End sale of government land in Kuala Lumpur

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had recently announced an immediate freeze on the sale and lease of government lands in Kuala Lumpur, including those in the process of being alienated.

This comes following the revelation that 52 plots of government land in Kuala Lumpur, including those reserved as open spaces and green lungs, had been alienated and leased to developers and businessmen between 2020 and 2022.

The matter warrants the government to take a serious look at the role played by Kuala Lumpur City Hall and its various departments.

City Hall, since the early 80’s, had been doing things on its own, exercising its status as a ‘city corporation’ as reaffirmed by the City of Kuala Lumpur Act 1971.

The question now is, what actually transpired in the sale of some of these 52 plots of land?

What lands are these and who are the owners?

To answer these questions, it is crucial to understand the processes involved.

When it comes to development, there is a planning process where developers apply for planning permission to develop a parcel of land, say for housing.

In order to develop, they need a development order, and part of that process, is getting a master layout plan approval, under which the developers are required to surrender parcels of land for parks and green spaces, public amenities, utilities, and infrastructure – for example, Tenaga Nasional Berhad substations, surau, or sewage treatment plants.

For larger developments, the same requirements would be imposed for the building of schools, kindergartens, and police and fire stations, amongst others. Remember, that these are surrendered land, not sold.

When the schemes are developed, these lands are surrendered to the Land Office, which serves as a temporary custodian only, not the owner.

If a plot of land is meant for a TNB substation, it must be given to TNB. It’s not government land, to be sold or leased, to developers. Likewise for other purposes, although the proper method of assigning ‘control’ (i.e. not real ownership) to other agencies is different, under the National Land Code.

As such, these lands actually belong to the people in that housing area, as the cost of that land had been factored in into the development, and the price of each house sold to buyers, includes a component of that cost.

If the land is not needed by a particular government agency or utility company, the land should be used for, or be benefited by, the people of that housing area.

It is not to be sold to developers. However, more often than not, this is not the case, as there are many instances where these lands are taken and sold to developers.

There is a committee called the Federal Territory Land Exco, chaired by the chief secretary to the government, which approves these land sales.

One case that has been in the news lately is a public park in Setapak named Taman Rekreasi Air Panas, of which one-third of is a lake.

Various facilities were built, which the public enjoyed, but the key step in securing its status (in applying for public parks) was not completed – the reservation as a public purpose open space under Section 62 of the National Land Code. This ‘oversight’ enabled a private party to later apply for, and obtain, most of the land, right from under City Hall’s noses, leaving behind only the water surface, sans public park.

It remains a huge puzzle as to why such a crucial step was ‘left out’. One cannot help but wonder if it was deliberate.

There have been similar cases, as highlighted by this news website.

The big question is, why do these things happen?

Based on experience, it happens due to poor governance by City Hall and the government.

Will these old practices come to an end with City Hall being placed under the direct purview of the Prime Minister’s Department, whose control also extends to the Federal Territory Land and Mines Office, which can either be an abettor of, or a gatekeeper against, such mischief.

In the Taman Rekreasi Air Panas case, the Land Office would have known that taxpayer-funded public facilities had been built by City Hall just a few years earlier, since the Land Office, as the land administrator, would have given its consent to the project.

One wonders how the ‘facts’ were presented to the Federal Territory Land Exco Committee for getting the private alienation approved.

When the Federal Territory (Planning) Act 1982 was enacted, the powers of the Commissioner (the Datuk Bandar or mayor) were religiously preserved.

While the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 was used as a reference point to draft the Federal Territory Planning Act, one key element was dropped. This key aspect, present in the Town and Country Planning Act but not the Federal Territory Planning Act, is the state planning committee, which the menteri besar or chief minister chairs, comprising of four exco members, namely elected state assemblymen, with state directors of the relevant agencies in attendance.

There is, however, no equivalent mechanism to control City Hall under the Federal Territory Planning Act.

In Petaling Jaya, Selangor, the mayor of the city cannot sign off on development plans (structure/local plans and the ongoing alterations thereof) as he wishes. He must refer the matter to the state planning committee.

Structure plans have to be approved by the state planning committee. The Petaling Jaya mayor cannot prepare, and then approve the plans.

This mechanism is what Kuala Lumpur needs to control the activities within Kuala Lumpur City Hall. When all aspects of development, specifically plan revisions/alterations are tightly controlled, the ‘pipeline’ of improper land deals will dry up.

The Federal Territory planning committee can include the heads from the Federal Territory Public Works Department, Land and Mines Department, and Town and Country Planning Department, including elected representatives from the Federal Territory.

The chairman of course, (based on the current governance structure), should be the prime minister. This way, the people’s elected representatives will play a role in protecting the rights of their constituents.

Having said this, there is a historical overhang of many lots of land under the title ownership of the mayor of Kuala Lumpur.

Some are indeed for City Hall facilities, in providing services and in administering the city. But many end up being developed, at increased densities, through joint ventures with (or outright sale to) developers.

A number of these are seen among the “273 illegal addendums” of the Kuala Lumpur City Plan 2020 – with City Hall “legalising” its own “privatisation” deals, by gazetting them!

Such land also bypasses the public disclosure/consultations that Section 62 of the National Land Code (land) reserves are subjected to. This is a point I will be discussing in my next column.

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