By Annabelle Lee

Caretaker Chief Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal has been busy crisscrossing Sabah in recent days to present land titles as elections loom.

The granting of these titles for Sabah’s bumiputera community has been a perennial hot button issue, especially for Warisan, the young political party which Shafie leads.

For years, villagers have wrestled with government agencies, government-linked companies and plantation conglomerates for ownership over their ancestral land.

According to a count based on news coverage of Shafie’s movements, he has presented 1,309 native titles in a span of five days.

Yesterday, Shafie was in Kinabatangan town where he presented 240 titles. He also announced that nine villages were no longer recognised as encroaching on “forest reserve” land as they had been gazetted.

In his speech, he accused the previous state government of labelling ancestral land as forest reserves only to fell trees and disenfranchise villagers there.

“There was a village in Kota Marudu where the people lived there for 40 years but later became squatters.

“The former government gazetted the land but changed it from a first-class reserve to a third-class reserve, so they could cut down trees. After they cut down the trees, they converted it back to a first-class reserve so that Sabah would be seen as having forest cover […],” he said as an example.

Shafie questioned why the Kinabatangan MP – Umno’s Bung Mokhtar Radin – “did not dare” to speak up about such issues when they happened in his constituency during the Musa Aman administration.

“But he has dared to ask what Warisan has done. What has Warisan done?

“Since I took over, we have prepared more than 10,000 native titles at the Land and Survey Department, but we have not been able to hand over all of them. We want to give them to all Sabahan people […],” he said.

Over the weekend, Shafie presented native titles to villagers in southeastern districts Tawau (318 titles) and Lahad Datu (352 titles).

Today, he presented 399 native titles in the northern tip of Kudat.

His road trip and title presentation ceremonies are expected to continue in Kuala Penyu on the west coast, Beluran in central Sabah and his constituency Semporna, located in the state’s southeastern part.

Bersih: Shafie abusing state resources

Election watchdog Bersih has since cried foul, accusing Shafie and Warisan of using the state’s apparatus to campaign ahead of an election expected to be held in September.

Bersih chairperson Thomas Fann (photo) told Malaysiakini that state resources should not be used for campaigning purposes, especially after the legislative assembly was dissolved on July 30.

“There are no laws to govern how a caretaker government should conduct itself but the use of state resources after the state assembly has been dissolved can be construed as campaigning and as such an abuse of his position as a caretaker chief minister […]

“The abuse of state resources for political gain violates the spirit of a free and fair election, rendering the playing field uneven,” he said.

However, Warisan permanent chairperson and Batu Sapi MP Liew Vui Keong explained that issuing native titles was not done with the polls in mind because the administrative process began “months” ago.

“It takes months for the Land and Survey Department to issue a title, they have to go to the ground to survey,” he told Malaysiakini.

It is unsure if the land titles being presented now were issued before or after July 30. Attempts to confirm the dates with the department have been unsuccessful.

Native titles are fully recognised under the law. Titleholders have permanent and perpetual ownership, and can only sell their plot to native Sabahans.

Liew (photo), a former federal law minister and veteran Sabah politician, said the state government was simply giving natives what is rightfully theirs under the Sabah Land Ordinance.

“But then, the previous chief ministers, be it Musa Aman or Joseph Pairin Kitingan – they did not have the political will, vision or dream (for this).

“So now we have a compassionate leader by the name of Shafie Apdal who wants native Sabahans to own land.

“So he instructs the Land and Survey Department to speed up the process for something the people have waited up to 30 years for,” he said.

The department is parked under the Chief Minister’s Department.

Shafie: Not here to fish votes

Meanwhile, Shafie told a press conference today that he and state agencies are allowed to proceed with their duties as long as the Election Commission has yet to issue a writ of elections.

The EC is expected to do so on Aug 17.

Shafie alleged that issuing land titles had nothing to do with the elections and that he had been presenting these documents to qualified individuals since last year.

“The (election) writ is not there, (if) the writ is there then it is a different story.

“I can offer help, I am not here to fish for votes,” he told reporters after presenting native titles in Kudat.

Similarly, Sabah Attorney-General Brenndon Keith Soh told Malaysiakini that the recent ceremonies were a mere “formality” to conclude a process facilitated by the bureaucracy.

These native land titles, he said, are signed ahead of time by individual landowners and the assistant collector of land revenue from local district land offices.

“These title deeds were issued and registered beforehand, and the delivery of the title deeds is a formality that concludes the process of providing ownership to the land applicants of their respective lands,” Soh said.

East Malaysia observer and University of Tasmania academic James Chin, however, noted that Warisan did issue such titles during its 26 months in power but not at the current pace.

“This (native title) is a long-standing issue, but it is being resolved now because the election is coming,” opined the political analyst.