Recently, 132 small farmers in Kanthan, Perak received a lawyer’s notice.
The letter dated 2 December informed them they were occupying land owned by the Perak State Economic Development Corporation (PKNP) without the permission of the owner and they were required to move out within 30 days. If they failed to comply, legal action would be commenced, the letter warned.
PKNP is a government-linked company set up in 1967 by a Perak state enactment. It does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Companies Commission of Malaysia, but it is supposed to submit its financial accounts to the state assembly every year. The latest annual report and financial statements on the PKNP website are for 2017.
The land these 130 farmers are tilling was alienated (transfer of ownership) to PKNP about 10 years ago through a somewhat incestuous deal. In Malaysia, land is a state matter, and thus all power with regard to the alienation of state land is assigned to the “state authority” and, in almost all the states in Malaysia, exercised by the chief minister or menteri besar of the state.
The menteri besar is also the chairman of the PKNP board of directors. So, the menteri besar, as chairman of the state committee approving land alienation, parcelled off over 1,000 acres of land to PKNP, of which he is the chairman.
The 132 affected farmers are third-generation farmers. This land was opened in the pre-World War Two period by their grandparents. In 1950 they were forced by the colonial authorities to demolish their houses on the farms and relocate to three new villages in the vicinity – at Kuala Kuang, Kanthan and Rimba Panjang.
This, as part of the Briggs plan, was enforced by the British colonial authorities to cut off supply lines to communist insurgents who, back then, had considerable support among the local population.
Since then, the farmers have resided in the new villages and tended to their farms located within a three-mile radius of their new village.
These are a community of small farmers. PKNP carried out a survey of the 132 farms recently and found that 24 farms (18%) measured less than two acres, 41 (31%) between two and four acres, 27 (20%) between four and six acres and 19 (14%) between six and eight acres. Only 17% of the farms are over eight acres, and these include the old mining ponds which are used for fish rearing.
However, these farmers have learnt how to manage the land well and they churn out about 50 to 60 tons of produce every day – maize, brinjal, lady’s fingers, long beans, water lily, a variety of leafy vegetables, fresh water fish and oil palm. The farmers achieve this without any government support or subsidies.
The Kanthan region is the largest single market gardening site in Perak, and it is sustainably managed by a community with almost 100 years’ experience in handling existing soil and weather conditions. The Kanthan market gardening community is an economic and strategic asset to the nation!
PKNP, according to its website, was set up to implement a long-term strategy to use the resources of the state and to bring about sustainable growth of the state economy. It, however, has decided to convert the entire Kanthan area from agricultural to residential and industrial development (Silver Valley Technology Park).
Three tracts of land measuring some 100 acres in the southern-most portion of the Kanthan region have already been alienated to private developers – Bukit Aneka Sdn Bhd, KM Majubina Sdn Bhd and Banjaran Barat Sdn Bhd.
The first developer filed eviction proceedings against the eight farmers on “its” land. This came by way of an Order 89 application, which we managed to defeat: we lost at the High Court but the decision was overturned at the Court of Appeal. Bukit Aneka has since filed a writ of summons.
The second developer, KM Majubina, sent in a group of 12 young men in April 2021 with two backhoes to clear the 48 acres that had been alienated to Majubina. The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) helped the farmers block this attempt by occupying the land, making multiple police reports and taking the issue up to the Perak police chief.
We highlighted the sheer irresponsibility of Majubina (a Chinese-owned development company) in engaging a group of Malay men to try to forcibly evict a community of Chinese farmers.
It was a tense three days as some of KM Majubina’s men were aggressive. They told me they had been unemployed because of the movement control order, and they needed to complete this job as they would only be paid upon completion of the work assigned.
Our lawyers managed to get an order under Section 99(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code that mandated that the status quo be maintained (ie the farmers retain possession of the land) until the courts could decide on the underlying land issue.
KM Majubina called off the hardline approach on day three and have since initiated legal action – an originating summons has been filed.
The third developer is biding its time.
The KM Majubina episode threw up some illuminating if disturbing information. We found out from the documents filed in the Magistrates Court that the 48 acres was not sold directly by PKNP to Majubina. Instead, PKNP sold the land to Matang Sands Sdn Bhd for RM 4.8m. Matang Sands sold the land a day later to Majubina for RM5.8m. Why didn’t PKNP sell directly to Majubina and collect the extra RM1m?
RM4.8m for 48 acres works out to RM2.30 per sq ft. But land price in the area is about RM15 per sq ft. Why was the PKNP monetising the state’s land assets at such a discounted price?
So PKNP only received RM4.8m for the 50 acres it sold when the actual value of the land is in the region of RM30m – an act of charity for the developer? Or is something else going on?
The Kanthan farmers asked PSM for a meeting after receiving the eviction notice, and we held that on 11 December. We told them that we would help them file a defence and a counterclaim in court.
But we also told them the truth: land law in Malaysia is very one-sided. The land grant gives total rights to the person or company in whose name the grant is registered. This is the Torrens system.
There is no provision in the National Land Code for the court to entertain questions about why the state authority did not alienate the land to the farmers who had been tilling it for the past 80 to 100 years.
There is no provision for the court to question the wisdom of destroying a thriving food producing region in a period when climate change is a reality and food security crucially important.
As the law stands, the right of the state authority to alienate state land is near absolute.
We told the farmers that while it is crucial to file a defence in court to stave off a summary judgment, it is not realistic to hope for a favourable outcome through the court process. Even if the judge is sympathetic, he or she has to stay within the ambit of current laws.
We told the farmers that, if they wish to defend their farms, they need to sway public opinion and thus put pressure on the state authority to reconsider its plans to develop the Kanthan area as an industrial park.
We need to ask that existing vegetable farming areas in Perak be gazetted as permanent food production areas, and the farmers using the land on these areas be given leases of 10 to 20 years with the condition that they must use the land to plant food crops.
The 50-odd farmers attending the meeting agreed, and we formed a 12-member committee to work on the issue. But it will be an uphill battle.
Can you play a part to help a group of small farmers and also preserve food security? Isn’t it time that ordinary Malaysians wake up to the fact that our land assets are not being managed optimally?
Nor are state governments giving enough attention to issues like food security, sustainability of our water catchment areas and maintenance of our forests. They seem to be driven by a desire to maximise short-term financial returns.
Ordinary people have to remind government leaders that we expect them to exercise the vast powers we entrust to them responsibly.