Squatters – a problem solved?

NO more squatters in Sarawak’s towns in five years’ time – that’s the good news from the Minister of Housing Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg this week.

Obviously some people have been working hard on a solution to the problem of squatting on state land in the urban areas.

Apparently, the plan to rid state land of illegal occupiers and to relocate them somewhere else is ahead of schedule by a couple of years. However, that’s looking at one angle only – the government’s. From its perspective, there would be a roof over everybody’s head if the squatters could be accommodated in the flats built by the Syarikat Perumahan Negara Berhad and other agencies.

But one should look at several other angles as well. For example, the monthly rental of RM150 for a unit in a flat, say at Batu Gong, may be a burden for a squatter family now rooted at Kampung Kudei in the centre of affluent Kuching. Batu Gong in Siburan is far away from their workplaces; there will be considerable transport costs to get to work, or school, over and above the rent. It would therefore be better for them to be allocated a piece of land (TOL will do) on which they can build their own houses on more or less the present locality. After all, they have been part of the larger community all this while. If they had a choice, they would prefer to stay put. That would be regarded as some concrete improvement to their existing conditions – a move quite in line with the concept of 1Malaysia to which the state government, I believe, fully subscribes.

Other problems faced by the squatters are not caused by the government though the authorities should provide basic services – piped water, power supply and rubbish collection, for health reasons.

It is hoped that all squatter families in all towns will have been allocated a piece of land each to build a house, or a room in a condominium for any who prefer to live in a tall house, by 2018.

Tall house versus longhouse

Has a study been made of how the rural people have adapted to living in a condominium?

It may be worthwhile for sociologists and anthropologists from the local universities to look at this question. Most of the squatters are people who were used to living in single houses in the villages and longhouses. From the findings of the study, the housing authorities may like to incorporate some new ideas into the public housing schemes catering for people from various cultural backgrounds.

Rural-urban migration

In the meantime, rural people have been coming to work in Sibu, Miri, Bintulu and Kuching and once they can find jobs they stay and live in those places. And that’s not necessarily bad for the economy of those towns. But they are potential candidates for the slums.

I’m sure the town planners have given sufficient consideration to a possible influx of new migrants from the rural areas if SCORE cannot provide most jobs for the young people from the rural areas without skills required by certain industries soon. Unless the various companies employing them can provide them with living quarters, they must find accommodation somewhere. It is possible that they may start a colony of their own which may develop into a slum unless the authorities can prevent squatting on time.

Any government with foresight can predict this problem even after 2018, now that many income generating jobs in the timber camps are no longer available because many medium-sized timber camps have closed down. True, there are jobs in the oil palm plantations but the wages may not be good enough for the locals.

Cultivating oil palm on terrain like that found in most parts of the upper Rajang and its tributaries will be an exercise in futility. There’s simply no land good enough for large-scale oil palm plantations in those areas I have seen in that part of the Rajang. Other crops will have to be considered.

During good times, many timber workers in the Rajang had bought houses or flats in Kapit town or Sibu on mortgage. Many are still servicing their loans in order to avoid foreclosure.

For the few able-bodied forest workers, there are jobs in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where their bosses have acquired forest concessions. They possess the necessary skills required by that industry only; those timber fellers getting older by the day are at home because they cannot undertake heavy work any more. A burden to the family.

Generally, young men from the rural areas are working overseas in the oil fields, many working in Johor, Singapore and in KL. Others end up in big towns like Miri, Bintulu and Kuching. Those who come to Kuching are from the surrounding districts – Samarahan, Sebuyau, Simunjan, Serian, Bau and Lundu – all looking for jobs which are not available in their home districts, despite the fact that there are jobs in the plantations. They say those jobs are given to the foreign workers who are willing to work for lower wages. In towns, where do you think they live?

Rural-urban migration is a global phenomenon; the bigger the population of a country the more complex the problem. It is good for our government to set a target for a zero squatter in our towns. However, it would be prudent to anticipate more people driven to town for economic reasons. They believe there are better jobs easily available in towns. That’s their expectation anyway.

First a trickle, then once the jobseeker has landed one, he will bring his whole family to stay in town for the education of his children and medical and health facilities for his pregnant wife. One family follows another and over a period of time there will be more families. And where can they live? They may end up in a squatter colony – at Sungai Apong or Chawan Road or Kampung Kudei.

There are several other smaller groups of squatters on the periphery of each city – the one near the rubbish dump in Miri is called Kampung 1Malaysia. In Kuching, their colonies are called ‘Stink Garden’, to avoid using the term setingan.

Another is called Taman Sri Wangi; the next is dubbed Taman Wawasan 2020.

Come with me if you are interested in meeting the inhabitants. They are human and friendly, naive mostly, typical of rural folk not yet schooled in fake sophistication.

Wishing the ‘final solution’ a success

Expect more squatters even after 2018 unless in the meantime the pace of rural development can be doubly accelerated in terms not only of communication infrastructure but also of industries other than plantations able to absorb unskilled jobseekers soon.

The squatter problem is interrelated to economic problems in the rural areas. The government’s plan to solve the squatter problem is one aspect of the economic problem statewide. Speed up rural development – more jobs, more amenities, opportunities, and there will be less squatter problems in towns.

Anyway, let’s wish the 2018 target will be achieved – a success it deserves. Hopefully, in the process of riding the land of squatters, the authorities will take into consideration all the humanitarian factors and implications into consideration – social, economic and political.

Yes, political – the election is around the corner, as you know.

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