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Towards better land administration
24/07/2004 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

My congratulations to the senior management and staff of the Land and Cooperative Development Ministry (its former name, for as long as I can remember) for having a new minister and a new name, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment?.

Hopefully, this will come with a new vision, new goals and strategies, renewed zeal and enhanced determination to get the job done quickly, efficiently and right the first time.

The inevitable question is, will it also give rise to new policies, procedures and laws? If the answer is 'yes', hopefully these will be steps in the direction of implementing a new set of best practices in land administration?.

I sincerely hope that my friends in the ministry would think along this line. Recent news reports have said all heads of departments in the ministry have given their status reports to the new minister, Datuk Adenan Satem.

Sometimes it is good to have somebody from the 'outside' to take charge of things. He can bring fresh insight and see new opportunities that might have been missed in the past. The new chief will need some time to get the hang of things and learn to adjust to his new responsibilities. Hopefully, he will not feel too uncomfortable having to be mentored by his subordinates for a while.

Land administration is not just about land disposal, land alienation, land tenure, land registration, land information, collection of revenue, enforcing conditions and restrictions, prosecutions, land acquisitions, land development schemes, land dealings and the like.

Apart from economic development and routine administrative work, land
administrators also have to deal with environmental management (the ultimate target being to ensure sustainable development) and to grapple with issues of social justice. Beyond that, the subject matter of land administration is wide enough to include not only issues of land use, but also forest management, coastal zone management and highlands management.

A quick survey of several developing countries will show that land administration systems have become an integral component of their national strategies to:

  •  Assist in the shift from a command economy to a market economy (as in Eastern and Central Europe);
  • Address past social injustices (such as with the end of apartheid in South Africa);
  • Rebuild shattered social and governmental institutions (such as in Kosovo, East Timor, El Salvador and Nicaragua, after periods of unrest and civil war);
  • Raise the nation from poverty (such as in Ghana, Bangladesh, Nepal and Peru); and
  • Resolve financial crises (such as in Indonesia).

The scenario is different in developed countries, and here, land administration has a different set of priority objectives - such as supporting the operation of land markets, the use and creation of capital, land use planning, land taxation systems, affordable public housing, urban infrastructures and natural resource management.

Looking back at the recent events affecting the former Land Ministry, the given impression is that we are now moving towards becoming a developed state in just over a decade. The change in the ministry's name may give the impression that some of the old objectives may no longer be valid, and that new and different goals and needed.

In short, the change in name should bring with it a change in mindset for a shift in policy and formulation of new targets.

Which brings us to the vital question: Is our present land administration system sound enough to ensure these achievements? Is the system at par, matching the standards of best practices of land administration worldwide?

We should never lose sight of the fact that the so-called 'modern land administration systems' and their resulting best practices came with the colonising powers such as England, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Spain. Today, the challenge in most developing countries is to integrate these 'imported' systems with indigenous cultures and tenure systems.

An example of a modern land administration system is the Torrens System of title registration, developed in Australia during the mid-19th century and implemented in our shores at the close of the same century. The system was also introduced into Thailand, Brazil and Hawaii, long before it went to the United States.

The Torrens System supported the property interests of the colonising power, the expatriate population and a wealthy elite. For a long time, it completely ignored the indigenous or customary land tenure practices of the local population. Thankfully, case law over the last couple of years has shown that the Malaysian judiciary now recognises and validates indigenous land rights.

In other jurisdictions, tensions were created when attempts were made by national Governments to accommodate the indigenous or customary land tenure systems alongside the land title registration system. These occurred both in the developed countries of Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, Norway and Finland, as well as in developing nations such as Indonesia, some African and Latin American countries and some Pacific island states.

The second half of the 20th century saw the birth of the concept of best practices in land administration. Two major forces promoted land administration reform during this period. The first was the desire by many developing countries to promote economic development by improving their land administration institutions and infrastructure. Prime examples are Thailand, Philippines, Laos, Vietnam and Greece.

The second driving force was political, concerned with justice and the restitution of land rights.

Excellent examples include South Africa (after the fall of apartheid) and Eastern and Central Europe (as a result of the change from a command economy to a market economy and the establishment of private land ownership and land markets).

Apart from these two major forces, there were other concerns that were peculiar with the countries concerned, such as the need to address security of tenure issues in Indonesia.

If our land administration system is to be 're-engineered', and if we are thinking of formulating our own set of 'best practices', then we should take some time to ponder these issues:

  • Land policy framework;
  • Land tenure principles;
  • Institutional principles;
  • Spatial data infrastructure principles;
  • Technical principles; and
  • Human resource development and capacity-building principles.

Yes, challenging tasks indeed await the newly revamped ministry.

Salleh Buang is senior advisor of a company specialising in competitive intelligence. He is also active in training and public speaking and can be reached at


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