As early as August 2017, some 9 months before the May 2018 General Election which saw the stunning defeat of the Barisan Nasional government for the first time in 61 years, then-Opposition Warisan party led by Shafie Apdal promised to abolish “Sabah Communal Land Title” – if they win the election in Sabah. But then-Chief Minister Musa Aman immediately rejected the idea.
Claiming that scrapping the communal land titles would cripple development for the rural population in the Borneo state, the crooked Musa argued – “Basically, the issuing of communal land titles is aimed at looking after the interest of Sabahans and to ensure that their native customary rights land titles are not wantonly sold or leased out.”
Mr. Musa had even accused the opposition of wanting the rural people to remain poor with the pledge to cancel the communal land titles, first introduced in 2010. Of course, he lied. Under the terms of the Sabah Land Ordinance, Indigenous people (the three largest groups in Sabah being Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau and Murut) are deemed to be “beneficiaries” of communal native title – not owners.
Communal titles are defined as land held in trust by the district office or the assistant collector of land revenue, who, surprisingly, have power over what crops are cultivated and whether or not land can be given to the next of kin. To make matters worse, communal land titles also included outsiders, but amazingly, the names of the natives living in the area are not included.
In a nutshell, the Indigenous people are merely “squatters” in their own land. There were reasons why Musa Aman, the 14th Chief Minister of Sabah from March 2003 to May 2018 for 15 years, introduced the communal land titles. His corrupt government wanted the land for joint ventures with private companies or developers – without having to seek consent from native communities.
After becoming the new Chief Minister, Shafie Apdal announced in July 2018 that the unfair communal land titles would be scrapped, so that native land rights could be better protected. For years, the Indigenous people had been losing their land, either through dubious joint ventures which they had no control, or through sale of land title to outsiders without their knowledge.
Since 2010, a whopping 96 communal titles were issued by Musa regime, involving 152,268 acres to 13,789 beneficiaries from 271 villages in 15 districts in Sabah. While some joint ventures were legit, most of them used “unscrupulous tactics” that resulted in irreversible destruction of the village’s only source of water or pollution of their river.
The “land grabbing” under the guise of “poverty eradication” trumpeted by the previous Musa administration was for profit and nothing else. To fulfill Warisan Sabah’s election manifesto, Shafie announced in November 2018 that the Communal Titles would be cancelled in stages, and to be replaced with “Native Title” – that comes with very strict conditions.
The conditions say that the Native Title grants cannot be transferred except through next of kin, cannot be sub-divided, cannot be made as collateral or pawned and cannot be subleased. Heck, even the use of Power of Attorney is not allowed for the Native Title lands. In case of a joint venture development, the landowners must be employed as workers while enjoying profit sharing.
The cancellation of the unpopular Communal Titles started in December 2018. And now that caretaker Chief Minister Shafie is rushing to present Native Title to the legitimate Sabah people soon after the Sabah State Legislative Assembly was dissolved on July 30, Musa’s camp is terribly upset. Shafie was accused of using his act of giving out land titles to “fish” votes.
However, by July 10, some 20 days “before” Musa Aman – with the blessing of backdoor Muhyiddin government – tried to topple Shafie state government by offering RM20 million bribes to each of the 13 assemblymen to defect, the chief minister had already handed over 2,300 individual land titles – “Native Title” – to residents of 101 villages involving a total of 6,425.51 hectares.
Hence, it’s absolutely untrue and ridiculous to say Mr. Shafie is using the land titles to buy votes as the practice of handing over the grants has been an ongoing process much earlier. He reportedly had presented 1,309 Native Titles in a period of 5 days. But according to the caretaker chief minister, more than 10,000 land titles have been prepared for the villagers.
Thanks to Musa’s minions who are making a big issue of Shafie’s ongoing roadshow presenting land titles for native Sabahans, it has also been exposed that the Native Titles being issued by the caretaker Chief MInister Shafie were also meant to reverse the previous Musa’s government evil attempts to gazette native land as forest reserves.
Warisan’s Kalabakan MP Ma’mun Sulaiman mocked one of Musa’s minions, Tamparuli state assemblyperson Jahid Jahim – “Now, they are questioning the sincerity of the chief minister (Shafie), who is returning the land to the ‘rakyat’ (people). Perhaps it is because (their) cronies can no longer log the timber.”
Apparently, Sabah has up to “7 classes” of Forest Reserves but only “Class 1” is strictly protected. Class 2, for example, is a commercial forest reserve while Class 3 is mainly to provide forest areas for natives living nearby to hunt, fish and take minor forest produce for their own domestic use, subject to permits.
So, not only the corrupt Musa regime tried to scam the Indigenous people by exploiting their land through the introduction of Communal Titles since 2010, but also quietly converted native land as forest reserves while declassified first-class forest reserves for the purpose of deforestation – stealing the timber on the land for profits.
Shafie, when asked about some delay in getting native titles, said – “This is why it has taken decades, in some cases half a century, for the rightful owners to be awarded with native titles. This is what happened to some villages in Tongod, Ranau and Kota Marudu. We do not only want to award them with native titles, but also gazette the villages.”
Arguably, the issue of native land titles is a very sensitive one that could either make or break a government. If Shafie drags his feet and do nothing while he has the chance now to return the land back to the Sabah people, the crooks from the backdoor government of Muhyiddin would not think twice about raping and selling off those native lands again – if they win the election.
The more “Native Title” Shafie Apdal gives away to the deserving Sabah people, the less chance Musa Aman could plunder the native land. More importantly, the strategy would potentially crush Muhyiddin-Musa’s chance of winning the state election. In fact, Shafie could win big and return as the state chief minister again.
It’s indeed very clever of Shafie to play the native land title card to boost his popularity, even before the failed coup to snatch power from him. Unlike the Peninsular Malaysia, it’s all about local factors and state nationalism in Sabah that will decide the outcome of the state election. In the same breath, it would be wise for Shafie to tell toxic Mahathir not to come to Sabah to campaign for him.