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Singing the same old song
09/07/2005 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

I was in Johor last week when the State’s Legislative Assembly was also sitting. What got me to read about the goings-on in the legislature was the old problem of idle land being raised again.

One report, from the New Straits Times last Saturday titled, State to forfeit land left idle, caught my attention. The State Executive Councillor in charge of agriculture and agro-based industries, Ahmad Zahri Jamil, was quoted as saying that land alienated by the State for agriculture or other development purposes can be forfeited if it is left idle for more than two years.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t very correct. Under the National Land Code 1965, a State can only initiate forfeiture proceedings on building land it had alienated if it had been left idle for two years. In the case of land for agricultural or industrial use it is three years.

If such land is left idle beyond the “permitted period”, they can be forfeited by a State Authority on grounds of breach of the “implied conditions” set out under sections 115, 116 and 117 of the Code, which apply to agricultural, building and industrial lands respectively.

However, Zahri said, the State Government would not forfeit such land straightaway, as it preferred to “allow the land owners time to work on their plots”.

Much the same thing has been said, countless times, in the past.

According to the Exco member, landowners in the State have always been encouraged to develop their land in clusters with the aid of the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Felcra) or the Agricultural Department.

Besides this, the Johor Government has also “taken several measures to develop idle land through privatisation”.

Instead of leaving their land idle and neglected and therefore of no benefit to anybody, Zahri suggested that the owners set up their own companies to manage the land. If they are in no position to do this, they should let others manage the land on a profit-sharing basis, or even lease the land to other parties.

The news report also said some 5,710ha of land have been left idle in Johor as at the end of last year, of which 40 per cent are in Segamat and the rest in Muar, Batu Pahat, Kluang, Mersing, Kota Tinggi and Johor Baru.

This is not the first time the State’s Government leaders have issued warnings to its people that they run the risk of forfeiture if they allow the land alienated to them to be left uncultivated or undeveloped.

They have heard this warning many times in the past, but have yet to see any kind of forfeiture proceedings being taken.

Consequently, many Johoreans I have met have asked, “Why should it be any different now?”

They regard the recent warning from the State Exco member as pretty much the “same old song”, with no change in either the lyrics or the melody. They believe Johor will never take any course of action that will have an adverse impact on the ballot box in the future.

I had discussed this issue in an earlier column, in which I touched on the intentions of Parliament in setting out sections 115, 116 and 117 of the Code, as they are very much in sync with the principle of land ownership in Islam.

Under the Code (and more so under Islamic land law), a private citizen is given land with the sole purpose that he cultivates or develops it, so that it can bring benefit to the public at large.

Should the land be left idle, then the legislative intent is clearly defeated, leaving land ownership to be nothing more than the manifestation of wealth, devoid of any real or lasting benefit to society at large.

In Islam, where land is considered the absolute property of the Almighty, the State Authority is merely a trustee. When State land is “alienated” to the citizen, absolute ownership of the property is not given (as we are accustomed to see under the Code), but merely the right to use or exploit it temporarily (usually described as “usufruct”).

Although forfeiture proceedings can indeed be carried out for breach of sections 115, 116 and 117 of the Code, in practice it is rarely, if ever, done.

More than a decade ago, the provision relating to forfeiture, Section 129, was amended. So, instead of forfeiture, a less painful mechanism was initiated: The law was changed to enable a State Authority to take “temporary possession” of idle land.

The idea behind this was for the authorities themselves to develop the land after temporary possession had been taken. Although it looked fine on paper, it turned out to be a difficult affair - in most instances, the State did not have the money or the machinery to do so - and so another amendment was made.

Under the modified procedure, the State after taking possession of the land would make arrangements for a third party to develop or cultivate it, through privatisation. After final accounting, the land, now nicely cultivated, would be returned to the original owner, subject to certain terms and conditions.

This second alternative also did not seem to work. If the State offered your company the right to develop somebody’s land for a period of time, would you accept it just to be able to recover your cost and some trifle sum as profit? Or, would you rather apply for land directly from the State, so that you can work on your own property?

Thus, although born out of good intentions, nothing substantial was achieved by these amendments. As a result, there are today more than one million hectares of idle land in the country (this is only an estimate).

Quite some time ago, the Federal Government announced its intention to set up an Idle Land Information System or ILIS. This sounded like a great idea and I have been looking forward to the system being established.

Unfortunately, there has been no further announcement or development on ILIS since. This makes me wonder whether we are still trapped in that old rut. We talk a lot, but we don’t seem to be able to walk the talk. We want to do a lot of things, but the plans all vaporise into thin air.

And that, of course, brings me to the new five-day workweek for the civil service. New Straits Times reader Richard Teo of Kota Baru, Kelantan, asked a very relevant question: Can Malaysia, at this moment, really afford to adopt a five-day work week? (Letters to the Editor, NST, July 1).

According to Teo, the situation today is that many Government departments are struggling to clear large backlogs of work. This, in all likelihood, he said, will only increase with the five-day week.

He pointed to the Land Office as an example, noting that “there is a pile-up of land-transfer applications … even with computerisation, the waiting period is anything between three and six months”. And in the case of land sub-division, it can take as long as one to two years.

Every Malaysian knows too well that land is a “State matter”. That being so, the problem of idle land is only being handled at State level. To my knowledge, no comprehensive plan has been designed at national level to handle the issue or to fix the problems that arise.

Land has remained idle all over the country for decades because owners believe - or they could also have been led by others into believing - that there is nothing wrong if their land are left idle.

The mindset of such people must change, if things are to improve. They must be made to realise that leaving land idle is a criminal waste.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been absolutely right in telling civil servants to discard their cincai attitude (NST, June 28). Much of the problem affecting idle land in the country is the result of land officials having such an attitude about the Code, compounded by their ignorance of the true and universal concept of land ownership.

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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