Public land belongs to the people, don’t sell it

Bernama pic.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said the government may sell the people’s land and other “valuable assets” to private interests to pare down its debt. Such a quick-fix argument is flawed and totally unacceptable. The reality is that we expect the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to do the reverse and reclaim our public assets that have been privatised since the eighties.

First, it is vital to do a reality check and ask some critically important questions. How many hectares of public land have been privatised since Mahathir’s first term as prime minister in 1981? How much is the land that has been privatised worth? The prime minister has said that selling public land to private-sector developers, who have long been the biggest buyers of government land, can help to alleviate our housing problems.

Examples in other countries such as Britain do not support this theory but rather they show that privatisation of land has failed to help arrest the worsening of Britain’s housing crisis. In fact, halting the sale of public land is the answer to providing affordable housing for our less privileged. Our existing public assets, especially land, should be protected and utilised for public benefit.

Reclaim our public assets

Public lands are land held in trust for the public by the government, whether at federal, state or municipal level. This includes every public park in your city and every national park as well as many of our waterways, gazetted forest reserves and more.

When we voted in the new PH government, we expected PH to have a plan to reclaim our public assets, especially public utilities, that were privatised during the reign of Mahathir; to strengthen public sector health, education, housing and transport services including highways, and to re-gazette all degazetted permanent forest and wildlife reserves.

During Mahathir’s first term as prime minister, thousands of indigenous people were displaced for the Bakun Dam and other mega dams in Sarawak and the Selangor Dam while vast wealth was reaped by those who exploited and owned more and more of our commons. To take the Bakun Dam as an example, timber from an area the size of Singapore island was extracted by Ekran Bhd and on top of their failure to carry through the Bakun HEP project, Malaysian taxpayers still had to compensate the company to the tune of RM1 billion.

Developers today have been carving out more and more “Eco worlds” out of the pristine jungle and reclaiming more and more land on our coastal shores that are all part of our commons – Johor Bahru, Melaka, Penang, Langkawi and other islands. These incursions into hillslope jungles and our beaches have created havoc with the environment as we have seen in recent months. Permanent forest reserves and structure plans have been degazetted at will by state governments to benefit these private interests.

Our collective ownership of the commons is our birthright – it is our birthright and our responsibility as stewards, to ensure that we hold water, air, land and Malaysian nature in trust for our future generations. We must continue our efforts to push for the protection and restoration of our commons and to defend it against the attempts by developers and their political allies to privatise our commons.

PH must show us an alternative economic strategy

If our access to public lands is increasingly restricted as is the case in many exclusive resorts for the rich, the primary purpose of establishing public lands for citizen use will disappear. We call on PH to stop their populist pleasantries and continual excuse of the debt mountain. Since Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng has just assured us that our economic fundamentals are strong, there is no basis for the government to resort to selling off our national assets, especially our public lands.

The new PH government should show us some better economic vision that is different from that of the previous BN government’s and commit to that stewardship. This is not the time to sell our national assets especially public lands – it is high time we reforested and re- gazetted all the forests that have been degazetted and privatised.

Kua Kia Soong is Suaram adviser

The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT