NGOs question timing of land title distribution by caretaker Sabah govt

Caretaker chief minister Shafie Apdal has been criticised for issuing land titles to villagers in Sabah, with the polls just around the corner.

KOTA KINABALU: As election fever heats up, caretaker chief minister Shafie Apdal has drawn flak from NGOs over the issuance of land titles to villagers in Sabah, with the polls just around the corner.

Shafie has defended his actions, saying the distribution of the individual titles to native status recipients was not intended to buy votes.

He said it had been part of an initiative by the Warisan-led government since last year, following the scrapping of the communal title concept by the previous government.

Bersih chairman Thomas Fann said although existing election laws did not make it an offence for a caretaker government to carry out certain functions of government, it was unethical for the chief minister “to personally, actively and publicly give out these land titles”.

“This contravenes the spirit of free and fair elections. Such acts give undue advantage to the ruling party over other parties.

“The Election Offences Act 1954 needs to be amended to make abuse of state resources an electoral offence punishable with a heavy fine or imprisonment,” he told FMT.

Shafie had yesterday given out 399 native titles (NT) to recipients in the northern Kudat district. The previous day, he presented 240 NT grants to villagers in the Kinabatangan east coast district.

He had rejected claims that it was vote-fishing.

Within these two years, Shafie had handed out titles to villagers in Tongod, Ranau, Tawau, Kalabakan, Keningau, Tambunan, Kinabatangan and Kudat. He is scheduled to hand over more titles in Beluran, Sipitang and Kuala Penyu in the coming days.

Former state secretary Simon Sipaun said, however, that there was nothing wrong with a caretaker government or chief minister handing out titles that had been prepared beforehand.

He said a caretaker government could still carry out the functions of a government, except introduce new policies or laws.

“You cannot have a state without a government, (so) the administration must go on. This (handing out of land titles) is not a policy matter, it is just administrative. The process (to survey and measure the land) has taken place, that’s all.

“It is not so easy getting the titles and now the titles are already there … to me, why wait another day?

“I was the secretary of the Sabah natural resources office, in charge of land policies, for six-and-a-half years before, so I know what I’m talking about,” said Sipaun, who is the former chairman of the Sabah Institute for Development Studies, the government’s think tank.

Andrew Atama Ambrose, co-founder of indigenous people’s group Solidarity Anak Sabah Sarawak, questioned the pace of the title distribution campaign.

“Shafie is wrong and misguided for launching this campaign at this time. He is fast-tracking the campaign, which is politically motivated,” he claimed.

Ambrose asked why the Sabah Land and Survey Department had not followed the original procedure of NT land applications.

This involves displaying the status of the applicant at the district office according to customary practices and procedures in the Sabah land code.

“Where is the transparency and accountability? Without transparency and accountability by the caretaker government, wouldn’t it worry native Sabahans if native land applicants aren’t actually indigenous people?

“Isn’t it worrying Sabahans that fast-track title awards have implications on the for-native-only-title system?”

Earlier, PBS secretary-general Jahid Jahim had questioned the timing of the land title distribution, and urged the Election Commission to investigate whether Shafie’s campaign was tantamount to campaigning and vote-fishing.

Warisan treasurer-general Terrence Siambun, however, rubbished Jahid’s claims.

“Perhaps Jahid doesn’t read the newspapers. He has limited knowledge of the current happenings in Sabah because if he did, then he would have known that the distribution of land titles by Shafie to villagers has been on-going since last year,” he said.