Malaysia: Community fights to save village

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

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

Legitimate case

I met a group of them in the community hall. I was warmly welcomed and they related their plight. I listened and posed two big questions that would determine if I was to continue working with them.

The first question was, did they think that they had a right to stay in their homes? The second was, if someone else claimed they had 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 would fight to stay. I was shown a photo of the village taken in the 1960s where there were only two buildings in Mantin town.

I realised the rest of the village must have developed since. Some asked 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), a group set up by the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), we decided that the people had a genuine case worth supporting.

During our discussion we also learned many disturbing things, among them that some villagers had already taken compensation and left. The amount that has been given ranged between RM1500 to RM7500 (about $490-$2450). The amount is low by any standard. Many claim they were either cheated or threatened into accepting.

When asked what their demand would be, the remaining villagers wanted to stay put on the current land. Failing that, they wanted 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 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 100 years' history.

Today, these same people are humiliated as “squatters” and “illegals” and chased away. The developer, Mega 9, which only existed since 2005, is now calling them squatters.

“Squatters” 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 the 1960s. They have also been paying 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 defines who has rights. It is narrowly defined that those who hold the land title are the legitimate owners. In the case of kampong Hakka, sometime 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 ― would be given the village's land to build a mixed development project, including nearly 400 houses.

Therefore Mega 9, overnight, became king while the people who initially built the village were condemned as illegal squatters. This is the sad reality when might is decided by money and corruption.

Court rules

On August 26, 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 decided that the villagers must give possession to Mega 9. It presented an Order 89 application, which was granted.

This was unbelievable. In normal circumstances, the court should have ordered a full trial, since an Order 89 is a summary proceeding normally done in clear-cut trespassing issues.

A trial is warranted due to the long history of the village's existence. This not a simple case of someone trespassing or not paying rent.

This is an issue of equitable rights, of rights to shelter and of rights to livelihood as enshrined in the federal constitution. 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. However, on September 25, Mega 9 served notices giving villagers seven days to vacate the land.

Then, less than five days later, the company 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?

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 demolitions stopped only when the villagers' lawyers finally came 15 minutes later. Later an interim stay was granted until October 17.

I hope the state government will come to its senses. It is the role of the state to ensure that people are given adequate housing. 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?

This is putting profit before people. The state could resolve the housing issues, or better still, make the village a heritage settlement. It seems the state authorities have been paid handsomely by the developer. This is the only logical explanation I can come to ― and many people feel likewise.

As the remaining villagers ponder their future, I repeated the question to them. Did they want to surrender or fight on? They said that they had no choice but to fight on.

As for us in the PSM, this is a class war between the rich and powerful against the poor. The police officer, 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 had been arrested before for supporting the plight of Palestinians, so what was 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.

There are still people arguing on technical matters about whether the villagers were right to defend their homes, asking why they did not take the compensation. But the bigger issue remains that a 100-year-old village and the villagers because some big company has bought their land and asome powerful people have taken a cut.

The rest of us have the choice of deciding who we want to support in this dispute.

[Abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]