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Conversion doesn’t pay

26/05/08 NST Salleh Buang

Under the National Land Code 1965 which applies to Peninsular Malaysia, there are only three categories of land use: Agriculture, building and industry. There is no fourth category called “padi land”. Alienated land becomes “padi land” only by means of endorsing “express conditions” on the land title. This has been our way of doing things in the past. However, perhaps the time has come for us to think afresh on the matter.

In the past, whenever an itch came to a State Authority, padi land (which is under the first category) was easily converted into the second or third category. The justification was easy: We need to build more houses for the people and we need more industries to make Malaysia a developed country.

In the state’s grand plan, agricultural land has less economic value than the other two categories. But in view of the current prices of rice, maybe, everyone should do a different maths.

Some years ago, while presenting a paper at a seminar in Alor Star, I voiced the concern shared by many: “Don’t take away our padi land. We need it for the future.” As expected, my cry fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps, things will be different now that our food situation is not as rosy and the global food crisis is knocking at our doors.

The poor’s need to find affordable rice is most apparent in my city. While the media continue to talk about its increasing price for rice and shortage, a hypermarket recently opened in Mergong near Alor Star city centre.

I am told a massive crowd has been making a beeline for the hypermarket since it opened. When I asked what the fuss was all about, I received the same reply – that the rush was for cheap price offered as an opening gambit to attract customers.

Rice comes from padi land found in the lowlands. My home state of Kedah is the number one padi grower. In the future, though, the picture may very well change if plans to grow padi on a massive scale elsewhere, such as Sarawak, become a reality.

Last month national news agency Bernama quoted Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed as advising the Kelantan government “not to indiscriminately approve applications for conversion of padi land”. He should have said so a decade ago.

He feared “indiscriminate conversion of padi land” would pose a major problem for future generations in terms of price and supply of food. He told the media the federal government had allocated RM14 million to rehabilitate padi land in the Kemubu Agriculture Development Authority region, apart from another RM4 million for fertiliser subsidy to farmers.

While there is no plan yet to open up more padi land in Kelantan, the situation is different in neighbouring petroleum-rich Terengganu. Here, its Menteri Besar Datuk Ahmad Said, said it plans to open 3,200 hectares of padi land in Setiu to faciliate “triple cropping” in order to increase the national supply of rice. The catch is that the state government needs federal funding of RM100 million to do it.

The Pahang state government said it also palns to turn Rompin district, noted for large tracts of idle land, into the “rice bowl” of the East Coast.

The Perlis state government too has indicated its wish to come up with a new “agricultural land utilisation policy” under which such sites will no longer be “indiscriminately” converted into the other two categories.

In Penang, media reports quoted state executive councillor Law Choo Kiang as saying the new DAP-led state government plans to gazette 12,163 hectares of land for padi cultivation. He added it currently has more than 3,500 active padi farmers, capable of producing 120,000 tonnes of padi a year, and meets almost threequarters of the needs of the 1.5 million Penangites.

At federal level, if official figures given by the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry are to be believed, current local padi production can easily meet 70 per cent of the nation’s need for rice. I wonder how, since need is constantly growing but not production.

I have come across a far lower figure (at 59 per cent) on some local blogs. Perhaps the truth is somewhere inbetween. But what is worrying is the minister’s public acknowledgement that the country’s padi land has diminised, by some four per cent to a mere 670,000 hectares over the last 15 years.

He said he would “like” a law to be in place to disallow padi land from being converted, but admitted the matter is not in federal hands because land is a state matter. He hopes wisdom will prevail in the states, and this takes me to the main thrust of my story.

A couple of days after my good friend (Azizan Abdul Razak) from university days was installed as the new Kedah menteri besar, I (together with a friend) paid him a courtesy call at his office in Wisma Darul Aman. I fired him a salvo of ques tions that had to do with the ZIPY (Yan Petroleum Industry Zone) project announced by his predecessor. I wanted to know what was uppermost in his mind when he first suggested that the petroleum refinery should be moved to Gurun and then subsequently to be located offshore, on a reclaimed island.

He said, “What is most important is that I must save the padi land in Yan. My stand has not changed. I will do whatever is necessary to see that this stretch of padi land, the best grade padi land in the nation, is safeguarded.”

As my late grandfather used to say, “Adversity can sometimes be your best friend”.

The global food security crisis is indeed a blessing in disguise. It has made our leaders realise that we should take a serious look at our padi land before it is too late.


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