They are urban pioneers, not ‘squatters’

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Kampung Padang Jawa villagers protesting outside the Selangor State Secretariat building in Shah Alam in April 2018 - Photograph: Utusan Online

Urban pioneers were not trespassing; they were properly allowed and authorised to build settlements on government and vacant land in the past, writes Barathi Selvam.

The high hopes and euphoric celebrations over changing a kleptocrat government still bring joy to most of us, a fruit reaped after 60 years of struggle.

Some might retort that governments may change, politicians may change, but the plight of the marginalised and oppressed remains the same. Looking at the current scenario, this has more than a grain of truth in our ever-changing and evolving society.

It has been over 100 days since Pakatan Harapan took over as the federal government with the hope of championing people’s dreams for a better nation. A definite promise was they would not resemble Umno-BN.

But sadly enough, several hurtful events have proved us wrong because day by day they remind us of the darker days of Umno-BN. The words of the late British historian Lord Acton are relevant: “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

It is a funny and devastating feeling, that even with the change of government led by a bunch of social activists, human rights advocates and staunch democrats, many downtrodden urban pioneers continue to live in fear of losing their homes to greedy capitalists, silently observed by trusted and elected politicians.

Interestingly enough, the current Federal Territory Minister, Khalid Samad, was once detained by police in the fight against forced evictions-cum-demolition in Kampung Rimba Jaya back in 2007. Despite this, a group of concerned people from Kampung Padang Jawa (Lots 626 and 1416) face yet another eviction threat, jeopardising their livelihoods. This discriminates against their basic right to secure a place of shelter. Again, hypocrisy speaks for itself.

Before dealing with the polemics of the Kampung Padang Jawa residents, it is vital to understand the concept and roots of urban pioneers.

Who are the urban pioneers?

They have been the backbone of the development of today’s sophisticated cities embodying hundreds of skyscrapers, high-end residential apartments, government infrastructure, multi-story shopping complexes and many other projects that have benefited the nation’s economy and contributed to modernity.

Nevertheless, they have been portrayed as ‘squatters’, which leaves them vulnerable in the hands of the rich and powerful. This obvious injustice should not be regarded as their fate to which they must succumb.

In his book Urban Pioneers: Struggle for Justice (1995), Dr Nasir Hashim noted that “these urban settlements did not arise as a matter of coincidence or beyond the knowledge of the authorities, but were actually part of the government policy under the national industrialisation and development plan”.

He further explained the rural migration to the city by villagers was encouraged in the early 1970s to provide labour power for factories, near which they were allowed to build settlements around cities. They were provided with basic amenities to ease their living condition and reduce the pressing on urban infrastructure.

What were the policies driving them to the cities? It was the noble intention of the government of the time to eradicate poverty and to reduce disparities between the rich and poor, between town and village, and most importantly between ethnic groups (especially between the Chinese and Malays).

In search of a better life, people migrated to these new settlements. As Nasir described it, idle land, old mines, hills, undergrowth, garbage dumps and swamps were developed year after year. Much energy and hard-earned money was expended by these communities to make their surroundings liveable.

However noble it was, the restructuring under the New Economic Policy from 1971 was sharply criticised for not staying truthful to the agenda of uplifting the poor in general. The policy successfully created a handful of elites and capitalists among the Malay community, leaving the majority striving for a decent life and adequate wages. Promises thrown in the air by politicians eventually vanished and became untraceable.

Since then, government leaders have continually acknowledged the presence of these communities. At every visit and at each election, many of these settlers were invariably promised ownership titles to the land. But that rarely took place, reminding us of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s words that manifestos are not to be completely followed, even when the lives of the poor are at stake. The new national car is, apparently, the way to go.

They are squatters; they don’t have rights over the land – or do they?

Malaysia became an official member of the United Nations in 1957, and therefore we as a nation are obliged to the universal principles and rights championed by the UN, at least that’s what we are supposed to be doing all this while.

On 10 March 1993, Malaysia along with 53 other countries signed a landmark resolution on forced evictions, stressing that the demolition of houses by force is a gross violation of basic human rights. Twenty-five years have passed, yet forced eviction without a civilised solution are still a shameful norm.

The Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1993/77 further urges governments to undertake immediate measures, at all levels, aimed at eliminating the practice of forced evictions; to confer legal security of tenure on all persons currently threatened with forced evictions and to adopt all necessary measures giving full protection against forced evictions, based upon effective participation, consultation and negotiation with affected persons or groups.

Urban pioneers were not trespassing. They were properly allowed and authorised to build settlements on government and vacant land, and most importantly, as Nasir mentioned, they were provided with basic amenities like any other village: water supply, electricity, roads, postal services, telephones, community halls and mosques. Their houses were also accounted for in the census and they were allowed to vote in elections.

In this sense, it is clear that they were treated exactly like any other rightful residents of the land – not merely on moral ground but as a reciprocal manner for their contribution to the development enjoyed by many today.

Urban pioneers not only cultivated and developed the land on which intended to set up their settlements, but also were instrumental in developing our cities. Disregarding and evicting them without proper compensation – under the cover of legality, rules and regulations – as soon as their settlements turn into prime land is a total injustice and disgrace

Why it is more disappointing now

The failure to obtain reasonable compensation based on pure natural justice under the Pakatan Harapan administration, under whose leadership many had place high hopes, would be a disappointment.

This would be especially felt by those placed their trust and votes on a new government with the hope that they would not have to endure the same fate as they had in the hands of Umno-BN. If this was a film, then it would be a badly written script with a climax that could be a turn-off.

Trust in the PH government would be shattered if reasonable negotiations and compensation based on natural justice and humanity does not materialise for these downtrodden masses. Those in power have an unavoidable responsibility to use their their power and position to take the side of the voiceless, not stamping on them when they are at their most vulnerable.

Alternative housing – a ridiculous demand?

Strong precedents abound in history. Though alternative houses may sound impossible and ridiculous to book-abiding law enforcers, lawmakers and corporate capitalists, it is a realistic demand that has often been achieved through long and passionate struggle by countless urban pioneers and estate workers who were threatened with displacement and forced evictions in the past.

To cite a few struggles, the people of Kampung Berembang, Kampung Rimba Jaya, Kampung Sungai Putih, Kampung Bumi Hijau, Kampung Pasar Baru (Kampung Pandan), Kampung Lindungan, Kampung Udara and many more won alternative housing at the same place where they lived before their eviction.

Plantation workers too succeeded. The workers of Ladang Braemar, Ladang Brooklands and Ladang Bangi are living examples of the fact that those who fight for their rights, will win – despite the time, energy and resources spent. They achieved victory in securing alternative homes as their rightful compensations after persevering despite the odds.

Such compensation is not imaginary or beyond reach. But lacklustre efforts by elected representatives in tackling the plight of the poor and the lack of political will make things more troublesome and complicated and eventually skewed to the developers’ desires.

The case of Kampung Padang Jawa, Klang

It is disheartening to have to go through similar harassment, political bullying and unfair treatment of the powerless at the hands of corporate greed. It is devastating that we still have to lament over human rights issues and lambast the violators when elected representatives had also been advocating against such human rights violations.

Today, the livelihoods of 35 Kampung Jawa villagers are threatened and their future is anything but bright. Having lived in the locality, their home for three generations, for almost 50 years, residents now face uncertainty. A developer, Ehsan Bina Sdn Bhd, slapped them with a court order demanding that they vacate by 4 October 2018.

The fear of being stranded to a life on the streets has haunted the villagers, since earlier negotiations were not even close to meeting their reasonable demand for compensation but merely more talk that could leave theme empty-handed.

As things became messier, the people grew more and more confused: aren’t the poor entitled to lead a decent live without subjugation by the wealthiest and the political elites? Is this the fate that one has to endure just because they aren’t equipped with money and power?

Editor’s postscript: The 34 families in the village who were facing eviction have been granted a reprieve of sorts. Following mediation by their elected representative in a meeting with the developer, the villagers were asked to sign a tenancy agreement allowing them to stay in their homes until 31 December 2018 provided they withdraw their appeal they filed in court to suspend the demolition .

Their elected representatives have said the Selangor state government would assist them in getting a home under the Rumah SelangorKu scheme through the Selangor Housing and Property Board but “the number of houses are limited, the location may not be to their liking and they will have to wait too”.

Barathi Selvam is disturbed by the social injustices he sees around him and uses writing as a medium to advocate for those who are discriminated and oppressed.

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