COMMENT It is exactly one month since the Ladang Bukit Jalil committee met the prime minister. Many people who saw the news of the committee finally having a date with the PM would have concluded that the issue of Ladang Bukit Jalil estate workers is over and done with. There was also the feeling that if the PM met them, definitely it would not be to disappoint them.

Now exactly one month later, the issue of Ladang Bukit Jalil is still not resolved. The PM asked for some time to study the issue. When the office of the powerful PM himself asks for more time to study the issue, it seems the problem in hand is a complex one.

NONEThe meeting with the PM did not just come so easily. The Bukit Jalil workers camped outside the PM’s office until they got an appointment. After spending 30 hours, they finally got news that the PM will give an appointment to meet them. It was a climax of their long struggle.

Not taking away credit from Najib, the PM did actually meet them (janji ditepati) though there was initially the speculation that he will only promise but not meet them. A meeting was held at the estate on the eve of the PM’s meeting. The feedback from the people at the meeting was that they were all very hopeful that the issue will be finally resolved.

Politically, the Bukit Jalil issue is torn in the flesh issue for the MIC and it is one of the major national issue confronting them as the plight of the Bukit Jalil ex-plantation workers is a national concern. The issue received lots of coverage in the Tamil dailies as well as sympathy from most Malaysian Indians. For the PM, it is important for him to portray that he is accessible and is listening to the voices of the people.

Now one month after the PM’s meeting, some fear has crept in. There is now a feeling  that the PM’s meeting was just a drama and once the election is over and if the BN come to power, then they will use all their might to demolish the houses. There is many instances in history when urban poor houses being demolished just after elections. Therefore any solution to the Bukit Jalil estate workers has to be done now.

Legally Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) has won the case. Only political pressure seems to have stop them from carrying out an eviction.

But again DBKL got the eviction order by stating that the ex-plantation workers were just squatters and they used the draconian Emergency clearance of squatter ordinance on these workers. But today, this law has been lifted after Najib announced the lifting of the four emergencies. It would look very bad for DBKL to demolish the homes using the Emergency ruling today.

Stumbling block

Having said that, what is then keeping the prime minister for giving the former workers 4 acres of land out of the 26 acres of land which is currently available. There seems to be several factors which seem to be the stumbling block.

I raise three pertinent questions.

1. Not wanting to set a precedent

One of the main reasons given for not supporting the Bukit Jalil worker’s  demand  is that they don’t want to set a precedent. The DBKL and MIC think that it would be a bad precedent. DBKL has a history of not giving plantation workers landed property and they claim that many other kampong and some estates will ask for landed property if they were to give in.

Here once again capitalist interest becomes the deciding factor. Though when the Government acquired Ladang Bukit Jalil (LBJ) in 1980, there were 1,800 acres. The government upon acquiring the land, sold the land piece by piece to private developers such as Berjaya group, Talam and Ho Hup.

The LBJ land was used to develop luxury houses, tolled highways and golf courses among others. Never did it cross their mind that they must resolve first the housing needs of the community where they are developing the land.

Now after all the prime land being sold for profits, there remain today 26 acres of land which they plan to make it into a burial ground. What about those living?

NONEWhat the Ladang Bukit Jalil ex workers are asking is only 4 acres of the last remaining 26 acres.  Why is there a problem in giving in to these people? Why cannot the people who have been the longest on the land be allocated land in the same place?

As we are well aware, this country was built on the toil and sacrifice of,  amongst others, hundreds of thousands of  estate workers. Up to 1980s, the income from rubber and oil palm played a major role in financing the development of our country.

Our country prospered, and plantation companies reaped fabulous profits, but plantation workers lived in abject poverty and deprivation generated by below poverty line wages and the most backward of wage structures. Four acres of land as a social wage to compensate for their contribution towards the nation is surely not too much to ask for.

Why is then that such a fair and noble idea of giving land to the poor and the most deserving being seen as bad precedent? Bad precedent in whose eyes? It seems that for the elite classes, these are bad precedents when prime land is given to poor people. And sadly BN and MIC share this vision.

It is time to set good precedent. Will the ruling party have the political will to do it?

2. The internal MIC power play

It is no secret that MIC’s Deputy FT Minister M Saravanan is strongly against the ex-workers getting the land. Saravanan was instrumental in getting a huge group of people to accept the relocation to the flats. Here once again, politicians internal interest in helping supporters and building bases override the question of justice.

The Minister, Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin, himself acknowledged in an official statement that of the 71 who have moved to the flats, only 10 are former plantation workers while the others are ’squatters’. Whereas he stated that the remaining 39 who are still living on the estate are all former plantation workers.

These problems are not new. In many cases, politician interfere in helping their chosen people to get benefits, manoeuvre official census, help cronies etc. In this case, Saravanan’s support base is in those who have moved to the flats. On the other hand, MIC Youth leader T Mohan has supported the four acres of land asked by the Bukit Jalil workers.

NONENow the question being asked for those opposing the 4acres demand is - if we give land to the 41 families, what about those who have already left to the flats? This issue is used to divide and rule the people. Even now, those who have left the estates are promised another bulk of compensation but with condition that only if the remaining 41 also accepted the flats offer.

It is time MIC come out in the open and state if they support Bukit Jalil workers getting four acres of land or not? In the Buah Pala incident, MIC fought so hard that the people there should be given a landed property in a private land. Here we are talking about government land. Why can’t MIC put forward the same argument here?

MIC president G Palanivel also had suggested that urban hardship is worse than plantation hardship and suggested those facing these problems go back to the estates. Therefore it would only make sense that they go back to a piece of land or home which belongs to them in a community system. Giving Bukit Jalil plantation workers that 4 acres will preserve their community life.

Now the time is right for MIC to put the record straight. But it seems between Saravanan, Mohan and Subramaniam, they seems to have differing views and differing interest. It is time the MIC state their position clearly.

3. Najib a neo-liberal unlike his dad who was a social democrat?

During the meeting with the PM, Najib smiled when he was reminded about the Abdul Razak Hussein plantation workers house ownership scheme.

Razak then introduced one of the most remarkable solutions for plantation poverty -  the estate workers house ownership scheme. If this had been implemented in 1973, today most plantation workers will be staying in a landed property like the Malay traditional villagers, Felda scheme participants and  Chinese new villages.

But sadly 90 percent of all plantations and all the major plantation companies in which the Government had major shares did not want to implement this scheme.

Razak lived in the cold war era when he had to give in to many people orientated demands like land reforms, felda scheme, introduce  Socso, etc. The political left was much stronger then. Today Najib lives in a world who believes in TINA – there is no alternatives. Najib is a powerful supporter of new liberal capitalism.  He promotes privatisation, cuts down subsidies and supports FTAs.

Therefore ideologically Najib will not support the Bukit Jalil demand for four acres. He has to weigh it very carefully and any consensus will be only in the context of his political survival. That is why he would need much time to study it before agreeing.

The final score?

Has the Bukit Jalil ex-estate workers solution put the PM and the BN in a dilemma? It is a question of whose interests are they going to protect. Is it the people or profits? It would have been a foregone conclusion if BN was strong politically. Today they are forced to consider the demands of the Ladang Bukit Jalil workers simply for their own survival.

It is going to be a difficult decision. The ex-workers have decided to remind the prime minister on every 10th day of the month that they are waiting for the final score.

S ARUTCHELVAN is a social activist and founder member of the Plantation Workers Support Committee, and secretary-general of PSM.