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MGG: A house! A house! A Low-Cost House For A Bribe!
By M.G.G. Pillai

22/3/2002 11:07 pm Fri

Malaysia, since the first general elections in 1955, have been governed by the National Front (BN), and its predecessor, the Alliance, with only Kelantan, Trengganu, Sabah and Sarawak the only four states which have had the Opposition in power. In other words, the BN, more specifically its dominant partner UMNO, decided what national policy is. Parliament is not that forum, since it is treated with contempt; it is only consulted as an after thought or if it is politically desirable for UMNO it should. So in the states, where the legislatures are not required to meet more than twice a year, and the BN government ensured it would not meet more often.

After four-and-a-half decades in near absolute power, and little to show for it, the BN reacts in panic to policies and projects promised but not delivered. One is housing. From the first election, it is a political issue. The Federal Housing Board, established in the 1950s, did a yeoman's job building houses within the reach of people in several areas of the country. On independence, it came under the purview of an assistant housing minister, a crony of the then prime minister, Tengku Abdul Rahman; he slowed the transfer unless suitably greased.

Such a scandal it became that he spent years as ambassador until his greed felled him there too. But he set a precedent that remains to this day, only that what is to paid is collected from everyone involved, not just at the centre, but in the states too. The federal government knows this, but does nothing. The biggests culprits are the state executive councils. The government makes pious statements of intent to build low cost houses, but which under the present system cannot be built. The state committee on land is, without fail, chaired by the mentri besar. This has made several so rich that they have become extremly rich in office. This is so for some present and past cabinet ministers too. One is a ringgit billionaire several times over.

Land is a state matter, so we are told. It is. But the states which drag their feet most, especially when the state executive councillors do not get their money from potential housing developers and house owners, are BN-run states. The Prime Minister dictates who should be in the state executive councils, often clashing with sultans who often want the state assemblies to decide. If the BN is serious about housing, it could have made a condition of appointments to the state executive councils that low cost houses are a priority and it would stand or fail on that.

No, the BN would do nothing of that. It allowed state executive councillors to enrich themselves and drag their feet over low cost houses. Often approvals are made so the state executive councillors could themselves have their fill of low cost houses: one had 24; one, on his sudden death, was found to have 15; many had five or six each; which they sold at a premium of RM10,000 or more to the RM25,000 cost. So, it is best in federal hands. Let us look what happens where federal writ runs: Kuala Lumpur. Could the housing minister tell us how many low cost units have been built in the federal terrority, where presumably the problems he cites for the state's reluctance do not apply? These low cost houses are not built for the same reason of greed that makes it impossible for low cost houses to be built in the states. Where are the low cost houses in Putra Jaya, whose developers, Petronas, forgot all about it. It is only middle class houses that are built there. What would happen is that shanty towns would develop around Putra Jaya that would be an eyesore in the years to come.

Rules are made so housing developers must build their allotment of low-cost houses amongst the higher priced houses they build. But it is built as an imposition, and therefore often abandoned. In 1997, the then deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, announced with great fanfare that 80,000 low cost houses would be built a year. For that year, the target fell by 90 per cent. In the year after, he fell out of favour, and with it, UMNO and BN had multiple heart attacks from which it barely survives. The low cost housing promises were promptle forgotten.

Now comes another federal initiative which adds up to nothing. The government plans to spend RM1.4 billion to take over responsibility for low cost houses from the states and will build 40,000 units a year, or half what was promised just five years ago. The housing minister, Dato' Ong Ka Ting, gives all the wrong reasons why it should be federally funded: land costs are high; the demand is in towns and its outskirts; the states did not have the financial capacity to run it.

In other words, the political will is not there. The National BN will not instruct the state BN to get on with it. The usual problems of state-federal ties are toted to explain why they could not build it. Yes, there is a problem about it. But would there be if the mentris besar and chief ministers are appointed with the order to start building houses. In the 1950s, the British housing minister, Mr Harold MacMillan, promised to build 1,000,000 houses to overcome a housing shortage, delivered and went on to be prime minister.

There is no such desire or compulsion to do that in Malaysia. The pockets of politicians take precedence. Mr Ong made his pro-forma statement now as MCA's contribution to wean voters for the BN in Ketari. A few days ago, the Prime Minister talked favourable of Chinese schools. Other ministers from other component parties would talk of the great hopes and policies that would be implemented for Malaysians, especially in Ketari.

When government policy is to ignore the people, such concerns as a promise to build 40,000 houses must be taken with a pinch of salt. If you look at newspaper archives from 1959, you would find regular statements from the agriculture minister of being self-sufficient in rice in "two years". The "two years" has not yet come. So, it is with low cost houses. In a country where federal countrol of the states stems partly from the states dependent on federal funding, the states should dance to its tune. When a state shows signs of fiscal independence, salaries of civil servants and raised, and it is back to square one.

This is why the federal government is nervous at the oil royalties the PAS governments in Trengganu gets. In the 22 years the BN goverment had the royalties, it was wasted. When PAS came into power, it was removed in a series of circumstances that is now before the courts. So, it is with low cost houses. No one is interested, least of all, the BN governments at the centre and in the states. But it is enough to keep the natives quiet. That is all the impact the latest announcement on low cost houses have on national policy or, more importantly, amongst those who desperate seek houses for which they cannot afford an arm and a leg.

M.G.G. Pillai