui Zhou, China, and were brought here by the British to work in the tin mines. They settled in a village in Mantin known as kampung Attap because of its roofing. Today the same village is known as kampong Hakka. They have a temple Tokong Tan Gong and a school SJK Chi Chi Mantin, both with a hundred years' history.

Today these same people are humiliated as "squatters" and "illegals" and chased away. The developer Mega 9, which only existed in this history since 2005 is now calling them squatters. "Squatters" equals criminals to the former Lord President Tun Azlan Shah. They are defined as people who illegally built houses on government land.

In the case of kampung Hakka, these villagers have been given a "Temporary Occupation Licence" by the Seremban land office since 1960s. They also have been paying quit rent to the local municipal council until now. Looking at all this, there is no way that they can be called squatters or "illegals".

But sadly, going by experience, we have one big problem in this country. It is how our judiciary and legal system define who has rights or not. It is narrowly defined that those who hold the land title are the legitimate owners. In the case of kampong Hakka, somewhere in 1987, the villagers heard that their land was being taken away for a development project. The government then sold the land to a private developer and it became clear in 2005, when the local government decided that Mega 9 -- a private company -- will be given the kampong Hakka land to built a mixed development project that includes 374 houses including 116 low-cost houses and shop lots.

Therefore Mega 9, which came last to the land, overnight became the king while the people who initially built the village and the settlement are condemned as "squatters" and "illegals". This is the sad reality of where might is decided by money and corruption while justice is buried under a paper called “geran tanah”.

Court rules

On August 26, 2013, the villagers lost their case in the Seremban High Court. The decision was made in chambers while the villagers waited in the open court. The court only saw who had the land title and it was decided that the villagers must give vacant possession to Mega 9. Mega 9 presented an Order 89 application and was successful. This is unbelievable. In normal circumstances, the court should have rejected the Order 89 application and ordered a full trial since an Order 89 is a summary proceeding which is normally done in clear-cut trespassing issues. Here a trial is warranted as there is a long history of the village's existence. This not a simple case of someone trespassing or not paying a rent.

The High Court narrowly interpreted the issue. This is an issue of equitable rights, this is an issue of rights to shelter and this is an issue of rights to livelihood as enshrined in the federal constitution article 5. But the court seems to have chosen just to see who has the land title and gave the death sentence to the villagers.

The lawyers for the villagers applied for a stay of execution and obtained a court date to hear the stay on October 17, 2013. However on September 25, Mega 9 served notices giving villagers seven days to vacate the land. But in less than five days, they came with the full might of the police force and court bailiffs to evict the people.

Why the hurry when there is a court date pending on October 17? Why the hurry when there is an appeal? Why couldn’t the bailiff just wait for 30 minutes extra to allow the villagers' lawyers to be present, when their lawyer, a state assembly member was in Dewan Negeri and said that he would be there by 11.30 am.

Arrests

In spite of all that, the bailiff citing higher orders carried on with the eviction. The police used excessive force to arrest, injure and humiliate those who were protecting the houses. Thirteen people were arrested and three houses were demolished. The demolition machine's engine only stopped when the villagers' lawyers finally came 15 minutes later. Later an interim stay was granted until October 17.

I greeted this news with a huge applause with the other detained along me at the Mantin police lock-up. At least, the entire village was not in ruins.

As we celebrate World Habitat Day, I hope the state government will come to its senses. It is the role of the state to ensure its people are given adequate houses. In this case, in the first place, how could the state government approve a development plan without first resolving the issues faced by the kampong Hakka villagers. Isn’t this policy called profit before people? Why can’t the state resolve the housing issues, or better still, why not make this a heritage settlement. It seems the state authorities have been paid off handsomely by the developer. This is the only logical explanation I can come to and many people feel likewise.

Surrender or fight?

As the remaining villagers ponder their future, I repeat the question to them. Do you want to surrender or fight on? They said that they have no choice but to fight on. More villagers have now come forward after the rude awakening they got on September 30.

As for us in the PSM, this is a class war between the rich and powerful against the poor. The policeman, while recording my statement after my arrest, asked if I lived in kampong Hakka or if I have relatives there. For him, it is a joke that among 13 people arrested, there were six Malaysian Indians protecting Chinese villagers. I told him that, I have been arrested before for supporting the plight of Palestinians, so what is the big deal in supporting affected people in Mantin, Negeri Sembilan. He felt embarrassed and soon started to speak our language -- the language of the poor.

While there are still people who keep arguing on technical matters about whether the villagers were right to defend their homes, asking why didn’t they take the compensation et the bigger issue remains that a 100-year-old village and the villagers are being forcefully evicted because some big company has made a move and some big people have taken a cut. The rest of us have a choice of deciding who we want to support in this dispute.

For those who want to support, the kampong Hakka struggle, please contact Ghandi at [Malaysian number] 0166862080.

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