Thursday, August 21, 2008

No talk, full stop

LET’S get one thing out of the way.

The Selangor government has NOT reversed its policy on hillside development ... yet.

What this paper had been campaigning for is good governance, transparency and holding steadfast to promises made. Even an intention to break election promises is of grave concern as it reflects a government that is prone to bending over backwards on its policies and compromising the people’s welfare for the whims of large corporations whose only concern is the mighty ringgit, and to whom sustainable development is taboo.

In Selangor at least, for the last two decades, we had been subject to a state government that can be equated with a secret society, where almost every deliberation and decision was classified as an "Official Secret".
Minutes of meetings were doctored and an entity deemed illegal by the High Court was deciding on development and investments. This entity continues to be used by the present government.
Local authorities keep two sets of books – one for public reference and one for officials – and the alienation of land meant for the public or the lower income group, to the well-connected, was as common as ais kacang on a hot day. How much of state land has ended up in the hands of cronies – some of them teenagers – will remain a mystery, unless of course the new government keeps to its word – to declassify the documents.
If there were two sets of books, there were also two sets of laws – one for you and me, and the other for exco members and assemblymen and their families and cronies.
The people are seldom consulted and even if they are, it is a mere cosmetic exercise, epitomised by the words of Datuk Emran Kadir, when he was Petaling Jaya Municipal Council (MPPJ) president: "We will hear the residents’ views but we have already decided to go ahead with the project." This is the same man who insisted that a "sumbangan" (contribution) of RM10,000 had to be made with every application for a billboard licence!
The cutting of hills and encroachment into parks and green lungs were met with a slap on the wrist and another development order for another swathe of de-gazetted or non-gazetted forest. For a small cemetery, 58ha was alienated – the balance would have ended up with cronies if not for the change on March 8.
Direct negotiations were always favoured over a transparent tender process and private companies with city council officials and councillors as directors were operating with impunity, where money meant for rate-payers was siphoned into private accounts.
So it was no wonder that the people said "enough is enough" and when the opportunity came, booted out those who had overstayed their welcome and treated public office as a private entity.
Which is why, when the new guys took over, they were viewed as the Messiah – sent from the heavens to protect the weak and oppressed, and all things good and decent.
The clean-up crew was to unearth the sins of the past and put things right again. Do we hold them to higher standards than their predecessors? Of course. Because that was how they painted themselves to be – whiter than white – during the election campaign and even before when they were community leaders and heads of NGOs.
Executive councillor for investment, trade and commerce, Teresa Kok, had campaigned alongside residents and environmentalists against the rape of Bukit Gasing, and had spoken out against developers who flout the law, long before she joined the state administration.
Likewise, executive councillor for local government, Ronnie Liu, whose claim to fame was as the "Shadow MPPJ", had been vocal in pointing out misdeeds and abuse of process by the local council and developers who park themselves outside the offices of the council president. Thus, one cannot fault this paper or the public for being aghast to find these same personalities now seemingly justifying the requests of the developers.
Yes, Kok and Liu are right. There is no harm in listening to developers and allowing them to have their say on certain issues. Yes, developers are not the enemy and there are many property developers out there who abide by rules and regulations and endorse sustainable development. But when the agenda is to get the state government to reverse a policy, which it was elected on, the two YBs should have said "No deal. You want to talk about other problems; we are all ears, but not hillslope policy".
There is a big likelihood that the policy will remain. Liu – a night after meeting Citizen-Nades and I to clarify his position – had told the Star Metro this. But our bone of contention is that even entertaining these developers, many of whom obtained hillside land from the previous administration via dubious means, sends the wrong message to the people.
Now, thanks to the Real Estate and Housing Developers Association (Rehda) – which felt compelled to jump to Kok’s and Liu’s defence via a statement to this paper, part of which was published on Friday – we know that the mentri besar had already had one meeting with developers – without residents, environmentalists and those opposed to hillside development present.
The two page letter from Eddy Chen, adviser of Rehda Selangor, had 10 paragraphs – the first two stating that it was invited to the meeting and that it was "erroneous of theSun to report that Rehda is pressuring the Selangor government to reverse its policy". (Citizen-Nades in a note to Chen refuted the claim – that no where did this paper use the word "pressuring").
The rest discusses at length the sustainability of hillside development and why Selangor needs more homes!
We have since learnt that Rehda also met the Land Task Force which rejected its appeals and upheld the policy. So, the policy is safe for now. But what guarantee is there that there will not be further attempts to get the state government to be "flexible" on this policy?
Well, even if there is, we know whom these developers will approach to argue their case. One hopes that where right and wrong is as clear as night and day, those in power will adopt the attitude that there will be no further discussion on the issue.

Terence had told relatives and friends in Seputeh to vote for Teresa Kok in the recent election because "she can effect change". He hopes he was not wrong. Email terence@thesundaily.com for feedback.

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