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The law’s stepchildren
16/07/2001 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

One of land law’s most important (for the squatter, the most awful) decisions is none other than Sidek & 461 Ors v.Government of Perak [1982] 1 MLJ 313, where Raja Azlan Shah J. (as he then was) said, in one of his most-oft repeated judgments, that “squatters have no rights in law or equity”.

Echoing down the halls of justice over these past two decades, that remarkable one-liner has become sweet music to Land Administrators out to evict squatters within their domain. It has also become the most potent sword and shield (depending on how you look at it) for the State Authority each time it is locked in judicial combat with the squatters, despite whatever assurance that might have been given by any person on its behalf that land titles would be given in due course or that the squatters can stay where they are “for as long as they like”- see Chong Wooi Leong & 29 Ors v.Lebbey Sdn Bhd [1998] 3 AMR 2053.

The judiciary is, of course, not to be blamed because its duty is merely to interpret and declare “the law”. The law is none other than the National Land Code 1965 (NLC), that bulky and, for the man on the street, almost incomprehensible piece of legislation drafted just before Merdeka and passed by Parliament soon thereafter.

Although amended on more than a dozen occasions since then, it has remained true to its original form and content till today. Section 425 has remained unchanged since the NLC came into force and it states: “Any person who, without lawful authority, occupies or erects any building on any State land, reserved land or mining land... shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding RM10,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year.” For the purpose of this section, the term “State land” is defined widely to include land held by the federal government or a local authority.

Treated by the law and the courts as the nation’s step-child, devoid of any legal status and denied any right of occupation on the land where they are now living, ignored most of the time but tolerated occasionally by the authorities and coddled by others during that short season known as election time which comes once in five years, the city squatter usually has nowhere to turn for help.

In a recent case, the Kuala Lumpur High Court held that a squatter’s dwelling (called a “squatter hut” under a particular 1969 Regulation still in force in Wilayah Persekutuan) can be demolished by DBKL without being given any prior warning - see Shamsudin v. Datuk Bandar Kuala Lumpur [2000] 4 AMR 4607.

But squatters are human beings, just like property owners. They have their own dreams and expectations. They are also voters, if they are citizens and have registered themselves with the Election Commission. Many among them are government supporters, members of political parties now in power. Since many also pay dues and taxes, they are also a source of government revenue. They are also consumers, so they keep the wheels of economy turning.

In the light of all this, many feel that squatters should not be treated as the law’s step-children. In February, some 140 squatter houses at the seventh kilometre of Jalan Kelang Lama were demolished by DBKL. Since that dreadful day, the place has reportedly become a “health hazard” to residents in the vicinity. Fate, however, sometimes smile on them, although (judging from recent events) these glad tidings are usually preceded by a short spell of human misery.

The Kampung Medan episode of last March is a case in point. In the aftermath of that sorry episode, the Housing Minister announced that squatters living in urban areas would be resettled. The resettlement program is described as a priority agenda of the Housing Ministry under the Eighth Malaysia Plan.

Under the program, the government “will ensure that each squatter will be given an affordable home”, either to purchase or to rent. In the pipeline are 34,000 units of affordable flats - some in the course of construction, others to be built soon. These will be the new homes for squatters presently living in the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur.

The objective of this crash program is to make Kuala Lumpur squatter-free by 2005. The year 2005 has also been chosen by another two states - Selangor and Perak - to eradicate their squatter settlements. The Selangor state government has been saying this for the last couple of years. As for Perak, its Menteri Besar, Datuk Seri Tajol Rosli said in mid-March that the state would be free of squatters by that year. To achieve that, the state will be building more low-cost homes in the coming years.

The question is, will the promise be kept? Or will the city squatters continue to be the law’s step-children for the next couple of decades?

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