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MALAYSIA: Forced Eviction of Squatters in Malaysia

Dr. Syed Husin Ali

Ed. note: Dr. Syed Husin Ali is currently the president of Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM or Malaysia Peopleís Party). He was formerly professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Malaya. Dr. Syed Husin was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act [ISA] for six years [1974-1980] and has written a number of books, including Two Faces: Detention without Trial.)

HOUSING has always been a major problem in cities all over the world, and in this regard cities in Malaysia are no exception. Owing to shortage and high prices of houses as well as exorbitant rentals, large number of people cannot afford them and so have been forced to build houses in squatter areas. Although initially meant to be temporary, these often ultimately become their permanent homes. The majority of the squatters are from lower or lower middle income groups. They used to be mainly local people, but now there are a number of squatter settlements that have been opened up by migrants, both legal and illegal.

In Malaysia, some squatter settlements are as old as most of the cities. In Kuala Lumpur, there are many, like Kampung Chubadak, Kampung Kerinchi and Kampung Puah, which have existed for more than 100 years. When this city grew, after becoming the countryís administrative capital and commercial centre, it attracted migrants not only from within the country, but also from outside, especially Indonesia, India and China. Some of the Indonesian migrants were among the earliest to establish squatter settlements there.

After World War II, and particularly after independence in 1957, administrative, commercial and to some extent industrial development attracted more people from the outlying areas. This helped to further speed up the urbanisation process in many cities - like Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh, Johor Bahru, Kuantan and Kota Bharu. Then, following the bloody inter-ethnic conflicts in Kuala Lumpur in 1969, the government adopted a policy of encouraging rural Malays to migrate to urban areas in order to foster ethnic balance in the population of the big cities.

The majority of these rural-urban migrants were encouraged to settle in existing squatter settlements or to open new ones. Most of the land they occupied belonged to the government, but there were also those that were owned by private individuals or companies. The squatters formed local branches of the ruling parties, and were protected by these parties and provided with facilities like water, electricity, health and education. In other words, they were and are recognised, with almost tacit legal status. Owing to this and the major role that they have played in developing the cities, they are now often being referred to as "urban pioneers."

This term "urban pioneers" has been favoured and popularised by social activists concerned with squatter issues and the squatters themselves since 1990, and is preferred to the term "squatters," which carries illegal connotations. Urban pioneers are contended as licensees who have equity and right of possession on the land they occupy. Nevertheless, for the sake of brevity and in order to identify with its almost universal usage, the term "squatters" will be used in this paper.

Distribution of Squatters

Malaysia has a population of about 20 million, with the federal capital Kuala Lumpur having about 1.5 million people. Most of the other major towns like Georgetown, Ipoh, Johor Bahru, Kuantan, Kelang and Kota Bharu have much less than a million each. Most of the urban squatter population are concentrated in the capital and these major towns. There is no reliable statistics regarding the squatter population and its distribution in the country. Estimates have varied from one to two million, that is five to 10 percent of the population.

Every state has its own share of squatters, but the highest numbers are found in the states shown in the table next page. These figures are on the low side; but nevertheless they are useful for reference. In the above states, the highest concentrations of squatters are in the biggest towns, which also serve as their state capitals. For Selangor they are concentrated in Kelang and Petaling districts, for the Federal Territory in Kuala Lumpur, for Perak in Ipoh, for Johor in Johor Bahru, and for Sabah in Kota Kinabalu. Kuala Lumpur, Petaling and Kelang are included in what is often referred to as the Kelang Valley, and it is in this valley that we have the highest concentration of squatters. It is estimated that nearly 20 percent of the population in Kelang Valley are squatters.

Roots of Eviction

The process of house demolition and squatter eviction has been taking place for a long time. Following the inter-ethnic carnage in 1969, the government, by using emergency powers, evicted thousands of squatters - mostly of Chinese origin - from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, for the purpose of widening one of the main thoroughfares in the city and constructing a modern commercial and administrative centre. Some of the squatters were relocated to low cost flats provided by the City Hall while others built or rented houses elsewhere, including in some old or new squatter settlements.

In 1974, following the national election, a squatter community in Tasik Utara, Johor Bahru, which was a stronghold of the ruling party, was evicted to make way for the construction of a golf course. The squatters were relocated to a temporary housing scheme in Tampoi, where they are still living. This area is now going to be cleared for a new housing development scheme, and there is an on-going court case to settle the demand of these people for terrace houses. This eviction created history because the squatters received good support from students of the University of Malaya, who carried out a series of demonstrations culminating in the take-over of the campus by them.

Under the present prime minister, who came to power in 1981, the focus of development shifted from the rural to the urban. A large number of projects have been undertaken, especially for infrastructure, office, housing and industrial development. More land was needed in and around the major cities for these developments; but there was increasing shortage of it, and so its market value spiralled up many folds. Some government land occupied by squatters were sold to private developers. The owners of these areas were ever too eager to evict the squatters the moment they were ready with their own plans for development.

Particularly in the 1990s, moves to clear squatter areas became more active. The Kuala Lumpur City Hall and the Selangor state government have committed themselves to clear the existing squatter settlements by the year 2002, something they realise is not possible to achieve. Furthermore, in anticipation of the Commonwealth Games in 1998, both the federal and Selangor state governments have been feverishly carrying out projects to beautify and upgrade the capital. Many hotels, condominiums and other structures (including the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) Petronas Twin Tower, which pride themselves as the worldís tallest buildings) have been built. Roads have been widened, and new tracks have been constructed for the Light Railway Transit and commuter trains.

The new Kuala Lumpur International Airport, administrative capital Putrajaya and Cyber City are being built. All these will be connected to the KLCC to form the Multi-media Super Corridor. These projects may well cost over RM80 billion (US.32 billion). Yet there is not enough money for low cost housing, especially for the lower income groups. Indeed, all the costly projects have resulted in eviction of the increasing number squatters recently, many of whom face great difficulty in finding alternative land or houses.

It is not intended here to give the impression that development per se is undesirable and objectionable to the squatters. However, an oft-repeated question is still relevant to ask: development for what and for whom? Monumental physical development driven by strong capitalist profit motive tends to ignore and neglect the interests and welfare of certain sections of people who are often adversely affected by it. One of them is the squatters.

Eviction Process

Before eviction takes place, the squatters are normally served with notices, sometimes up to three times. But there are cases when squatters have been evicted after only one or even without any notice. Many communities facing eviction try to get court injunction, but in a number of instances, like in Taman Aman and Taman Saujana, it is known that enforcement officers have been proceeded with the eviction work. The serving of such notices is normally the beginning of the forced eviction process.

There are three main laws under which eviction can be carried out, namely:

National Land Code of 1965;
Essential (Clearance of Squatters) Regulation of 1969; and
Land Acquisition Act of 1961 (Amendment).
The government can evict squatters from land it owns by resorting to the Land Code or the Regulation of 1969. It can also evict squatters from land that is acquired through the Land Acquisition Act. Private owners can obtain a court order for the eviction of squatters on their land, after which relevant government departments and enforcement officers can be mobilised to carry out the work. (For discussion of the above three laws and also the Order 89 on Summary Proceedings for Possession of Land in the Rules of the High Court, refer to the case of Jose Ma. M. Mendoza.)

There are several processes that usually take place after developers or the authority have issued notice and obtained court order for eviction of squatters. They are as follows:

(a) Persuasion: Community leaders, politicians and representatives of developers initially try to persuade squatters to leave by saying that they should be grateful for being allowed to occupy the land without payment for so many years. It is known that in some instances squatters have also been persuaded that, being supporters of the ruling party and the prime minister, they should help the prime minister to realise his dream to develop the country.

(b)Threats: Squatters are often threatened that if they do not move out of their free will, all their property would be destroyed, and that they would not be considered for compensation or selection to buy low cost houses. In addition, there might be some local politicians or even special branch operatives who would come with threats that stubborn squatters could be arrested and detained without trial under the draconian ISA. In many known cases, bouncers or gangsters have also been sent, not only to threaten but also occasionally to inflict physical injuries on some squatters, presumably "as a warning to stubborn ones."

(c) Payment: Representatives from the developers often come to offer payment especially to recognised leaders in the squatter communities, to set the example by leaving on their own accord. The amount is often not disclosed to others. At the same time, some of these community leaders as well as some local political leaders are paid to persuade the squatters to leave. In many cases they are known to be paid about RM1,000 (US6.5) for every household they manage to persuade to demolish their own houses and leave; or sometimes they are awarded with free houses after successfully persuading squatters to leave. Some police officers are also suspected to be under the pay of developers to threaten or coerce the squatters to leave or to stand on the side of developers during forced eviction.

(d) Forced Eviction: By adopting one or more of the above methods, many developers have succeeded in getting large number of squatters to leave. But some refuse to do so. When this happens, the developers obtain a court order. Armed with such order, officers from the Land Office and other enforcement officers, with the support of big police contingents, arrive to evict these squatters. They use tractors and also different types of tools to bring down the houses. On many occasions even the property belonging to the squatters have not been spared from destruction.

If there is any resistance from squatters by refusing to move out of their homes or trying to stop the demolition work, the police personnel will step in. They use water cannons, and sometimes dogs, to disperse the squatters. They occasionally beat up some resisting squatters before arresting and handcuffing them. Those arrested are taken to the police station for questioning or for remand. When an attempt at eviction fails, the enforcing team would return at some later date. In a few cases, squatter areas, especially those that have been identified for clearance, have suddenly caught fire. Arsons have been suspected.

Often all these actions are only perceived as forced eviction. Actually, they are the culmination of the process. The other processes, as described in (a), (b) and (c) above are actually part and parcel of the forced eviction, and should be treated as such. Force can easily brought to bear on the squatters because they cannot resort to any law to protect them, simply because such laws do not exist.

Resistance by Squatters

Different squatter communities respond in different ways to attempts to evict them. These involve all or a combination of several of the followings:

(a) Action Committee: On receipt of notice to clear their settlement, affected squatters often form an action committee and coordinate with the Urban Pioneers Support Committee (also known as JSPB), which has been organised in Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru by social activists and squatters themselves. The action committee arranges meetings of the squatters to discuss their strategies and to collect funds for contingencies.

(b) Legal Aid: The action committee, with the help of the JSPB (especially the lawyer who is one of its advisors), obtains services of a lawyer or lawyers from DAGRA (a group formed by lawyers to defend human rights cases) or the Legal Aid Bureau to institute court action to stop any attempt to demolish the squatter homes. The lawyer(s) will be retained for all legal purposes inside and outside court.

(c)Resisting Demolition: When the enforcement team arrives to carry out demolition work, some squatters try to stop them by forming barricades while others, particularly women and children, remain in their houses to resist. During the confrontation between the squatters and the enforcement team, angry exchanges and intense discussions are often carried out to postpone the demolition. Sometimes this succeeds, but most of the time the appeals of the squatters fall on deaf ears.

(d)Support: Meanwhile, through the JSPB other squatter communities and supportive NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are informed, and some of them come to join in the resistance. Members of opposition parties, like PRM, the Islamic Party (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), sometimes also come to render support. In several cases, the lawyers also come to help especially during discussions, should they take place.

(e) Media: The media are often informed by the action committee, the JSPB or other NGOs, especially SUARAM, (an alliance of human rights groups) about any demolition attempt or arrests and trials of squatters. Depending on what happens, sometimes the media coverage is quite extensive.

(f)Demonstrations: Particularly after demolition of their houses, many affected squatters, together with supporters from other communities or organisations, held demonstrations, either in front of the developerís office, the Local Council or even the Menteri Besarís (Chief Minister) office, to protest against demolition and to demand just treatment.

In 1994, there was a big rally in connection with the May Day celebration attended by about 2,000 squatters and plantation workers to make their plights and demands publicly known. The following year there was a demonstration in front of the prime ministerís department, which was participated by nearly 500 people. In 1996 there was one, with more than 500 attending, in front of the minister for housing; they protested against his claim during the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in June 1996 that there was no forced eviction in Malaysia. Occasionally, some demonstrators have been arrested for illegal assembly.

(g)Memorandums: In connection with most of the demonstrations, memorandums are also submitted to the various authorities, officials or ministers concerned. There have been two memorandums submitted to the prime minister, one in 1995 and the other in November 1997. The first one elaborated the main demands of the plantation workers and urban pioneers while the second one registered protest against the decision of the Cabinet on 3 September 1997 that eviction should be expedited by asking the relevant department to cut water and electricity supply, and using the police and even military personnel.

This second memorandum, among other things, reiterated the demands of squatters that forced eviction should be abolished, alternative land and houses as well as adequate compensation should be provided before any eviction takes place, and all conflicts should be settled by negotiations. As for the memorandum submitted to the minister of housing, it was rather comprehensive in describing the problems of squatters, forced eviction of squatters, poor conditions of the long houses and low cost houses, and the fundamental demands of the squatters for the alleviation of their problems.

(h)Parliamentary Lobby: There has not been much lobby work carried out by the squatters through Parliament. Occasionally, they approach their members of Parliament to help them, although this has never proven to be useful. On two occasions, two separate communities went to Parliament during its sitting in order to put forward their demands to its members, both in government and the opposition. But their efforts did not result in anything substantial.

(i) Reports: After every demolition work, reports have been made to the police, either at local police stations or directly to the police headquarters, regarding destruction of property, injury inflicted on squatters, unfair or one-sided police actions and so forth. In cases of injury, the victims are often sent for medical examination. Reports have also been submitted by different communities to the Public Complaints Bureau and other government departments, regarding unjust actions by government servants whenever they occurred, before or during demolition, or any breach of the law, especially regarding public safety.

(j) Court Cases: There have been many court cases taken up by the squatters relating to stay orders, rights of possession and compensation. Some of these cases have been partially settled while others have dragged on almost endlessly. At the same time there have also been cases instituted by a small number of squatters against the police for allegedly injuring them. At the same time, there have been cases instituted by developers against squatters for illegal occupation of land, and by the police against some squatters for allegedly obstructing the police from carrying out their duties and even for allegedly causing injury.

(k) Negotiations: The various ways by which squatters have resisted forced eviction have led to some developers negotiating with the affected squatters. This is especially because the resistance have become long drawn as a result of "squatters" refusing to move out, erecting and re-erecting sheds or tents after every demolition. Moreover, court cases usually proceed slowly and take a long time to arrive at conclusions. Delays in starting their development work cause heavy financial burdens on the developers and so they often try to reach an earlier settlement through negotiations.

After Eviction

During the last three years, the JSPB has been involved directly or indirectly with about 27 squatter areas, of which 21 have been fully or partially demolished, and six have received notice and are awaiting demolition. Of these, 20 are in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling, while seven are in Johor Bahru, Ipoh and Melaka. They involve more than 5,000 households, with about 40,000 people. This is probably less than ten percent of those who have been affected by these actions all over the country. Actually, there are no statistics available or have been collated to indicate the total number of families or people countrywide who have either left on their own accord or were forcibly evicted.

Experiences in the different affected communities have shown that the number of those evicted was usually smaller than those persuaded to leave. However, there are no statistics available for the whole country regarding those who (1) have been provided with permanent low cost houses or flats (free or through sales purchase), (2) have been relocated to temporary long houses, (3) have bought new houses or flats on their own elsewhere, (4) have moved into existing or new squatter areas elsewhere and/or (5) have received compensation.

Let us examine these in general.

(a) Free Houses or Flats: Only a very small proportion of the squatters have been given free houses or flats. The best example is those from Bumi Hijau. Originally, about 600 people were encouraged to open this area about 30 years ago after the inter-ethnic conflict in 1969 and in pursuant of the government "green earth" policy, which was to encourage people to plant vegetables around their homes. About 15 years ago, the land was sold to a government officers' cooperative for housing development that consisted mainly of flats. Most of these people left the area after being offered up to RM12,000 (US,598) in compensation; some of them used the money as down payment to buy or book low cost flats from the same area or elsewhere while others rented houses all over the place, but mostly far from this area.

Seventeen families refused to budge. Several attempts were made to forcibly evict them. The leader of the action committee was arrested, detained and brought to court more than 12 times, but he was acquitted almost every time. Likewise, his wife and children have all experienced the same plight, but for much lesser number of times. These families resisted for nearly 12 years. Their perseverance finally paid off.

Under a new company that had bought over this housing project, a settlement was reached, whereby it was agreed to compensate each of the 13 families with a slot of land (about 5,000 square feet) and a three-room house. Besides, the company agreed to build a community hall, a prayer place, a road and a bridge leading to the area. In addition, seven other families, who had left the squatter area but did not receive any compensation, were given a plot of land each.

(b)Long Houses: Many squatters, after receiving notices, have been persuaded to move to what are known as rumah panjang (long houses). These terrace-like houses, often built with poor quality wooden material, have two small rooms, each about 8 x 8 square feet, and are congested. Facilities are also very poor. As for compensation, some squatters were paid as low as only RM300 (US.95) but there were others who received up to RM5,000 (US,082.5). In some cases the squatters used the compensations as down payment for buying low cost flats.

The squatters are often told that they would be in the long houses for only up to two years, after which they could buy the low cost flats being built. Some of the long house dwellers have ended up living there for more than 10 years because either they were not selected or they could not afford to buy a flat. Some of the long houses have, after some time, been demolished to make way for new development projects, and dwellers have to move to other areas only to become squatters all over again.

(c) Low Cost Flats: There have been a lot of housing developments in areas that were once occupied by squatters. Many of them are high or medium cost bungalows or apartments because they can bring bigger profits to the developers. Only a small number are low cost houses, mostly two- or two-and-a-half-room flats in high rise buildings between 18 and 22 stories, and built close to one another with poor workmanship. More often than not there is no playground for children. Garbage collection is irregular and inefficient, and soon the environment becomes polluted. These low cost housing areas also turn into a new slum.

Each of the low cost flat costs RM25,000 (US,412.5). Although developers have complained that the price is too cheap, many evicted squatters still cannot afford to buy them. Normally the developers arrange for bank loans, which have to be paid monthly for a period of 15 to 25 years. The actual price of the flats thus becomes much more, sometimes almost double. Many squatters, owing to their low income, cannot afford it. Others, who can afford, may have already passed 40 years and do not qualify to take bank loans. In order to raise enough income, they have to do more than one job and this affects their health. There have been many cases where squatters are unable to repay their loans and are thus forced to sell or give up their flats. Some of them go back to squatter areas.

Meanwhile, the number of low cost houses that have been built in the past has been short of the target. Even the targeted number is much lower than the actual number of low cost houses needed to solve the housing problem of the poor. On the other hand, the number of medium cost and especially high cost houses built is more than that targeted. Recently, at the insistence of housing developers, the government removed the levy of RM100,000 (US,650) imposed last year on foreigners who want to buy houses cost over RM250,000 (US,125) each in Malaysia. At the same time, the quota for foreigners who can buy houses locally has been increased to 50 percent. Both these factors have pushed up the house prices to levels higher than the average Malaysians can afford to pay. Together with the short supply of low cost houses, the housing problem, especially for the low and middle income groups, has become serious.

(d) Compensation: There is no accepted method or amount for payment of compensation. Sometimes evicted squatters are not paid a single cent. As mentioned earlier, many who had been relocated to long houses were paid between RM300 (US.95) to RM5,000 (US,082.5). While in the case of Bumi Hijau described earlier, some families were given free land and houses. There are also plantation workers who were paid up to RM30,000 (US,495) as compensation, besides being relocated to houses they could buy or rent for themselves (as in the case of Sungai Rasa Estate). There are other squatters who were paid in cash to the tune of RM50,000 (US,825) for compensation and legal cost (as in the case of two families in Kampung Sentosa) or given land to build their own houses (as in the case of Bukit Sungai Putih).

Squatters who leave early without a fight often get a very raw deal. Experiences show that only those who are willing and able to put up a fight, resisting hard to stop their houses from being demolished, repeatedly erecting a new shed or tent every time the authorities come to destroy them, or going for legal suits and so forth, can finally manage to get good compensation. In other words, the developers as well as the authorities are indirectly training the squatters to toughen themselves up and to struggle hard in order to obtain good payment or compensation, either in cash or kind.

Future Strategies

Among many lessons drawn from experiences is that squatters have to be united, resolute and strong in order to succeed in their struggle. The danger is that they are often easily weakened by different political interests, ethnic prejudices and consideration of personal gains, as well as easily threatened by fear of the power and easily deceived by leaders who may not have the interests of squatters at heart. Moreover, most of the squatters, who have their cases resolved or their demands met, seldom continue their struggle. So the most important thing is to devise strategies on how to build up and retain the organisational strength of the squatters so that they can be more effective.

The urban pioneers have to pursue with their specific demands. Among those that have been put forward by them through the JSPB are:

To declare forced eviction illegal;
To relocate squatters only after agreement is reached through mutual negotiations between them and the developers;
To recognise urban pioneers and provide them with basic facilities;
To defend individual and property rights of urban squatters and protect them from cruelty and injustice;
To abrogate all of the unjust laws or unjust provisions in laws that can be used to evict, threaten or arbitrarily arrest urban squatters, such as the Essential (Clearance of Squatters) Regulation of 1969, Land Acquisition Act of 1961 (Amendment), National Land Code of 1965, the ISA, Public Order and Prevention of Crime Ordinance (POPCO) and so forth; and
To institute new legislation in order to guarantee that squatters are provided with alternative land and housing and/or adequate compensation before they are moved out of their settlements.

The squatter problem is still serious in this country. On one hand, it is the result of urbanisation and industrialisation towards capitalist development. On the other hand, this development process itself is forcing the squatters out. Both the state and federal governments are determined to clear squatter settlements in order to make way for development projects. Actually, most of the squatters are not against development. A large majority of them live in their settlements - that are polluted, unhealthy, devoid of basic facilities and full of social problems - not because they enjoy it, but rather because they have no choice; there are simply not enough houses for them, and the rentals or prices of available ones are often beyond their means.

Housing for the poor is still insufficient and inadequate. Housing development continues to be a business for profit, and housing for squatters is seldom seen as part of the governmentís social responsibility to provide shelter and to protect the welfare of the lower income groups. The squatter problem must be solved, among others, by building enough low cost houses that are easily available to the affected squatters. If houses cannot be built, land should be provided for squatters to build their houses in a more planned manner. A good approach is to encourage a land sharing system, whereby land occupied by squatters should be shared between developers and squatters so that both can carry out their own housing development, each for its own welfare or profit.

At present, there are many laws that affect the squatters. These laws are one-sided and only looking after the interests of the government, large private landowners and housing developers. There are laws that protect ownership and allow for eviction of squatters. But there is no law that protects the life and property of squatters, who, as human beings and citizens, have contributed their part towards the development of this country. There is no law that ensures squatters should be provided with alternative land and/or houses together with adequate compensation, if necessary. After all, in many instances, the squatters have been encouraged to open their settlements; they have been encouraged and given protection by the ruling political parties, and provided with all kinds of facilities, like water, electricity and so forth.

It can be said that the squatters in so many ways have been tacitly recognised by the government. They have, in fact, become licensees with the right of possession over the land that they have developed and occupied for a long time. As there is no law to protect them, and the state machinery is often ranged against them, many squatters have already found out that the best way to act in their own interest is to resist, by all methods possible, any attempt to forcibly evict them. Many of them have also discovered that the harder and longer they resist and the more times they are arrested and detained for doing so, the better would be the compensation offered to them for settlement.

Surely, this is not the best method to achieve agreement. The better thing is to resolve disputes through negotiations among all parties involved, to provide alternative land and/or houses for squatters and to institute legislation that can protect their interests and welfare. Forced eviction is certainly not the answer to the problem of squatters, which has political, economic, social and human connotations. In fact, it may even perpetuate the problem because those evicted will build new houses in the existing squatter areas or even try to build new ones.

Posted on 2001-08-23
Asian Human Rights Commission

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