Semantan Estates’ bid to compel govt to return Jalan Duta land

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on May 14, 2019.
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KUALA LUMPUR: Semantan Estates (1952) Sdn Bhd has been granted leave by the High Court here to initiate a hearing on the merits of its claims to retain beneficial interests and cause to transfer ownership in a 263.67-acre (106.7ha) piece of land along the former Jalan Duta (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Halim) that currently houses a number of government complexes and facilities.

This marks the beginning of another chapter in one of the longest-running legal sagas in the country, which began in 1960 when Semantan Estates disputed the RM1.3 million compensation it received from the government when the latter acquired the land under the old Land Acquisition Enactment to build a diplomatic enclave, which never materialised.

The Edge Malaysia weekly first reported on this legal land tussle in July 2013. Back then, the land had an estimated value of RM4.6 billion based on comparisons with residential parcels in the surrounding Taman Duta area going for RM500 per sq ft (psf) on average.

A property valuer who did not want to be named said the RM500 psf price still stands today because of the sluggish property market, but stressed that the price tag reflects the gross selling price.

The gross selling price of the land, he explained, does not factor in the additional investment from the buyer for roads, drains and other infrastructure, as well as the portions of land that would have to be given up for public facilities, such as schools, power stations and open spaces.

After adding the investment and deducting the land to be given up, which would come close to half of the total land area, the nett selling price — or actual selling price — of a large land parcel such as this would be closer to RM1,200 psf.

High Court judge Datuk Nordin Hassan yesterday granted leave to Semantan Estates in his chambers for the mandamus prayers to be heard, senior lawyer Ira Biswas told the The Edge Financial Daily.

“With the decision, the applicant’s order for the mandamus order will be heard at another date to be fixed by the court,” said Ira, who represents Semantan Estates.

Yesterday’s application was to ensure that Semantan Estates’ application is not frivolous, vexatious and an abuse of the court process, the lawyer added.

The decision was also confirmed by senior federal counsel Alice Loke, who appeared for the Malaysian government.


Details of the February 2017 judicial review

Semantan Estates had named the Malaysian government, the Federal Lands Commissioner, the minister charged with the responsibility for lands in the Federal Territory, the natural resources and the environment minister, the director-general of the Lands and Mines Department, the director of Lands and Mines (Federal Territory) and the Federal Territory Registrar of Titles, as respondents in its judicial review application filed in February 2017.

It sought leave for an order of mandamus to compel the respondents to do the following:

1. Transfer and cause to be transferred the 263.27-acre land in Mukim Batu to Semantan Estates free of encumbrances and liabilities

2. Execute and cause to execute to effect the transfer of the said land; and

3. Issue and cause to issue the document title of the said land to Semantan Estates.

The company also sought leave for:

1. The preparation, change, cancellation, deletion, correction or amendment of the registrar document of the land title and to register proprietorship of the said land to Semantan Estates; and

2. Returning and making arrangements in respect of returning and handing over the possession of the land to Semantan Estates, which is recognised as the lawful proprietor and owner of the land.

Two affidavits of support by Lim San Peen and Jim Lai Chee Chuan were filed in support of the judicial review application. The court ruled in 2009 that Semantan Estates retained beneficial interests.

In 2009, then High Court judge Zura Yahya ruled that Semantan Estates retained beneficial interests in the 263.27-acre land in Mukim Batu, which the government had taken unlawful possession of, meaning it had trespassed on the said land.

This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court.

On Nov 22 last year, the apex court led by Court of Appeal president Tan Sri Ahmad Maarop dismissed the review filed by the Malaysian government, six years after the initial Federal Court decision was made in 2012.

The judicial review application was filed in 2017, on the grounds that the respondents had failed, neglected, omitted and refused to comply with Semantan Estates’ demand to give effect to the court order stated above.

Semantan Estates’ lawyers argued that in line with Section 29 of the Government Proceedings Act 1956, it only needs to obtain a declaration against the Malaysian government, which the 2009 court order effectively is.

“Therefore as declared by the order, Semantan Estates is and had always been the rightful owner of the land as declared in the order and that the fact that the legal title was wrongly transferred to the Federal Lands Commissioner.

“The respondents have a duty to comply with the order. This is because public officers cannot flout the effect of the court orders and judgements, and are expected to act with honour and responsibility in compliance with court orders and judgements,” lawyers representing Semantan Estates had said in their submission.

Section 29(1)(b) states that in any proceedings against the government for the recovery of land or other property, the court shall not make an order for the recovery of the land or the delivery of the property, but may in lieu thereof make an order declaring that the plaintiff is entitled as against the government to the land or property or to the possession thereof.

The government and the other six respondents in the judicial review argued that the transfer of the land is not a performance of its public duties as provided for under the law and that the 2009 High Court judgement did not order that the land be transferred to Semantan Estates’ name.


Where is the land?

The property in question is located along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Halim here. The land currently houses a number of government properties such as the Federal Territories Mosque, the National Archives, the Inland Revenue Board building, Institut Integriti Malaysia, Jalan Duta Hockey Stadium, Jalan Duta Tennis and government complexes.

Prominent former tenants of the complex include the finance ministry and the international trade and industry ministry.

It is worth noting that parts of the 263.67 acres remain undeveloped.

In 1956, the British government had notified Semantan Estates that it wished to acquire the land to build a diplomatic area, which was reflected in its previous name.