Tan Sri Shahrir Samad, who first won the Johor Baru parliamentary seat in the fifth general election in 1978, speaks to Kamarul Azhar about his longevity as an MP, what the Barisan Nasional offers voters and how he handles the people’s issues. Here are excerpts:
The Edge: Tan Sri, you first won the Johor Baru parliamentary seat in 1978. Even when other major cities around the country fell into the hands of the opposition parties, Johor Baru has stayed with Barisan Nasional. How have you managed to maintain your grip?
Shahrir: I believe in empowering the community. There are various types of people in Johor Baru, so I have to engage them. To empower the people, you have to engage with them. So, if I talk about empowering communities without engaging them, it is all bullshit.
Are you engaging with those who don’t want to move out of the settlements to allow redevelopment?
They have been engaged with from the beginning. It is not that they do not know [that they have to eventually move out], it is just that they want the land. It is not fair because the majority has agreed to move. So, do you put the minority over the majority, when the land itself is going to be used for developing more houses for other people? Which is the fairer solution? It is not that they are not going to get a house. They will all get the houses.
If they have been there for generations, they are entitled to a house. If they just migrated to the area, then they are not entitled. That’s all.
Those who have moved to the flats said when they were first told to move in, you told them to just move first without paying anything. Now, they have to pay about RM5,000 for the maintenance of the houses. Is this true?
That is not true. The developer has been claiming for the maintenance fees, but we said no. You cannot claim for the maintenance fees because UPEN has already taken over the project because the developer delayed the project. They couldn’t even get the CCC and rectify the problems, so the state government took over the project and got KPRJ to manage it.
If you look at it, you can’t get this kind of scheme anywhere in Malaysia. The area is going to be redeveloped with a kind of megamall like Mid Valley right next door. In fact, even now, the value of the houses should have gone up to RM150,000, but they can get the house for RM35,000. Rental for one unit is already RM800.
Why can’t the settlers be given land?
Because the land has been earmarked for other purposes, and because the deal, the agreement that we made in the early Nineties with the settlers, is that if we want to give them the land in lots, everybody should get it. But the land is not big enough to be given in lots. When we did the survey, we discussed with everyone in the village, with their leaders, and got their points of view. There are 400 families in the area. If we subdivide the land into lots, based on the local authority and the state land department’s standard, we can accommodate only 80% of the families. So what will happen to the remaining 20%? So, which is fairer ... when everybody gets a house plus another house for one of their children, and the remaining land be used for further housing development? You maximise the beneficiaries.
I think they have to accept the reality that the availability of land in cities is not going to increase. A lot of state land has been developed under privatisation. The curse of privatisation has impacted all of us. Now, what does privatisation bring? It only makes a few people rich.
So when they did the CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine) complex, for example, they had to demolish the settlements in Lumba Kuda and Bukit Chagar. We gave them alternative flats in Sri Stulang and Sri Iskandar. Better flats with three rooms. From a one-room housing estate, we gave them a house with three rooms. And that was the first low-cost housing project in Malaysia that had three rooms.
Lumba Kuda and Bukit Chagar flats were iconic structures in the city, but the condition of the houses was unsuitable for human habitation.
I don’t want to brag about my achievements, but as minister for federal territories, and as MP for Johor Baru, I have built more than 1,500 units of low-cost houses. In Kampung Pandan, it was also my project when I was the minister. That was also three-bedroom flats. They were sold at RM25,000 per unit, with a subsidy of RM10,000 from the government. Now, how much are they worth? These are assets which are given to the poor, so that they can rent it out. They can also charge it.
The solutions are not sexy. The problems are sexy, but never the solutions. I understand the problem of the urban poor, because I meet them and I engage with them.
I don’t mind if there are people who don’t like the way I do things in Johor Baru because there are still people who like me. Even during the so-called tsunami in 2013, I got a majority of over 10,000. Sure, my majority was halved from over 20,000. That’s okay. There must be something right that I have done for the people in Johor Baru that they still voted me in in 2013.
Initially, you didn’t want to contest this time round, so what made you change your mind? Is it because there aren’t any winnable candidates for Johor Baru from BN?
I told them there were but they didn’t want to believe me. The things we do in Johor Baru are amazing.
What about the RM150 subsidy for a child in a daycare centre? It is going to benefit 300 children from families with incomes of less than RM5,000 per month. They pay RM300 per month, but with the subsidy, they only have to pay RM150 per month. So it helps with their cost of living. It is only in Johor Baru.
This is a pilot project. I proposed to the prime minister if the federal government can support us. If it works, you can replicate it in Selangor, Penang and other states. Our model utilises what the government system has, which is JKM (Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat) approved childcare centres. The nannies have to be trained according to the JKM curriculum. The most important thing is it benefits young couple who live in the city. It is a project for reducing the burden of young couples in terms of cost of living and so on.
I have a coupon discount scheme for those who take taxis. I tried it out at one taxi stand at the CIQ to see what happens, because in addition to e-hailing, the taxis want to be able to give discounts to the passengers. It is for the benefit of both the passengers and the taxi drivers.
We created football clubs to look after the football fields. We have a home ground concept, where we bring in the community to support the teams. Every club has a clubhouse to look after the management of the fields. We give the responsibility to care for the football fields to the local community.
I also supported Kilang Bateri. It is the concept of indienomics, the idea of encouraging young people to do business, to come up with their own brands, online businesses. The state also supported what we do and the federal government provides funds for those young peoples’ businesses. Now, these brands are being poached by the malls.
I have also encouraged skateboarding and some malls in Johor Baru are planning to build skate parks to attract the crowds. These are the small things that we tried out because there are many groups of people that we should pay attention to — from the skaters to the cyclists, footballers, musicians, athletes. The thing that links them all together is still the community. Everybody is a member of a community, whether it is a skater community, football community and so on. I try to do my best.
Tan Sri, while you have proposed and done a lot of things for the people of Johor Baru, don’t you think that the issue of land is very important in the minds of the voters? For a lot of houses in Johor Baru, the land has a leasehold title. Will the tenure be extended?
Of course the tenure can be extended. Everyone can extend the tenure of their properties. If you look at the new houses being built, how can they build anew if the land tenure is not being extended? All they have to do is just apply to the Land Office. They only have to pay the premium for the lease tenure extension. It is a practice in this civilised country, where if you are a landowner, you have the right to extend your lease.
If we look at those Muslims who went to perform umrah, 10, 20 years ago, our parents couldn’t afford to bring us there. But now we can bring our parents or family to umrah. Surely it means something that the wealth of the Malays is increasing. Zakat payments have also been increasing, which means there has been an increase of income among the Malays.
How is it that new developments like Forest City can be given freehold status?
That’s up to what the Sultan says. That’s the government’s policy.