Reflections and recriminations
NST-PROP By Salleh Buang
It has become customary that at the end of each year, we take stock of what
we have done over the past 12 months to see where we have gone, what we have
done, the mistakes we committed, what services we rendered, and so on.
We do this to tally the score; to set the record straight; to balance the
accounts (in the development and environmental sense) - and to learn
something. If we have done well, we deserve a pat on the back, as we need to
be encouraged to do even greater things in the coming year.
If we did something particularly odious and contemptible, we should kick
ourselves and swear never to do it again.
So, in line with that wholesome practice, how did we perform in 2005?
I spent the final two weeks of last month asking this question? I e-mailed
friends and acquaintances in several States to assess their feelings. And,
as luck would have it, I had the privilege of spending the entire daylight
hours of the last day of 2005 with a group of very senior people in Kedah.
The occasion was the start of a Masters programme in land administration,
which took place in the premises of the Kedah Institute of Management in
Alor Star. As facilitator for this newly introduced post-graduate programme
(with input from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia), it was an extremely tiring
day for me, but otherwise a very fruitful encounter, having found time to
exchange thoughts on the year.
In no particular order, the first regrettable thing we did in 2005 was
destroy an entire green stretch of Mother Earth in the vicinity of a major
agricultural park in Selangor. In the aftermath of that terrible
environmental tragedy, which saw our Prime Minister taking to the sky to see
for himself the destruction man caused to nature, a State agency of some
repute was fined RM300,000 in court.
The quantum of the fine is not important. What is, is that nobody, even a
State agency, is above the law. When you flout the law, the day of reckoning
will not be too far away.
Instead of defiantly flouting the law, the agency should have set a good
example for others to emulate. What is even more regrettable is that a
youngish but otherwise respected and capable politician helms the agency. If
such a thing had happened in the 60s or 70s, friends remind me, several
heads would have rolled.
Another regrettable thing we did in 2005 was cause the destruction of a
marine park in the northern part of the Straits of Malacca. In this case,
general public opinion was not strong enough to prevent a State Government
from carrying out a tourism-development project on a small island situated
within the marine park. In that Government-sponsored questionable project,
15 “luxury chalets” were built, to the tune of RM5 million.
Again, the quantum of money spent is not that important. That is only a
small amount to pay. The much bigger price - which we have not been able to
tally yet - will be the damage done to the ecosystem. And there’s the yet
unanswered question: Is the harm done to the marine park ecology remediable?
The morale of this particularly sad story is that our leaders should
sometimes really pay heed to the gentle advice of the small man.
Another dark spot in the legal landscape of 2005 is an event that took place
in a major district in the Klang Valley. In this case, what I found
especially remarkable was that land alienation - a process that in many
places across the nation can sometimes take as long as three decades - was
achieved in the blink of an eye - or to be exact, in less than three weeks.
According to a media report, several former participants of the Federal
Government’s “green revolution” programme at a village in Kapar, Klang, had
been waiting for their land titles for more than 20 years.
The irony is that the same Land Office, which had not been able to do its
work for these people for more than two decades, took a mere 20 days to
issue land titles to a Datuk. How could this happen? Different standards for
different classes of people?
Yet another red stain in the legal fabric of 2005 came via an electronic
media report in late October 2005 about an inexplicably long delay in paying
compensation to deprived landowners in an eastern State.
In this particular story, the State Authority compulsorily acquired
alienated land in 1979 for the purpose of building a road to a well-known
lake. The road works had long since been completed, but the deprived
landowners, according to the report, were not compensated. Some of these
owners have since died.
The inevitable question, when one is confronted with stories of such
intolerable delay by the authorities, is whether the acquisition exercise
had been rendered illegal, null and void? There is abundant case law that
states inordinate delay as “an abuse of power, an example of mala fide”.
While no one can deny that the State Authority may have its own reasons for
the delay (or its own version of the story), if indeed the delay is proven,
then a terrible injustice has been done - once again, to the small man. And
that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.
I might be accused of letting some quarters off the hook if, in my analysis
of last year’s depressing record, I merely point the finger at the Land
Office or the State Authorities and forget others.
So, in fairness to everybody, I need to look elsewhere and apportion blame,
where it lies
- or give credit, where it is due.
The spotlight has also been on the courts in 2005. In some cases, the
judiciary too has disappointed us. In one particular case, a local company -
well known globally for its fine rubber-based products - was hauled to court
for discharging toxic effluents into the nation’s water systems.
Cogent evidence was produced. The deleterious effect on the environment is
beyond doubt. Was custodial sentence meted out by the courts? No, just a
fine - which the company readily paid, treating it as just a sundry expense,
to be paid out of petty cash!
It reminded me of similar judicial reluctance in the past - see, for
instance, the case of “Malaysian Vermicelli Manufacturers (Melaka) Sdn Bhd
vs Public Prosecutor  3 AMR 3368”.
While the thought that an environmental criminal was being allowed to go
virtually unpunished probably never crossed the judge’s mind, the conclusion
one can draw from this sorry state of affairs is that such crimes will
continue, for as long as the judiciary does not have the stomach to impose
jail sentence for environmental crime.
The canvas for 2005 has generally been painted black, but there have been
glimmers of hope at the edges. As we are often told, where there is life,
there is still hope. So, perhaps 2006 will bring in more cheer than tears.
One bright spot for 2005 was news of an early launch for our own
Urbanisation Policy. I have no knowledge as to when that will be. However,
there was general expectation that, in line with the official launch of the
National Physical Plan at a five-star hotel in Penang last year, we will
soon have our Urbanisation Policy, which would be followed shortly after
with a National Land Policy. Let us wait and see.
In retrospect, 2005 has not been a good year. There were more tears and
jeers, rather than cheer. In the final account, we are more on the debit
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 firstname.lastname@example.org