The descendants of settlers from Kwangchow have been waiting a dozen years for the compensation they were promised after they were forced to vacate their family homes along Jalan Raja Uda in Butterworth to make way for a major property development project.
Photos by Anil Netto – click icon on bottom right to toggle to full-screen slideshow mode
Today, their temporary concrete and zinc-roofed homes are rapidly decaying while the elusive agreed compensation – 800 sq ft three-bedroom medium-cost apartments – is nowhere in sight.
Since the mid-1990s, over 300 households scattered over 50 acres have lost their family homes to the Raja Uda Commercial Centre project in Butterworth. This project comprises rows of new shophouses, each priced at between RM500,000 to RM1 million, fronting both sides of a one-kilometre stretch of Jalan Raja Uda towards the intersection with Jalan Telaga Air/Jalan Siram.
Some 200 settlers had accepted cash compensation ranging from RM20,000 to RM60,000 while 72 others signed compensation agreements in 1996/97 for a medium-cost apartment worth around RM80,000. Another 50 households or so are affected by the latest phase of the project.
Of those 72 households, 27 chose to find temporary rented accommodation elsewhere while 45 were given temporary housing: 600 sq ft two-bedroom units in rows of long-houses (the blue-coloured area of the map).
But these houses, not built to last, are falling apart. A few residents have placed additional corrugated sheets – held down by bricks to prevent them from flying off – on top of damaged roofing. Gaps in the roofing have led to leakages, which have stained ceiling boards. Termite infestation is worsening.
The 27 who opted for rented accommodation while waiting for the apartments were given a RM400 monthly rental subsidy, but this stopped after about 18 months, say village committee members.
In 2001, the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), then under the BN, stunned the settlers when it approved the construction of low-cost flats on the site that was meant for the settlers’ medium-cost apartments. These low-cost flats (see photo), to meet the developer’s social housing quota, are meant for the general public – not the affected settlers – and are to be allotted by the state. The low-cost blocks are almost completed but have not yet received Occupational Certificates (OCs).
The site for the medium-cost apartments was moved to the site originally meant for the low-cost housing – the same spot where the settlers now live in their longhouses (the blue area). This creates another dilemma: how is the developer going to build the medium-cost apartments as compensation for the settlers when their temporary longhouses are located on the site?
The original developer was Cherating Development Sdn Bhd. In 2000, the business was taken over by Woolley Development Sdn Bhd.
The 50 households affected by the latest phase of the project – another row of shophouses possibly priced at up to a million ringgit each – could receive cash compensation ranging from only RM8,000 to RM20,000.
Most of the settlers arrived in Jalan Raja Uda in the 1920s and 1930s from Kwangchow, a sub-provincial city that is the capital of Guangdong province in southern China. Mostly Teochew and Hokkien-speaking, they toiled as farmers and reared livestock in the area, selling their produce in the town market near the Maha Mariamman Devasthanam Temple in Bagan, the Butterworth old town centre. Next to the temple stood the old jetty where open-air wooden-platform ferries, guided and pulled forward by cables, plied between Butterworth and George Town. (Bagan incidentally means jetty or landing point; there is even a Bagan in Burma.) The sole Punjabi family in the area, who reared cattle, supplied the local folk with milk.
In the 1950s, the younger generation began working at the new Khian Guan Biscuit Manufacturing Company in Jalan Siram at the intersection with Jalan Raja Uda. It was the first factory in the area, well before the establishment of the nearby Mak Mandin Industrial Estate, one of the oldest industrial zones in the country.
Jalan Raja Uda before the 1960s was just a sand road, largely traffic-free, on which kids sometimes played marbles. Alongside the road, the more mischievous ones climbed trees and snared birds with glue. If they were unfortunate, a passing policeman might order them to come down and do ear-squats. Whole families would pull out brightly coloured chairs, made of plastic straps around a metal frame, to sit by the road and savour the evening breeze. The children studied at the nearby Chung Hwa (Central) School in Kampong Gajah Road and the branch school in Telaga Air Road.
Today, the children of the pre-war settlers may not live long enough to see their final homes and die with dignity if the compensation is not hurriedly given. Seven or eight of them have already passed away since the compensation agreements were signed a dozen years ago.
The MPSP, now under Pakatan, still has some leverage: it can see to it that the settlers are properly compensated before issuing the OCs for the project. Will those still alive receive a fair deal before it’s too late?