Kampung Buah Pala holds its breath
Which way now… Will Kampung Buah Pala be declared a historic
communal settlement or be demolished to make way for apartments?
THERE is an old well, said to have been dug some 100 years ago in Penang’s Kampung Buah Pala, a charming settlement of cowherds and planters, which still provides fresh groundwater for many villagers. So remarkable is this well that during the national water crisis of the late 1990s, it became the lifeline for thousands of Penangites who made a bee-line to collect its water when all other supplies failed.
About five years ago, the inhabitants of this settlement – who trace their ancestry to at least five generations – were shocked when told that the land on which the well and the village stood was earmarked for a development project. The venture, which included four blocks of apartments, was called “Oasis”.
What had happened was that in August 2004 and July 2005, the state executive council reportedly approved the sale of the land at a premium of RM20 a sq ft or RM6.42 million. In 2007, the executive council halved the premium. The current value of the land is estimated at RM30-RM40 million.
What made the situation even more peculiar was that the buyer was a cooperative for government officers in Penang – Koperasi Pegawai Kerajaan Pulau Pinang. The co-op has about 3,600 members – all civil servants who effectively made up the internal organs of the state machinery.
Villagers asked to see the alienation letter and transaction document, but none was forthcoming. They then sued the cooperative and the developer, Nusmetro Ventures (P) Sdn Bhd, and were vindicated when the High Court ruled in their favour in October last year. That decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal on May 11, giving the cooperative and Nusmetro vacant possession. Undeterred, the villagers took the case to the Federal Court, but on June 24 it too dismissed their case on grounds that they did not have locus standi.
“Our families have lived and worked on this land for more than a century, and suddenly we are told that we are trespassers,” said one of the village leaders, C. Tharmaraj. “Some day in the future, if my son asks me why I did not fight to keep this land, how would I answer him?”
What hurts the residents most is that by leaving they would be made to discard an important legacy. Their ancestors were indentured labourers brought in by the East India Company to work for the Brown Estate more than 150 years ago.
The owner and employer, Helen Margaret Brown, settled them in separate plots of land with space to rear cows and goats, and to plant fruit trees. The land became categorised as a vested crown for housing trust.
The idyllic village has been called Penang’s “High Chaparral”, after the American cowboy TV series of the 1970s. Years ago, when Penang’s general hospital was being built amid a shortage of infant formula milk, the colonial British administration relied on the cows from the village to supply patients and children with some 300 litres of milk everyday.
There are today 41 families and other residents remaining in the village. And now they want the land back. Most have refused compensation on the principle that land had allegedly been fraudulently transferred.
They have clamoured for the village to be identified by the authorities as a historic communal settlement, just like the Chitty and Portuguese villages in Malacca, or the Chinese clan jetties in Weld Quay.
But last Saturday, the residents were called in for a meeting with the George Town district police chief and the developers, and told to cooperate with a court bailiff, scheduled to serve a writ of possession today. The developer, they were told, could begin demolition after that.
The developments stirred an outpouring of emotion. Community rights group Hindraf barged in, demanding the state conserve the land as a heritage enclave – the only remaining traditional Indian village on the island.
And ironically, it is the Pakatan Rakyat state government, which only came into power in March last year, which has had to feel the brunt of the anger. But the state has been working hard behind the scenes. Deputy Chief Minister (II) Prof Dr P. Ramasamy even warned the developer: “If you don’t negotiate and provide a just solution with the settlers, you can expect to see a lot of hurdles … We are not a lame duck government.”
On Tuesday, the developer gave in, agreeing to hold back demolition by a month. It would buy some much needed time for the villagers and the state administration to work on new legal avenues and investigate the land transaction, to forestall the eviction.
Meantime, the old village well and the cattle that graze the grounds, will just have to wait and see if the heritage they have borne for so long will be able to endure for the many generations to come, or be replaced by concrete buildings.
Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief. Feedback: email@example.com.