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The privileged position of Sabah’s natives

October 16, 2017

Writer says unlike natives in Sarawak, Sabah natives will never have to face uncertainties over land ownership as they have native titles, now even better secured by communal land titles.


sabah-nativeBy John Lo

Land can be a precious commodity, especially where there is an increasing population or when the economy is well managed and vibrant as it has been in Sabah for the last 10 years.

In such an environment, over time and with financial stamina, owners of land, especially strategic land, will benefit greatly from its appreciation. It would be better still if the owners can add value to their land as housing, commercial or resorts developments.

Land is a critical asset in any person’s investment portfolio and one of the best mediums for handing assets down to the next generation. It also has many emotional, financial and political dimensions.

The pace of development in Sabah over the last 10 years has been the most impressive in our history. Kota Kinabalu is now a gateway and international city. Industries, especially those in oil and gas downstream activities, are forging ahead. Tourism is booming, hotels are enjoying sky-high occupancy and many new hotels are coming up. The Sabah International Convention Centre (SICC) is at an advanced stage of completion.

This relatively vibrant economic scenario, despite uncertainties in the global economy, has pushed up land prices with strategic locations for commercial, housing and tourism development.

The quality of land administration or otherwise is a good indicator of the quality of political leadership. Bad, greedy leaders will alienate land for themselves, their families, their cronies or  put them for sale to large corporations at the expense of those who need it the most, that is the poor farmers.

Tan Sri Harris Salleh has reserved more than 900,000 acres for all landless Sabahans with 15 acres to be allotted to each head of the family. Had his successor carried out his scheme, every Sabahan, especially the poor rural farmers, would have at least 15 acres to work on to earn an income. The economic situation of these rural farmers would have been vastly different.

Those responsible for disposing of this 900,000 plus acres of land should explain to the people where it has gone and who has benefitted from it.

Many natives, driven by poverty and out of desperation, have been forced to sell their holdings to non-natives, be it for agriculture land, commercial or housing. Those who have a tendency to be over-critical of our native brothers and sisters should appreciate their dire financial circumstances. Land sales are short-term solutions to their financial problems as they will not have land with which to earn an income afterward. There are many cases of these landowners becoming destitute soon after sales. This is a serious social problem that Tan Sri Musa Aman has addressed with his communal land titles initiative.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the concept of communal land titles and its positive economic impact on the natives in Sabah with the director of the Land and Survey Department, Datuk Safra Untong.

The idea of communal land titles was the creation of Tan Sri Musa in response to the serious social and economic challenges of many natives becoming landless after selling their land. Datuk Safra said until now, more than 10,000 families have benefited from “Musa’s communal land title” initiative.

Given an average of five to six members per rural family, Tan Sri Musa’s idea has helped between 50,000 and 60,000 natives already. Datuk Safra has confirmed that it was Tan Sri Musa’s instruction to continue the issuance of communal land titles. Therefore, thousands more natives and their families will stand to benefit.

The communal land titles have been made much more effective by another initiative of Tan Sri Musa of assisting the natives to develop these communal land titles. This innovative initiative is not an “I do for you and you relax” initiative. It is to assist them to help themselves develop these communal land titles so that these natives can be brought to the “take-off” stage.

These natives who have been granted communal land titles cannot sell their land and derive an income from it at the same time. It is like having their cake and eating it, too. Simply put, this is a “once in a lifetime windfall” for the natives of Sabah. The concept of communal land titles, coupled with the development of high value crops, will go a long way towards eradicating rural poverty.

Datuk Safra Untong has also pointed out two very important but under-appreciated points in the Sabah Land Ordinance.

The Sabah government’s concern for the natives is exemplary. No other state in Malaysia is so caring. The Sabah Land Ordinance has the following provision:

“(2) Any native who holds his land under customary tenure without documentary title may be required by order of the Collector in writing to take out the title by an entry in the Native Title Register and to pay the prescribed fees for such title.”

In sharp contrast, natives in other states with claims to customary rights have tremendous difficulty getting their rights registered. Most never get them during their lifetime.

The Sabah Land Ordinance also has this very important point of which all NT landowners should take notice:

“Use of land for agricultural purposes.

“(2) Land which is to be or has been alienated under this Part or under similar part of any previous Land Ordinance shall not be used for other than agricultural purposes except with the permission of the Minister who may impose additional premium or rent or add or substitute such terms and conditions as he may think fit.”

Many well-to-do, educated natives can, under this provision, apply to the minister for a change of use without having to apply for conversion.

I have belaboured the above caring attention by the Sabah government for the natives of Sabah because they now have the best opportunities to maximise their land assets.

All that has been put in place to assist the natives to develop their land proves that Sabah has, by far, the best land practices in Malaysia, especially the communal land titles. I am not qualified to make this claim. This is the conclusion of Tan Sri Razali Ismail, who is a former highly respected diplomat, UN Permanent Representative of Malaysia and who is now the chairman of Suhakam. This is what Tan Sri Razali said at a human rights function in Ranau on Oct 11:

“The speed and efficiency shown in the issuance of the communal titles in Ranau represent some of the best practices among all the states in Malaysia.

“The communal titles assist the residents by preventing their lands from being taken by large corporations.”

Tan Sri Razali also gave high praise and pledged his support for the lands and surveys team from Sabah on the issuance of communal land titles as part of his human rights campaign. Datuk Safra Untong was personally in attendance to answer questions and queries from the natives who have become proud owners of communal land titles.

Now, compare the way our natives in Sabah are being cared for with the situation of natives in Sarawak. Natives in Sarawak do not, I repeat, do not have any title or NT to their native land. What they have is a vague ownership called Native Customary Rights, because there is no title for Sarawak NCR.

The Sarawak natives do not know where the boundaries are, or the size of their land. If they claim ownership of 10 acres, they could end up with one acre or, in some cases, nothing after fighting other claimants in the court. Every claim of NCR has to be settled by the courts. Also, as far as I know, there are no NCRs in or near town.

Sarawak natives do not own any valuable, strategic NTs which have potential in housing, commercial and tourism development like the Sabah natives. The natives in Sabah are very lucky in that they have titles to their land, with this ownership being enhanced by Tan Sri Musa’s communal land titles initiative plus assistance from the Sabah government to develop their communal land titles. Importantly, many natives own land around population centres and can therefore enjoy land appreciation and/or make extra profit by developing it.

Highlighting the plight of the Sarawak natives is the Federal Court decision delivered on Oct 13. This case emphasises the precarious and shaky position of Sarawak natives’ ownership of NCR land in Sarawak, which Sabah natives will never have to face because they have native titles and communal titles.

Briefly, the case involved headmen Nyutan Jami, Ganga Guma and Langga Kama, representing 183 villagers who sued the Land Custody and Development Board, Nirwana Muhibbah Sdn Bhd and state government. Their NCR land was converted to a lease by the state government body for plantation. The Sarawak natives have lost the case and their land.

As this is a Federal Court decision and therefore a legal precedence, Sarawak native owners of NCR land face a bleak future.

Sabah natives will never have to face uncertainties, anxiety or challenges over their land ownership like the Sarawak natives because they have their native titles, now even better secured by the communal land titles.

John Lo is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


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