Friday, May 30, 2008

Toll face-off

By Carolyn Hong, The Straits Times

A QUIET Kuala Lumpur suburb has become the scene of a tense stand-off between residents and a toll company over the last few months. The face-off turned ugly this week. The residents of Bandar Mahkota Cheras have repeatedly defied riot police and unidentified thugs by tearing down a concrete barricade put up by the company to force them to use a toll highway.

The barricade prevented access on a road leading to the housing estate, where about 38,000 residents live, and forced them to take a 6km detour and pay a toll of 90 sen (40 Singapore cents) to get to the city centre.

The tussle, which began in 2006, is between the housing developer which built the access road and the highway concessionaire. The concessionaire wants the developer to compensate it for the loss of income if there were no barricade.

On Tuesday night, the situation turned violent when unidentified men armed with sticks clashed with the residents as they tried to break down the barricade that had been rebuilt on Monday. The fracas left several people hurt and several cars damaged. Riot police broke up the violent confrontation and arrested several people. The toll company, Grand Saga, has denied hiring the thugs.

A 21-year-old man, Mr Chang Jiun Haur, said he and his friends, who wanted to see what was happening, found themselves surrounded and beaten up by riot police over claims that he had run down a policeman. The residents on Wednesday night removed the concrete barricade - for the fourth time in about one month - using mallets, car jacks, steel bars and lorries. Police kept watch but did not stop them.

Selangor police chief Khalid Abu Bakar was quoted by the Malay Mail tabloid yesterday as saying that they were there to maintain order, and would not stop the demolition of the barricade. The long-standing dispute is the culmination of simmering resentment over intra-city tolls that Kuala Lumpur residents are frequently forced to pay as the government privatises infrastructure development.

Highway toll agreements are confidential, but it is no secret that the concessionaires enjoy guaranteed profits as the government pays them compensation should they not be allowed to raise tolls regularly. Demonstrations over city toll roads are not uncommon, but this is one of the most violent episodes as Malaysians become emboldened following the March 8 polls, which saw the ruling coalition suffer heavy losses as a result of 'people power'.

The stand-off has become a test of the ability of Selangor's opposition government to find a resolution. The state government, which owns a 20 per cent stake in Grand Saga, is sympathetic to the residents but has not been able to stop the company from blocking the access road. Selangor Chief Minister Khalid Ibrahim, who is from the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, said the government was looking into whether Grand Saga had rights over the land where the barricade had been built. The matter is now in court.

'There is no need to deprive the people of the use of the road because it will be opened, no matter which way the court decides. The issue is only whether the developer will have to compensate the concessionaire,' Tan Sri Khalid said.

About 30 residents yesterday gathered at Parliament to protest against the violence on Tuesday night, which has been condemned by the biggest Chinese political party, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). MCA vice-president and Transport Minister Ong Tee Keat said he was shocked at the attacks on the residents under the watch of the police. 'Why do you allow residents to be assaulted?' he asked.

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