SARAWAK, under Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Abdul Rahman Zohari Abang Openg, has grand plans for its economic advancement and this is very much evident in the State Legislative Assembly this week as the state government tables legislation in support of those plans.
Efforts to put flesh into the plans were also much in evidence last week as the chief minister launched the Development Bank of Sarawak, with a paid-up capital of RM500 million, thus making it clear that the state government now fully intends to put its formidable reserves into use in support of its development objectives.
One of the key strategic areas the state is looking into is agriculture. The state’s land mass (almost the same size as the entire Peninsular Malaysia) makes it only natural that the state, more seriously, brings into reality the modernisation of agriculture with the setting up of large integrated farms to produce crops for both local consumption and the export market.
As nations such as China grow increasingly affluent, they will be on the lookout for other nations with the requisite land to invest in and apply modern farming technology and methods to produce high-quality food. Sarawak looks to be a very obvious candidate for such joint investments.
But, there is potential for a serious hiccup to such grand ambitions. It is on display almost every other week these days as the courts hand down, in succession, decisions on land disputes involving Native Customary Rights (NCR) over such lands.
This week saw another decision by the Federal Court, setting aside decisions by the lower courts on yet another dispute brought on by some natives about a land development scheme in Pantu in the Sri Aman Division. This follows another decision by the apex court weeks earlier, which, with finality, dashed the hopes of another group of natives over alike dispute.
It is rather unfortunate that such decisions that are adverse to some native disputants have a tendency to arouse strong emotions among others, that inevitably get played out in the political arena.
Instead of accepting court decisions, which have gone through the full appeal process, such as forming a jurisprudence body governing NCR land matters, those adversely impacted by such decisions lash out against the inequity of the law, and demand that the laws in question be amended to suit their purposes. It is not difficult to see how corrosive to the general governance such a stance can be if allowed to take hold.
Such disputes, almost always, revolve around a hugely (and some will say, impossibly) expansive view of what constitutes NCR lands.
And, disputes inevitably arise only when development schemes are brought to areas of dispute, often after some capital investments have already been committed by unsuspecting investing parties.
It is not difficult to envisage how future potential investors, who are keen to open up large land holdings in the state, may hesitate rather than face the prospect of their investments being held up for interminable lengths of time by litigation over disputed lands.
Those in support of such native land litigants, invariably base their support on the mistaken premise that they are helping to protect and defend the rights of the litigants over their lands. They need to be widely and vigorously disabused of such pretensions.
Any extravagantly expansive interpretations of NCR lands — and disputes arising thereof — have now been shown to be, in the main, illegal. Those loudly and angrily protesting court decisions not in their favour, need to be called out for who they are: threats to overall peace and order.
Politicians must know that their first responsibility is to the general peace of the state and country. They cannot be seen to give succour or sustenance to anyone who refuses to accept legal interpretations after disputing parties willingly agree to submit to years of legal wrangling and processes.
In the final analysis, such disputes and the attendant political posturing do not serve the interests of anybody in Sarawak, least of all the natives. There is a long-standing lament that Sarawak’s natives are land-rich, but financially poor. It may continue to stay that way if the lands they rightly and legally own are hopelessly entangled in limbo with disputes over adjoining parcels.
Only if, and when, NCR lands are systematically brought into the ambit of the law will their owners be in any position to enjoy the fruits of their commercial development.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.