By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
“Giving money is a privilege but taking away land is taking away the rakyat’s right,” said Augustine when foreclosing the case. He could not have said it better.
Cool heads finally prevailed, thus ending a protracted battle over a piece of land measuring 120ft x 120ft at the Hindu burial ground in Buntong. Had the wrangling continued unabated, tension would have built up resulting in more problems than ever imagined.
The root cause of the misunderstanding, unassuming though it may be, is the unending quest for a suitable public crematorium for use by non-Muslims in Ipoh. The issue is nothing new but it has gained momentum over time mainly due to procrastination by those entrusted with its implementation. The authorities should bear a major portion of the blame for giving too many false hopes and leads. I apportion the blame to politicians too for making a mess of the matter purely to score brownie points.
The Buntong burial ground is a gazetted piece of land “for the purpose of interment for the dead – to wit, a burial ground for Tamil community of Ipoh, to be maintained by the President, Vice President and Secretary of the Ipoh Hindu Devastana Parplana Sabha and their successors in office.” This is an excerpt taken from a notification made under Section 9 of the Land Enactment 1911, which was promulgated in Taiping on June 24, 1919.
This clause is explicit but in making its intention known, the state government had resorted to a little arm-twisting by demanding, in a letter dated May 3, 2011 and addressed to the Chairman of the Hindu Devathana Paripalana Sabah (HDPS), that in order for the crematorium to be built, the society was required to surrender the 120ft x 120 ft where open cremating is presently being carried out, inclusive of the building. A special committee would then be formed under the auspices of the Executive Councillor for Non-Islamic Affairs, Dato’ Dr Mah Hang Soon. The special committee would oversee and manage the crematorium and HDPS would be given a seat on the committee.
The cost of building this public crematorium was originally estimated at RM1.5 million. That was the figure quoted during a meeting of the Majlis Mesyuarat Kerajaan Negeri on April 7, 2004. The amount suddenly jumped to RM14.7 million when the issue was raised by the Opposition during question time at the State Legislative Assembly sitting on August 3 of this year. The proposed site had shifted to Lahat and Papan. The reason behind this abnormal amount, according to the ruling party, was for the building of a modern facility, incorporating the latest cremating techniques.
The terms proffered by the state government, as a pre-condition for building a crematorium on the Buntong burial ground, did not go down well with the Hindu community in Ipoh. What many found wanting was the requirement for the society to surrender the piece of land to the state government.
The matter was again raised during a subsequent sitting of the State Legislative Assembly on August 15 of this year. The ruling party’s reply was equally perplexing. It countered by saying that the state “had no desire to annex the piece of land but was intending on helping HDPS to upgrade the open cremating site provided it was agreed by members of the society.” The new crematorium would “then be able to be used by all non-Muslims”. The new site once completed “will be re-gazetted”.
For use by all non-Muslims and re-gazetting? These addendums are definitely alien to the Hindu community of Buntong. Soon alarm bells were sounded. It took the sound legal mind of Augustine Anthony to defuse the situation, which had by then, reached saturation point.
“The clause in the Land Enactment 1911 is crystal clear,” he reasoned. It is for the interment of the dead of those from the Hindu Community. “Giving money is a privilege but taking away land is taking away the rakyat’s right,” said Augustine when foreclosing the case. He could not have said it better.