Saturday, July 4, 2009

A write up on Kg Buah Pala

By SV Singam

The opinions and conclusions are entirely mine. Feel free to correct me if you think I am in error.

The land now called Kg Buah Pala was occupied by settlers more than 200 years. Some 150 years ago, David Brown, who then owned the coconut plantation there, gave the land to the settlers for them to continue their farming activity. A written document exists to prove this. After Brown returned to Britain, the State Government took over the land and proceeded to collect annual TOL rent from the villagers.

In 1999, the villagers applied for the land to be gazetted as Heritage Land. But the then government dragged its feet over the matter and failed (or refused) to take concrete action.

I have no idea how many people were privy to the fact that a developer called Nusmetro Ventures had a plan to develop condominiums on the land occupied by Kg Buah Pala. I also have no idea when the project was launched. But I do know that, as early as December 2007, even before any land transfer had taken place, prospective buyers were already discussing the launching price and putting down deposits.

In retrospect, it appears that the BN government had no intention of gazetting Kg Buah Pala as Heritage land. Instead, the land was to be sold to a developer to build the condominium project. In the process, BN cronies, including senior state government servants, were to make fat profits.

At the time of campaigning for the 12th General Elections, residents of Kg Buah Pala claim that they highlighted their problem to the PR candidate who promised that, if they won the elections, they would solve the problem. I have not seen any recorded evidence of the PR candidates making that promise. But I find it quite believable simply because, at that time, the DAP did not expect to win outright.

After the PR took over the State Government, the plotters behind the scheme had a problem. People within the government would lose the lucrative profit they were expecting to make. The crony developer would lose a lot of money already spent on launching the project. Buyers of the condo units would only get partial refunds because lawyers fees and so on would not be returned. They would stand to lose lots of money. It was a real mess that the plotters had to clear up, which they did.

3 weeks after the PR took control of Penang, the Kg Buah Pala land was quietly transferred to the Senior Government Servants Cooperative for them to sell to Nusmetro Ventures (and enjoy the promised profit). Right under Lim Guan Eng's nose!

The initial transfer of the land and the subsequent sale of it took place after the PR government had come into power. They could have stopped it if they had wanted to. But had it been stopped, they would have to face the wrath of the buyers of the condos. If the project went through, only the Kg Buah Pala residents would be affected. I suspect this is why the Lim Guan Eng government closed its eyes until it was too late.

Lim Guan Eng is now claiming that the developer had offered a compensation of RM200,000 per residence which the settlers rejected. The truth is, the compensation offered was only RM90,000 and this was accepted by only 6 of the 41 families living there. The others rejected the offer not because the money was not enough but because they only wanted to stay on the land that had been settled on by their ancestors. They needed the land so that they could continue with their livelihood - rearing cows and goats.

The Chief Minister has the power to acquire the land. Of course he has to compensate the buyer. But his claim that he had to pay RM200 per sq ft is ridiculous. The land acquisition was done under suspect circumstances. The buyer only has to be paid a nominal sum above the purchase price. The CM's personal assistant estimated that the compensation may cost up to RM30 million but LGE exaggerated that figure in his press statement. No one really seems to know what the actual payout would amount to.

What I can see is an unwillingness on the part of the Penang State Government to stop the project. I can understand why LGE fears to do that. The buyers of that project together with their relatives and friends would constitute a huge voter block. He cannot afford to antagonise them. He may not be corrupt, but he is a politician. He is in power on the votes of his supporters. He is surely beholden to them.

Everyone is lambasting Hindraf for their confrontational attitude. Well, don't forget that the reasonable negotiating attitude that had been adopted for some 10 years, all the way until that point had resulted in utter failure. If Hindraf had not acted as they did, Kg Buah Pala would be reduced to rubble by now.

Hindraf has won a month of time for all parties to come out with a fair solution. Let us see if the Penang Pakatan Rakyat government led by Lim Guan Eng has what it takes to address this really difficult issue and fix it.

The PR government may not be guilty of any corruption or illegal action. But they are guilty of inaction, which has brought grief to the settlers. It is morally wrong to make it seem like the settlers are greedy and are demanding more compensation. All the settlers are asking for is to be left alone to do what they have been doing for more than 200 years.

The right and proper thing to do is to confiscate all profits made from this nefarious project and use that to compensate the affected parties equitably. If the Penang government is unable to do that for whatever reason, they have to do the next best thing.

Identify a suitable alternative location that is acceptable to the Kg. Buah Pala settlers and help them to rebuild their settlement. The settlers are not asking for fancy urban homes or money. They just want to be able to continue with their lives and livelihood. Is that too much to ask?

What I recommend is not impossible to do. It only requires a willingness on the part of Lim Guan Eng's government to prove that they are truly a People's Government and not merely a Taxpayer's Government.