Dislocated estate workers and the problem of temple relocation

Rubber tapper families or their descendants who were forced to move out of the Bukit Kiara Estate to longhouses to make way for development in 1982 are still waiting for the houses promised by the government. In the meantime, they live in dilapidated wooden houses “temporarily” allocated to them 36 years ago.

According to a report in FMT, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) “temporarily” relocated about 200 families from the Bukit Kiara Estate to the longhouses after the government acquired the rubber estate that is now known as Bukit Kiara.

Now, after staying in these “temporary” accommodations for 36 years, they have been told they would have to shift to private developer built apartments in a proposed project comprising eight blocks of luxury serviced apartments.

It includes a 29-storey block with 350 affordable apartments, where, residents said, the developer had promised 100 free units to the longhouses settlers.

The longhouse residents are obviously concerned as the number of residents has increased over the 36 years with grandparents, parents and married children staying in one unit.

Many of them, so used to staying on a landed property – the longhouse – feel apprehensive about moving into apartments. They fear their current lifestyle – one of community, of sharing and caring, and neighbourliness – will disappear when they move into unfriendly, closed apartments.

Resident Punitha Suppiah, 48, explained: “We will end up in a very anti-social environment, where everyone will keep to themselves. Unlike now, if anything happens to my neighbour, I can always run next door to keep an eye on their parents who are in their 80s.

“There will be no space for us to carry out festivity activities. Gradually, all these will be forgotten when we cannot celebrate these festivities in an elaborate manner due to lack of space.”

The residents said the previous Barisan Nasional government would promise them new houses each time the general election arrived, and, each time, the government would disappoint them.

They are praying the new Pakatan Harapan government will be better.

Does it take 36 years to relocate people displaced by development? Does it not show a total lack of will on the part of the government? Does it not show that such displaced Malaysians are very low in priority for the government? Would the residents be wrong in feeling that the government prefers to side with big business in such matters?

If we can understand the tragedy of this longhouse situation, we can come closer to an understanding of the rancor and complexities involved in temple relocations over the past three decades, even the current problem over the Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, and the disproportionate number of young Indians involved in crime or gangsterism or who are unemployed.

Rubber estates were primarily peopled by Indians. Sometime in the 1980s, estate owners discovered that constructing offices, malls and residential properties on their huge hectares of land would yield a better harvest. So they either started developing parcels of their land or sold them to developers for handsome profits. The cash flow was good, their shareholders were happy.

In the process, estate workers not only lost their jobs but also their homes, lifestyles, sense of community, and sense of belonging to a place. Overnight, many of them found that their universe had collapsed.

And this is not just confined to estate workers. Logging companies and implementers of major dam projects don’t realise or don’t want to recognise that when they displace a whole group of people – such as the Orang Asli in Kelantan’s forest reserves or the Dayaks and Penans in Sarawak – from land on which they have lived for generations, they are, in effect, destroying the only universe that these people know.

I have been to numerous estates in the past and I know for a fact that many tappers and their families lived cocooned lives in their estate-universe.

They had everything they needed there: a job, free quarters provided by the employer, land to grow vegetables or rear goats and poultry if they so desired, a Tamil school to take care of their children’s education, at least one large temple and many smaller temples or shrines – depending on the size of the estate – to take care of their spiritual or religious needs and for social gatherings during festivities, and yes, even a toddy shop to keep themselves inebriated if they so desired – all without having to step outside the estate.

When profit-minded estate owners and developers – with the full backing of the government and municipal officials – began tearing down estate quarters and terminating jobs, the universe collapsed on these estate workers and their families.

A few sensible and farsighted estate managements, however, did ensure their workers or former workers were either given free housing or were sold houses at a discounted rate on sites where the housing development took place. This meant that although the look of the area changed, the estate workers’ environment was the same, their rootedness remained.

The lucky ones, such as those in Batu Pekaka in Kuala Ketil, and BMR Estate in Kulim – both in Kedah – were provided housing by their sympathetic managements. I’ve visited both estates.

But the majority of estate workers found themselves out of a job and without a roof over their head. There was no attempt to teach them new skills or help them seek alternative employment or give them a leg up in starting their own businesses.

The government of the day utterly, utterly failed the estate workers. Dancing with developers who promised to turn estate land into vibrant townships or bustling commercial centres, the government, and government officials, did not realise or did not bother about the fate of the estate families and the repercussions arising from such unorganised massive displacements of people.

In contrast, when the British colonialists wanted to move out the Chinese from certain “hot” areas to cut off supplies and support – forced or otherwise – for the communists, they established new villages. The Chinese were displaced, yes, but at least they were given an alternative place to stay and build their lives.

The Indian estate community, however, was not so fortunate. It was virtually left in limbo.

Even the MIC, the political party that was supposed to protect the Indian community, failed to persuade the then ruling government, of which it was a partner, to provide for the organised resettlement of estate families. Sure, one or two of its leaders succeeded to some extent in getting a few managements to be responsive, but the party failed to get the government to turn it into policy or implement it firmly nationwide.

I have met estate workers who have decried the apathetic attitude, the negligence of the government in providing a safety net. Many of those I had spoken to over the years felt their sacrifices, and that of their forefathers, to the rubber industry and the country had been forgotten or given short shrift. They felt that although estate workers had contributed tremendously to the growth of Malaysia’s economy, they were being treated as second-class citizens by the government. Worse, they felt even urban Indians were not sympathetic.

In the eighties, government-linked companies began buying many of the foreign-owned estates; and estate workers who were being displaced could not comprehend the callous or indifferent attitude of the Malaysian managements towards their plight.

At least the foreign owners took care of them but Malaysians, who should be more caring, had generally been heartless as they pursued profits to show they were better than the Mat Salleh in managing the estates.

Displaced estate workers and their families felt neglected, unappreciated, lost. The collapse of their universe jolted their sense of identity, nay, discombobulated their identity. In their desperate search for some support, for a sense of identity, a sense of meaning, the temple – which was the centre of their universe in estate life – loomed large.

Who do you turn to if your fellow men cannot help you?

Temples which are located in estates and former estates are important to many dislocated estate workers and ex-estate workers and their descendants largely because it is the link to their past contributions to the nation, it is the link to their forefathers and their sense of “kampong”, it is the link to their search for identity.

A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT

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