Village of squatters in Belait

National 4 minutes, 25 seconds

BELAIT

A SHAKY metal bridge with holes connects residents off the main road on Jalan Bolkiah in Seria into Kampung Jabang – one of the two prominent squatter sites in Belait.

Here there is no piped water, electricity supply or asphalt roads. Jabang, or ‘Kampung Setinggan’ (village of squatters) as it is known among locals, provides Seria town with its most extreme contrast.

The village's poorly constructed stilt houses, with loose zinc roofing and stagnant pools of water beneath them, are just a few kilometres away from the heart of the country's oil and gas industry.

While the squatter problem in Jabang is a long-standing issue in the district, it is not the only one.

Kampung Api-Api and Sg Baru also house residents who have built homes, some even generations ago, on government land without permission.

Residents are diverse, comprising Bruneians, stateless permanent residents and foreigners.

The Belait District Office and the Municipal Board have acted on the situation – 231 illegal houses in Jabang were demolished between 1990 leading up to 2011, but an alternative site for relocation has long been the stumbling block as not all residents can afford or are eligible for the national housing scheme.

A breakthrough came in 2012 after Hj Haris Othman was appointed the Belait district officer, and propositioned to the Ministry of Home Affairs to allow for squatters, and others with housing problems, to be relocated to G-class government housing known as barracks - the lowest cost housing for civil servants in the district.

“Normally the traditional criteria to secure residence at government barracks is for you to be a civil servant. But we had quite a few vacant lots, so we applied to the ministry to see if we could set up a system where these underprivileged families could apply for this (barrack) housing assistance,” said Hj Haris.

The majority of barracks are long, double-storied blocks, each comprising 20 separate housing units with two bedrooms.

Unlike the national housing scheme, these units are only for rent, which is set at $45 per month, excluding utilities.

Relocated families and the underprivileged have been given two years of accommodation, which must be renewed if the family intends to extend their stay.

As many of the barracks were in poor conditions, the Public Works Department and other agencies were roped into helping refurbish the unoccupied barracks.

To date, 121 applicants have been moved into barrack housing, and the authorities are working to make the remaining 200 units across Belait ready for rent.

To help categorise, the district office also drew up a list of over 30 criteria that prioritise applicants based on citizenship, living conditions and their social arrangements.

While the district office processes another 212 applications, there have already been some identifiable successes.

All but one of the squatters from Lorong 14 have moved out, and many of the relocated are now enjoying electricity without generators and clean water supply from their homes for the first time.

Md Firdaus Abdullah and his family of five, who moved from Jabang to the barracks in Lorong 3, Seria a year ago, said the unit allows them to live comfortably while they await the results of their application under the national housing scheme.

“Back in Jabang we had to collect rain or water from rivers and shops to wash clothes and bathe, while the electricity from our generator was expensive and polluting so using it was problematic as well,” he said.

Wong Siew Lee, who also moved in from Jabang under similar circumstances three months ago with her mother, grandmother and uncle, said getting the keys to the barracks was a relief.

“We had lived in Jabang for over 30 years without access to clean water or electricity. My grandmother is unable to walk, so we had to carry her up the stairs and she is unwell, so the poor ventilation and dirty surroundings were not helping,” said the 40-year-old who works as a draftsman in a private company.

As a former stateless permanent resident who secured her citizenship in 2010, Wong, like Md Firdaus, is waiting for her application for a place under the national housing scheme.

The future for permanent residents is less straightforward. Faridah Anak Sawal, who lives in the Jalan Bolkiah barracks, said they have yet to come up with a long-term alternative to life beyond the barracks.

“No date was given for the time being, but I have no complaints because my son's health is much better since we left Jabang. Diesel fumes from the generators were making him unwell, and he even fainted once,” said Faridah, whose old house, built illegally on government land, has been demolished.

While the barrack relocation strategy yields success, the biggest challenge it faces is availability. There are 212 applications currently, but only 200 barrack units remaining. On top of this, three to five housing requests are made a day, on average, to the Belait District Office.

“We acknowledge that the situation is challenging, so in addition to working on barrack relocations we must research further our other options,” said the district officer.

“It is not in our current plan to serve eviction letters and forcibly relocate the remaining squatters. But we must face the situation, requests from the underprivileged (not just squatters) keep coming in almost every day, but no immediate one-stop solution is available. We must remain committed to finding a way,” he added.

The Brunei Times