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A Felda settler at his oil palm smallholding in Felda Soeharto, Hulu Selangor. Settlers stand to gain a lot if their plots are amalgamated into a modern estate. FILE PIC

A JOURNALIST asked me last Thursday whether there is any provision in the Land (Group Settlement) Act 1960 (Act 530) preventing or hindering the government’s latest plan to merge (amalgamate) the Felda settlers’ lots into a bigger piece of land and transform them into a large modern estate farm?

The question caught me unprepared, so I took a few days to research on it.

Act 530, which came into force on May 30, 1960 and revised in 1994, is not a complicated piece of social legislation. It contains 47 sections spread out in nine parts and one schedule. Part III, which deals with “Rural Holdings”, contains sections 14 to 18.

Section 15 deals with “Restriction of dealings” and subsection (1) states that “No land comprised in a rural holding may at any time be subdivided”. There is a restriction against leasing or subletting in subsection (3), but there is no mention anywhere in Act 530 that the Felda settler’s lots cannot be merged or amalgamated unless consent is obtained from any authority.

The term “rural holding” is defined in section 2 to mean “a rural holding constituted in accordance with the provision of section 7”. Section 7 (Holdings) states in subsection (2) that, “A rural holding shall be of such area as the state authority may approve … for occupation by one individual holder”.

A proviso to that subsection then states that “there may be provided in a rural holding one parcel of land — for occupation by the holder for residential purposes exclusively”.

Over the years since the law came into force and Felda settlers were allowed to work on their given lots, the standard practice is that each settler is given 10 acres of agricultural land for him to cultivate and earn a living and another tiny plot to build his home.

When land titles to these plots were issued by the relevant state authority to the individual settlers, under the National Land Code 1965, they obtained an indefeasible title, and they could enter into any dealing with their properties, subject to such express terms and conditions endorsed on the land titles.

In his well-written piece on the historical background of group settlement areas, Wan Rohimi Wan Daud said that: “Selepas Surat Hakmilik dikeluarkan kepada individu peneroka, maka dengan sendirinya tanah itu menjadi milik mutlak peneroka. Tanah-tanah tersebut bukan lagi milik Kerajaan Negeri, bahkan menjadi milik mutlak setiap individu.”

This means that after the settlers have obtained their land titles, they have the right to choose whether to allow their lots (land) to be merged or amalgamated with the lots of their fellow-settlers — that is, assuming there are no express conditions restricting such actions endorsed on the land titles.

On July 7, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced the government’s intention to merge these settlers’ land to become big estates that can generate better income for them through more efficient and professional management. He conceded, however, that efforts to convince the settlers “to go down this road might be difficult in the beginning, especially with the first generation settlers who were now mostly aged above 60”.

My two sen? The government may want to engage directly with the settlers to get their support — convince them that the merger exercise would, in the long run, benefit them. They have nothing to lose. Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali also confirmed last week that sessions would be held to explain to Felda settlers the benefits of merging their lands into big estates. The sessions would be conducted through the Settlers’ Consultative Committee.

Azmin also said the first generation of settlers no longer had the capacity to work the land and the government wants “to provide them with new technology, but they have to amalgamate”. A recent news report quoted some 88 per cent of settlers are over 56 years of age.

Three months ago the government had announced a “new business model” for Felda, and would “introduce many schemes” that will aid settlers. The new model would address their income, housing needs and human capital development.

This merger plan for Felda is the next logical step to a brighter future for the settlers. They have suffered for far too long and deserve a change. The settlers are likely to benefit from economies of scales when their plots of land are amalgamated to become modern estates.

With amalgamation, modern equipment (which on individual plots can be costly) can be used to till the land and this will boost productivity through increased efficiency and better profits.

The writer formerly served the Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for private practice, the corporate sector and academia

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