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Malaysia: If illegal factories and palaces can be legalised, why not squatters?

Zakaria's palace

Picture of police removing urban poor squatter settlers
in Kampung Berembang
just off one of the major
highways in Selangor state, Malaysia

by S.Arutchelvan*

The policy of the previous Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of the state of Selangor, Mohd Khir Toyo was to legalise illegal factories and evict squatter communities (urban poor settlers) because they are illegal. The reason is rather simple. They legalise illegal factories because they can make money out of them and similarly, they evict squatters, because they cannot make money out of them. This policy is ideologically rooted to ensure the interest of the rich and the factory owners are protected whereby the interest of the poor and the marginalized are neglected. One does not need to be Einstein to understand that this is capitalism in working.

The question is, if the state has the power to legalise factories, why it cannot show the same kind of compassion in legalizing squatters where thousands of the poor urban settlers live in. If the argument to legalize the factories is, because it gives employment to the workers (as being debated by some quarters) that the same rationale can be used to justify the need to give land titles to the urban poor communities so that they can live in harmony.

There clearly seems to be double standards here. One standard for the rich and one for the poor. Similarly Zakaria's palace**, was allowed to stand in spite of not having proper approval but many settlers homes have been demolished promptly by the local authorities under the guidance of the State government because they don't have proper approval.

In most cases, the urban poor settlers may win the race initially for being the first to develop and occupy the land but at the end of the race, they have to surrender the land to a developer who has bought the land. The laws written by right wing governments protect the interest of those with land titles. The laws in most cases does not recognize the rights of the poor and have a blind spot when it comes to fair play.

So when the new Justice Party (PKR) Selangor Menteri Besar, Abdul Khalid Ibrahim said that his government wants to accommodate the wishes of the squatters as much as take into account the costs incurred by the developer, it is not as simple as that. Developers want the land to turn them into property banks and make profit whereby the settlers want the land for a livelihood and shelter. It is an issue of class and it is crucial to see how the new State Government would balance the interest of two groups – the people and the capitalist.

On the issue of illegal factories, Khalid said, " He's (State Exco) going to visit all the illegal factories, help them to become legal and conform to the required standards, and so forth. We are not trying to chase them away, we are just trying to reduce the corrupt practices.".If similar efforts are taken to address the issues of housing of the poor, the housing problems faced by the urban poor settlers, plantation workers and other lower income group communities can be resolved.

Currently low-cost houses are built using the cheapest materials and built in the most remote places, inaccessible by public transport. While the rich can live in remote areas as they have their own transportation, the same cannot be said about the 2/3 people in Selangor. Once again, when developers built low cost houses where their income profit is minimal, they intent not to put their hearts in it, since the profit is not flowing.

It will be interesting to see which way Khalid goes. Would he break rank with the previous state Government and put people before profit or continue with policies, which make a few millionaires in the expense of the millions?
* S.Arutchelvan is the secretary-general of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) which won a state and a federal parliamentary seat in the March 8 general elections. PSM chairperson, Dr Nasir Hashim, who was recently elected to the Selangor state legislative assembly is a respected campaigner for the rights of urban poor "squatters".

** Former Selangor state assemblymember Datuk Zakaria Md Deros began building his palatial mansion - with 16 bedrooms (the master bedroom is as big as an apartment and its attached bathroom comes with a jacuzzi), 21 bathrooms, marble-tiled and many chandeliered main hall, swimming pool, mini golf course and a large garage - all without building approval. Approval was retrospectively granted.