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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Land rights and legacy

MALAYSIA is 53 years old this year. More than 20 years ago in the 1980s, a group of Penans from Sarawak, wearing only flimsy loin cloths and feathered head gear, flew into Kuala Lumpur to protest against the deforestation. The opening up of the interiors resulted in environmental degradation, clogging rivers and cutting off their source of food and clean water supply.

They contented that the forest was their home, ancestral grounds, source of livelihood, that they have native customary land rights'' to the forest. Remember the movie Avatar?

Fast forward to 1990s, a decade later. Initial plans to build the Bakun hydroelectric dam in Sarawak created another hue and cry among natives. Thousands of Kayans and Kenyahs were displaced. The 67,000ha reservoir, about the size of Singapore, is being flooded right now, after much delay in its construction.

Enter the present. Early this week, the Kampong Baru Development Corp Bill was tabled for its first reading. It will go through the usual process for debate in the lower house of Parliament and in Senate, the upper house.

That Bill paves the way for the setting up of a corporation to implement the development of Kampong Baru (literally translated new village), a Malay reserve enclave that goes back to British India days in the late 19th century.

Covering about 380 acres amid the progress and modernity of the city, the village is a rustic world of timber and concrete housing, with chickens running helter skelter admist the gleaming Petronas Twin Towers. In Kampong Baru, traditions still reign supreme.

For years, the different administrations have tried to bring development to the land owners there ar 4,300 lot owners only to face a palette of issues, from legal to political to racial. It is the hotbed of Malay sentiments.

What has the natives of Sarawak laying claim to the forest got to do with the Malays laying claim to Kampong Baru? First, they are all Malaysians, known singularly as bumiputras, or sons of the soil. Secondly, they want their land rights to be protected.

Land ownership is a funny thing. It stirs up much sentiment within each of us, no matter what tribe we may hail from. Although we may lay claim to modernity and display elements of it, in many ways, if we examine the roots of our being, each of the race that make up this country is tribal. And each of us have a legacy we want to protect and pass on to future generations.

Legacy goes beyond land ownership, or wealth but has much to do with it. Legacy also includes values, knowledge, experiences that are passed down from generation to generation. These are the intangibles that must be considered as assets, as much as the tangibles like land and houses.

Legacy should not just denotes the past. It includes the present and future because mankind is made in such a way that they enter this world with the desire to leave something for future generations.

Herein lies the need for strong leadership because how a family or a country is governed has a strong influence on the future. The core issue of Kampong Baru development will be its Malay land rights, just as the natives of Sarawak demand their native customary rights, just as everybody in this country desire his right to live, work and prosper in this country, unquestioned.

The number of hotels, office blocks, residential houses or condominiums, roads and healthcare are important, but when laid side-by-side with the issue of the legacy of the Malay community of Kampong Baru, the future architectural landscape seems peripheral.

Kampong Baru is among several mega property projects to be undertaken by the government but it is probably, by far, one that may potentially be the most contentious because of this issue of legacy and land rights.

Let's have consensus, not directives.

Assistant news editor Thean Lee Cheng is all for development, but don't leave out the soul of that development.

By The Star (by Thean Lee Cheng)

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