New Internationalist

Action At Tanjong Tokong

Issue 147

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Action at Tanjong Tokong
One of the strongest of all Third World consumer movements is in Malaysia - where the
campaign is on to empower a normally passive people against the free market.

Burgeoning Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. People are not permitted to obstruct progress.
Photo: Dexter Tiranti

The kampong village sleeps in the hot afternoon sun. A few desultory chickens peck aimlessly in the dust of the front yard of Che Mat bin Mohd. Omar’s house. Across the street half a dozen old men are squatting in the shade, smoking and loudly solving the world’s problems the way old men do the world over.

Che Mat too has a problem. He and the other 5,000 residents of kampong Tanjong Tokong are being ‘developed’ - and they don’t like it.

A few hundred yards away, where the village fronts the busy coastal road, stands the first phase of the Malaysian Urban Development Authority’s project to ‘rehabilitate, reconstruct and renew Tanjong Tokong village’. The grey, concrete block of four-storey flats surrounded by tarmac was built in the mid-1970s. Eventually 96 families moved in at the government’s urging. And soon, phase II, a massive 16-storey apartment block began to rise alongside. The government’s plan was to move all the villagers into the modern, new apartments, then to raze the kampong and turn the land into shopping centres and housing estates.

At first the villagers weren’t overly concerned. Things would surely work out. But by the early 1980s a few realized the government was serious. ‘That’s when we decided to contact CAP; says Che Mat We badly needed some advice.

The Consumer’s Association of Penang. or CAP as it’s known, took up the request as eagerly as it would a complaint about dangerous medicines or short-weighted foodstuffs. But then CAP is not an ordinary consumer organization, because CAP has made a clear link between consumer issues and development. In fact, as far as CAP Research Director Martin Khor is concerned. they are one and the same. ‘You can’t separate them into neat compartments: he says. ‘The poor and the powerless are the ones who really get pushed around by the system and it’s their interests and needs as consumers that are ignored.’

Tanlong Tokong ma a case in point. The village is one of the largest Malay settlements on the island of Penang. lust a few miles outside the predominantly Chinese city of Georgetown. Most villagers are fishermen. food hawkers, factory and construction workers. Che Mat is a teacher. He is also chairman of the newly-formed Residents Association.

‘The people are happy’, he says. ‘We don’t ask for this development. We already have homes and a little land for fruit trees and chickens. And there are plenty of shops. We don’t want to move.’

Although many families have been there for generations, in the government’s view the residents of Taniong Tokong are squatters. Without legal title to the land, they were granted temporary occupation licences by state authorities. But after 1 975. when it was decided the kampong should be ‘developed’. none of the licences were renewed. The government move turned the whole village into instant squatters.

CAP believes this kind of ‘development’ by planners and experts ends up doing more harm than good. ‘We ask basic questions; says Khor. ‘What exactly is being developed? For whom and by whom?’

Their active complaints department is one of the organization’s main contact points with the public. People constantly wander into CAP’s breezy old seaside mansion to complain about a faulty kettle or a worm-infested cake mix.

CAP also has a Rural Section that works with rubber tappers and palm oil estate workers, publicizing bad working conditions and helping the workers to organize for better housing and health care. It was the rural section that responded initially to the complaint of the Taniong Tokong villagers.

Infect, after a few weeks in Malaysia it’s hard to avoid CAP. Their researchers and writers churn Out a flurry of press releases every month in the country’s main languages - Malay. Chinese, Tamil and English. Their monthly tabloid newspaper Urusan Konsumer is read eagerly. And the organization’s President. SM Mohd. Idris is quoted frequently by Malaysia’s cautious press. Probably too frequently in the government’s view. In South East Asia’s richest country outside Singapore official criticism of the government is muted and circumspect. To a large extent CAP has filled the void. It blasts the government for drafting ‘a rich man’s budget’ while campaigning hard against mammoth show-piece development projects like the 5480 million Penang Bridge scheduled for completion this July. The government has snapped back on occasion. And Works Minister. Datuk Samy Vello, dismissed CAP’s questions about worker safety on the Penang Bridge as ‘organized subversive work to run down the government and the project’ That was after five workers plunged to their death when a concrete crossbeam collapsed.

But attacks like these don’t faze the organization. Although CAP is toe most visible of Malaysia’s consumer groups there are at least a dozen others who have come together under the umbrella of the Federation of Malaysian Consumers’ Associations (FOMCAI. FOMCA members in Pahang. Melaka and elsewhere focus most of their work in consumer education, especially in the schools. In the Koala Lumpur region, the Selangor Consumers Association persuaded private school canteen operators to purge the cafeterias of look food. The campaign was carried Out through school consumer clubs, which meant in most cases the students were the ones pushing for change.

But it’s CAP that sets the pace. Its size, energy and sneer audacity set it apart. In the case of Tanlong Tokong. CAP workers encouraged the villagers to form a Residents Association and to petition government for permanent titles to the land. The new flats are now finished but the kampong a united. Tanjong Tokong spokesman Che Mat is adamant:

‘Let them sell those flats to real squatters.

We will not let the government destroy our homes for this development which we don’t want.’


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