Towards a solution of a festering problem?

TALKING about the shabby treatment that the Natives of Sarawak had been receiving in terms of land rights, the former director of Radio Sarawak Peter Ratcliffe once remarked to me, “You Natives are cheated of the benefit of common law recognition of your Native customary land.”

That was when both of us had had one too many of the stiff BGA (Brandy and Ginger Ale) that his boy had concocted. I responded with something that sounded like ‘You’re bluuudy raight, Sar.’

Indefeasible title for Native land – a way forward

I know that many people think that once a land title is issued to any Native, the next thing he does is to sell it. This may be the general perception but it is not necessarily the reality in many real cases today.

I say what’s wrong with it anyway, if the sale fetches good money and the money is intended for an investment that brings good returns? Why does one begrudge a Native landowner with legitimate interests in real estate, which he wants to sell for a profit?

Peter Mooney, had he lived today, would be happy to learn that many Natives of Sarawak of the present generation are not as politically and economically static as before. Just give them the right to dispose of their land with an indefeasible title on the open market like every else does and see how they can do with the money. You will be surprised that a lot of them are smarter than you think.

Don’t you think that it is better to deal with a Native who is a registered proprietor of land under the MZ title than with another who is a claimant of land gazetted under Section 6 of the Code? Ask your lawyer.

Back to The Gazette

To recap, let’s go back to the debate in The Gazette, 71 years ago. If you have read my previous columns on this subject of Native land rights, you’d have a fair idea of what I have been trying to say. Then you could have made sense of it all.

It was argued then that, “the significance of Dr Meek’s book becomes apparent, for we find that throughout the Empire the same sort of problems have cropped up as have often afflicted us in Sarawak. How frequently must land be cultivated in order to enable rights over it to be preserved? What are the respective rights of the village, the family, and the individual? How far does a Native, who goes away to Miri and works there for 10 years, forfeit his interest in his ancestral land? Who gets the land of a longhouse when it moves from one district to another? These are the sort of questions which are continually occurring and which will become of growing importance as the Colony develops.”

Well, Sir, your colony had developed all right, so it inherited the land rights problem as well. It has evolved from a 100-year old independent country under the White Raj to a Japanese Territory through conquest from 1941 to 1945, and then, by cession, it became your Crown Colony of 17 years from 1946. Then on July 22, 1963, Sarawak achieved self-governing country status with a ministerial system of government. Stephen Kalong Ningkan was its first chief minister. Hardly two months later, Sarawak was committed to Malaysia in London before it was quickly absorbed into an enlarged Federation of Malaya called the Federation of Malaysia since Sept 16, 1963. This is where we will live as long as it lasts.

In the midst of the euphoria of post-Merdeka, dispute over Native land ownership remains unsolved. Government comes, government goes, and yet a sensible solution to the problem has remained elusive. Why?

The questions that the colonial officers had asked of themselves about land ownership during their debates in The Gazette and over their Stengah or Singapore Sling or BGA at the Sarawak Club are more or less the same questions that the post-colonial Malaysian policymakers and the Native landowners are asking now.

Native rights to their traditional lands have continued to be questioned by those with an eye to using or owning the Native land – all in the name of economic progress, GDP first, Native rights second.

The seed of conflict was sown during the Brooke Raj, added and abetted by the colonial rulers, and nurtured ever since we formed Malaysia. A problem for the rulers as well as for the governed, who shall be better able to solve it other than the present leaders of the Sarawak and federal governments?

However, as long as the politicians in power in Sarawak are of the opinion that all land belongs to the state, except land registered under the Torrens System, the debate over its proprietorship will go on until all the cows come home.

To the investor in land development in Sarawak, the so-called temuda (inclusive of pemakai menoa/pulau galau) is state land. Period. He has obtained it from the land office. For such a person, that is all that is necessary. He starts sending the bulldozers immediately onto the land once the lease has been issued to him, never mind the human beings who may be in occupation or have Native Customary Rights over that land, now held under lease. After all, the bank has approved his loan for the project and he has paid out the necessary premium and also other incidental expenses. The land is his for 60 years.

A number of leaseholders have sold their acquired property – mainly to some Peninsular Malaysian developers. A leaseholder can be an instant millionaire the minute he signs a Sale and Purchase Agreement in a lawyer’s office. Now with a fat cheque securely in his paws, out he goes without a care in the world, smiling and laughing all the way to the bank.

Whether or not Native-owned land such as PMPG is included in the lease is not important to him. After all, the PMPG is not recognised as having force of law and is therefore state land, said his lawyers.

To be continued.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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