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Royal wards or squatters in Johor?

Some villagers say they are worried about the growth of the squatter community but the squatters themselves believe that legally or not, they are now part of the area.

Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh
4 minute read
The squatter homes of Kampung Pasir Putih in Pasir Gudang, Johor.
The squatter homes of Kampung Pasir Putih in Pasir Gudang, Johor.

Amid the hustle and bustle of Pasir Gudang town in Johor, a squatter settlement is slowly growing, becoming more densely populated and sparking concerns over safety among the residents in the area.

At Kampung Pasir Putih, the houses are built close together, making it difficult for the water to flow down to the river each time heavy rain causes one of the area’s frequent flash floods.

At nearly every alley stand old wooden jetties, constructed long ago and now rotting under the weight of the years. The very structure of the soil on which the houses were built has settled due to nearby land reclamation works.

Some of the original villagers who spoke to MalaysiaNow said they were worried about the situation.

They said the squatters whose issues have lingered for six decades now appear to have become too comfortable to change.

One of them, who spoke on condition of anonymity, blamed the squatter settlement on seaside home owners who reclaim their own land along the shore and build houses there without the permission of the local government.

A fisherman sits on the ground outside his house as he mends his nets on a wet day in Kampung Pasir Putih.

Eventually, he said, such activities became widespread and uncontrollable.

“Are they wilfully refusing to leave because they live here for free and are too comfortable in their squatter area?” he said.

“Or are they truly forced to stay here because they cannot afford to buy a house or have other financial problems? There are many issues involved here.”

Kampung Pasir Putih was one of three main villages established in the area around 1920. Today, it is the only one still standing.

Located some 10 minutes away from the Pasir Gudang port, it is also home to a number of fishermen and factory workers.

The villager who spoke to MalaysiaNow said the squatters were becoming bolder as no action had been taken against them.

He said they were now reclaiming land of their own and building more squatter houses to be sold to fishermen and factory workers who wanted them.

As the squatter settlement grows, so too does the discomfort of the original villagers.

Family members prepare the dowry for a nephew who is soon to be wed while several small children look on at their squatter house in Kampung Pasir Putih.

“If the squatter area were not so big, this village would be neater and cleaner.”

Especially now, with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging, he said, the cramped homes and close proximity of the squatters could cause a spike in infections.

The villagers are also worried about one of their few claims to fame: a seafood restaurant which draws customers from across the country including VIPs and even members of the royalty.

Now, though, it is surrounded by squatter homes.

‘Our village’

MalaysiaNow’s visit to the village found the situation as described: cramped and dirty, with more houses under construction as the villager had said.

At a store selling sundry goods, a group of men from the squatter community who were there after a day at sea said they were not angry about the situation. Nevertheless, they believe that whether legally or not, they are now part of the village area.

“Don’t disturb our village,” they added.

A group of men sit at a coffee shop in Kampung Pasir Putih.

They also claimed that the village was under the watch of the Johor sultan, saying many of the squatters were of Bugis descent – a reference to the lineage of the Johor royal family.

For this reason, they believe that they are under the protection of the Johor palace.

“The sultan loved this village,” one of them said. “Before this, he used to come to visit. There were no problems.”

MalaysiaNow understands that the squatters play strongly on such sentiments to avoid being evicted from the village.

“They rely on Bugis sentiments as they are afraid they will be chased out,” another villager said to MalaysiaNow.

“They themselves know that many of them are not Malaysian citizens. Nearly all of them come from other countries.”

The villager said they had referred the matter to the village chief as well as the local authorities several times before, but have seen no change in the situation.

“It’s not that we don’t like the squatters,” he added. “It’s not that. We understand that some of them are truly in dire straits.

“But there are also some living there who have bought two or three houses in Masai,” he said, referring to the town in Pasir Gudang.

“What then? The local government must be fair and ensure that only those who really deserve it are given land.”

A narrow alleyway divides one row of houses from the next at the squatter settlement in Kampung Pasir Putih.

Otherwise, he said, left to their own devices, the squatters paid no rent.

“But their garbage still gets collected even though they don’t pay anything. That’s unfair.”

‘Waiting to be kicked out’

Nevertheless, MalaysiaNow understands that efforts to curry favour with the palace through Bugis sentiments may be fruitless as a project to set up a resort centre near the village is in the pipeline.

A source said the project had been about to take off but was suspended due to resistance from Dr Mahathir Mohamad during his second tenure as prime minister after the 2018 general election.

“There were some issues,” the source said. “The state government wanted to take all of the land by the sea. Next to the village, there’s the Puteri Resort, a golf club and an abandoned plot of bungalow land. They wanted to develop it under Forest City.

“But after Pakatan Harapan won, Mahathir objected. Forest City wanted to invest there, and to build a resort with a theme park.

“I have seen with my own eyes the blueprints of the project in Subang Jaya,” the source added. “They have put up advertisements already.”

The source said this came as a surprise as the squatters were unlikely to know about the situation.

“Every day, they say the village is under palace protection – but they are the ones who will be kicked out.”

MalaysiaNow reached out to the Pasir Putih village chief for more details but he declined to respond.