Unlocking the full value of Sabah’s land resources
Published on: Sunday, February 09, 2020
By: Datuk John Lo
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The Sabah government’s announcement on the 24-hour DP approval is welcome news. This is an important first step towards achieving a more efficient, transparent and hopefully, corruption–free property development application/approval system. To expect this policy to provide the ultimate all–in–one solution will be unrealistic. It is not the panacea for all the problems that have plagued Sabah since living memory! However, this initial step is, I hope, will be like the proverbial Chinese saying that “a journey of a thousand li [Chinese mile] starts with a simple step”. We need to temper expectations. Sabah’s real estate development is a complex industry and will require many other supplementary wide-ranging innovative policies, administrative procedures and co-operation from government/private stakeholders to bring it up to speed. If I may be permitted, as a layman, to give some comments which, hopefully, will contribute in some small ways to this very important industry achieving proper perspective and back to the right track.

24-hour interim DP approval—-not final approval nor is it an automatic approval.

Hopefully, with this 24-hour interim DP approval in place, it will begin a new dawn for property development in particular and the Sabah economy in general. It used to take 12 months or so just to get the equivalent of this 24-hour interim DP approval. this 24 hour interim DP approval is a quantum leapt for Sabah. 

There may have been a misunderstanding in the news reports on the Sabah Government’s announcement. I stand corrected on this. It is not a 24-hour final approval nor is it an automatic approval. An architect told me it is an interim DP approval. The applicant developer/architect/planner have 6 months to comply with the terms and conditions of the interim DP approval. This misperception needs to be addressed to avoid misunderstanding and may eventually create a political problem of another “failed promise”.

Adding teeth to this 24-hour approval policy.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The success of this policy, which has my whole hearted support, is best measured from the time the DP is first submitted to the time when final approval is given by the relevant authorities for the developer to commence construction. This is the acid test ultimate bottom time-line. Delays and procrastinations can still set in after the interim DP approval. The rule of the thumb now is 3 years or more by most consultants. As a supplement to the 24-hour interim DP approval, it would be very good if the government can set a time frame for the final approval/ rejection. If the whole A-Z process can be reduced to just 12 month, the government’s achievement would be very credible and laudable. The saving in time cost and contribution to reduction in business risk management by developers would be significant.

To arrive at an average of 12-month final approval will need more than government’s good intention. All stakeholders, from the consultants to each individual approving departments/agencies must play their parts with utmost attention and efficiency. I understand running to these departments/agencies to secure their respective responses can be quite a tiresome job. Often, it takes months.

The Chief Minister’s Department is best positioned to mandate these departments/agencies to provide quick responses and to intervene when and where necessary.

Over-riding principles and value system.

An overhaul with the following over-riding principles and value system, is long overdue in the property development industry—-[a] Time is money. Present system is time insensitive. [b] Intended or unintended delays will increase cost for the buyers of property. [c] An efficient system with built-in certainty and transparency are best preventions of corruption. [d] Elected political leaders should inculcate within themselves the fiduciary duty they owe to the voters/buyers who have been burdened with over-priced properties for far too long.

Who will monitor and supervise?

The execution of this policy can only be as good as the officials tasked with its implementation and those in charged with monitoring and supervision. Having the 24-hour interim DP approval policy is no guarantee of speedy final approval to commence construction. The whole process that we have now needs a thorough revamp for it to be realigned towards speedy final approval and free from corruption.

Another question is—-to whom can the developer run to if and when there is a delay/blockage or when he requires an appeal? Is this part of the system already in place. If not, developers will be forced to pay to get things done [if you know what I mean].

History in Sabah is littered with good policies that have failed simply because of poor execution, no monitoring and supervision.

Will price of house go down due to this policy?

Unlikely and even if it will, the reduction will be nominal. The price of houses in Sabah is determined by various other factors in demand and supply——[a] Artificial shortage of land—-Sabah has plenty of land. Our population per square kilometre is one of the lowest. Land should cost a lot less. No reason for land prices to be same as in KL outside the golden triangle. To stabilize land prices, all that the government needs to do is provide infrastructure to more land for development. [b] Cement monopoly given to Sabah Cement Industry [a GLC] has kept cement price up. There should be a free market for cement. [c] Sabah has to import most of the building materials. Nothing much is manufactured here except bricks and metal roofing sheets. [d] Only Sabahans have to pay SESB contributions. We are being fleeced. No other states have this obnoxious practice. [e] Corruption money. [e] Archaic building methods in Sabah mean higher construction cost and longer time to complete. We need to adopt new construction technology.

Above list is not exhaustive.

A transformed Land and Survey Department can unlock full potential of Sabah’s land resources.

Ultimately, land is Sabah’s most important asset. Its untapped wealth is huge. Careful and proper land planning can uplift Sabahans’ living standard. A transformed Land and Survey Department can play a major role to realize this. 

Land and Survey Department is now being treated as a purely technical department, like a mere simple technician. Continuing the momentum of the innovative improvements by Datuk Safar Untong, the department can be transformed into the single biggest contributor to our economy and revenue for Sabah government. How? Look no further than Singapore. The Sabah government can emulate and give it the same mission of the Singapore Land Authority. Please allow me to quote SLA’s mission—-”The mission of the Singapore Land Authority is to OPTIMIZE LAND RESOURCES FOR THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT OF SINGAPORE. It ensures the best use of State land and buildings, provides an effective and reliable land management system and enables the full use of land information for better land management.” [Capital fonts by me] Please note the capital key words.

Adopting SLA’s mission or a slightly modified version of this mission can empower the Land and Survey to unlock the full potential of Sabah’s land resources. Just look at Singapore’s model—-it has a tiny piece of land but with careful, proper social/economic land planning, Singapore has harassed its land to fullest potential for Singaporeans’ benefits. 

Singapore’s SLA was formed in 2001. Sabah’s Land and Survey Department is a hangover of the bygone colonial era, seriously out of sync with 21st century. I hope the Sabah Government can consider transforming and empowering our Land and Survey Department to take on the responsibility to optimize land for the economic and social development of Sabah and to rename it as the Sabah Land Authority.

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