Saturday, March 13, 2010

Felda schemes new front line in rivalry for rural Malay vote

The 250 Felda settlements, mostly in Pahang and Johore, is the new battleground for Malay votes between Umno and Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) PAS and PKR.

With over 112,000 settlers in the schemes and their descendents numbering about 600,000, the schemes hold a formidable, mostly Malay vote bank that has until now been treated by Umno as a fixed deposit.

But now PR is actively contesting this vote bank.

The schemes themselves have deviated from their original purpose to empower the poor, landless Malays, evolving instead into a bureaucratic animal feasted upon by politically connected bureaucrats and their political masters.

Felda needs a captive labour supply just like how the colonial masters had used imported Tamil labourers to run their rubber plantations.

The Federal Land Development Authority has for years attracted landless Malays to participate in the schemes by offering basic amenities like low cost housing, a share of the profits and ownership of alienated settlement land.

However, settlers have to pay for these amenities and often at unnecessarily high prices because of bureaucratic hurdles and demands.

A second and third generation in the schemes are now seriously alienated, face numerous social problems and are starting to see the Felda schemes as “prisons” from which they have to escape often into drugs, crimes and migrate to the cities to become ‘mat rempits’.

The battle is for the loyalty of the descendents of the original settlers and newer generation of settlers. At stake is control over dozens of parliamentary constituencies in Pahang and Johore, traditionally held by Umno, which PR now wants to wrest by promising settlers and their descendents a “new deal.”

Whether PR can capture Pahang and Johore now depends on the outcome of the battle for the hearts and minds of settlers and their descendents.

Both sides have been firing salvoes at each other in the race to represent the settlers.

PR’s ammunition is the alleged “raw deal” that settlers are getting from Felda with corruption, bureaucracy, self interest and mismanagement taking away the lion’s share of the profits earned on the backs of the settlers.

Felda’s revenue was RM15.3 billion in 2008 but PR leaders have been posing the question of how much of the money ended with settlers, at numerous small ceremahs in Felda schemes.

The PR argues that the original Felda mission has been hijacked by politicians, big business and bureaucrats and that settlers have been betrayed and taken for a ride by the “blood suckers.”

Everything will be put right if settlers vote and put PR into power, the argument goes.

PAS Central committee member Mazlan Aliman, a key man leading the PR charge into the Felda schemes put the “betrayal argument” succinctly in his recent book, “Felda...Dulu Tolong, Sekarang Along”.

The book, while not widely read, is talked about in Felda schemes, PAS leaders said, adding that the book is being made into a VCD for wider distribution.

Last week Aliman was arrested and charged with trespass for entering Felda Lembah Klau, in Raub without written permission, a method the colonial masters had used against activists entering rubber plantations to organise workers.

For Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak whose father started Felda in 1956, the battle for settlers’ votes is personal and a “family matter.”

Felda schemes, thus far, have been a bastion of political support for Najib and his coterie in Umno and now this “golden goose” is being challenged by PR.

With growing support in Felda schemes, PAS managed to wrest Semantan and Berserah constituencies in Pahang, Najib’s home state. But many schemes simply bar PAS and other opposition party leaders from entering the schemes to form branch or organise ceramahs.

Aliman’s arrest is now “frightening” settlers from taking part in PR activities, PAS leaders said.

Aliman, who is also president of the association of children of Felda settlers or ANAK, is now enemy number one of the Felda management.

At a national convention of Felda settlers at Kampong Temin in Jerantut, PKR deputy president Senator Dr Syed Husin Ali told settlers they would get a “new deal” under a PR government that incorporates elements of social democracy “as distinct from the capitalist thrust” of Felda now.

He also said new land schemes will be opened up for cultivation in contrast to current policy of no new schemes.

He said the proposed new schemes would give priority to the landless and unemployed among second and third generation descendants of the original settlers.

Umno on the other hand is relying on Tun Razak’s image as “father of the settlers” and the provision of housing, land and profit sharing with settlers as examples of how Umno has ably served the Malays and cared for them.

The original pioneer settlers used to pay Felda instalment payments towards ownership of the plots.

But in 1960 Parliament passed the Group Settlement Act which changed the way Felda schemes were managed.

Land clearing and seed planting were undertaken by Felda which then charged the costs to each settler, who had to clear the debt over a 15-year period at 6.25 per cent interest per annum.

Felda deducts the dues from the monthly earnings of settlers. Activists allege settlers were mired in debts especially during periods when the price of rubber plummeted.

They say settlers’ woes worsened because they are barred from transferring ownership of the land during their lifetimes or willing it to their heirs upon death.

This, they said, transformed settlers from proud owner-operators to subservient tenant farmers beholden to Felda bureaucrats.

In 1995 the land ownership issue became more complicated when Felda Holdings was incorporated.

Ownership was surrendered in return for shares in Felda incorporated, defeating the original purpose of combating Malay rural poverty.

courtesy of Malaysian Insider

No comments: