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Council staff in limbo over low-cost homes

KUALA LUMPUR: The fate of Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) staff members who reportedly own low-cost housing units remains in limbo pending the completion of investigations into the matter and a final decision on the issue.

The first order for MBPJ’s Audit and Corporate Governance Committee, said Petaling Jaya local councillor Derek Fernandez, was to determine if there was indeed such a policy under the previous MBPJ administration that entitled council employees to own low-cost housing units.

“We are of the opinion that if there was such a policy and if the staff members did not cheat to qualify, then they should not be penalised. But whoever created the policy should be held accountable.

“If they (MBPJ staff members) did not cheat but were following clear policy, it’d be unfair to penalise them. If they cheated, they should give the units back,” Fernandez said when contacted.

Last Friday, theSun daily reported that some 500 senior officials and staff members of MBPJ had been allocated low-cost housing units between 2000 and 2005. The issue sparked a public outcry when it was reported that some of the units were not owner-occupied but were rented out to others as a source of income.

The report also noted that the Selangor state government guidelines stated that only those with a combined family income of less than RM2,500 a month were eligible to apply for the units.

Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, in an immediate response to the issue, said that the state administration had issued a directive for all ineligible owners of low-cost homes to surrender their units back to the state.

Fernandez said that in the past, it was “understood” that a directive given by a state executive council member was “taken as law”.

Therefore, the MBPJ’s Audit and Corporate Governance Committee would need to scrutinise past events to determine what had led to the introduction of the scheme, Fernandez said.

Fernandez stressed that the low-cost housing scandal did not involve the existing crop of councillors under the current Petaling Jaya Mayor Datuk Mohamad Roslan Sakiman.

Fernandez, a practising lawyer, was of the opinion that owners of the low-cost homes should not be allowed to rent out the units and should, if they intended to sell the property, sell them back to the state.

Apart from the MBPJ’s five-man Audit and Corporate Governance Committee, the Selangor state government and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) are also conducting separate investigations into the matter.

Asked for comments, DAP’s Senator S Ramakrishnan said no council staff members should be allowed to buy low-cost houses unless they are qualified under the existing income requirements.

Ramakrishnan ticked off MBPJ for defending the scheme when it said that the housing projects’ developers had offered MBPJ’s management team the excess units in eight low-cost housing schemes built on private land from 2000.

“There were no checks and balances in the previous regime. This is a good start because Petaling Jaya has lots of projects and there are lots of loose ends,” said the former local councillor.

Ramakrishnan proposed that the state government form a committee to coordinate the returned  units and quickly implement more stringent guidelines to govern the allocation of these low-cost homes.

When contacted, former Penang municipal councillor Dr Goh Ban Lee questioned why council staff should be given “priority” to purchase affordable housing.

“Why should incentives be given to civil servants? If they fall behind the income threshold then they should queue up and apply just like anybody else.

“The minute we give special treatment to certain groups or give politicians special power to allocate, you will get problems. You cannot give priority here and there,” Goh said.

Goh, a local government expert, added that the state government must clearly state the justifications and publish details of any applicants allowed to jump the queue for low-cost housing in “special cases” such as those losing their homes in a fire.

“If there’s one word to sum it, it’s transparency,” Goh said, calling for a comprehensive study of the whole low-cost housing system.

This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, May 27, 2010.
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