PUTRAJAYA: An 11-year legal battle by a group of former Orang Asli settlers in Johor to recover RM32 million and 57 apartments came to a sweet end when the Federal Court dismissed a leave application by seven individuals and companies.
Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, who led a three-member bench, said none of the legal questions posed met the threshold requirement under Section 96 of the Courts of Judicature Act to have the merit of their appeal heard.
“The High Court judgment was well reasoned and was upheld by the Court of Appeal,” said Tengku Maimun who sat with Mary Lim Thiam Suan and Harmindar Singh Dhaliwal.
The bench also awarded the Orang Asli and the Linggui Valley Trust Fund RM350,000 in costs.
Twenty years ago, the Johor Bahru High Court awarded RM26.5 million in compensation to the Orang Asli from the Jakun tribe living around the Linggui water catchment area for loss of livelihood, hunting, and foraging.
The state acquired the land for the purpose of building a dam to supply water to Singapore.
The court ordered RM22 million of the amount to go to the trust fund. However, the amount came to RM38.5 million due to the interest accrued over the years.
The then lawyer for the Orang Asli, S Kanawagi, and two batins or headmen, started managing the trust fund. They paid the affected Orang Asli RM900 a month each from the interest accrued.
In 2009, the Orang Asli led by Saling bin Lau Bee Chiang filed a suit to compel Kanagawi to account for the money under his care and control.
In 2016, then High Court judge Samsudin Hasan, after a 75-day trial, ordered Kanawagi, now barred from legal practice, to return RM16 million to the Orang Asli after deducting RM500,000 for payment of legal fees.
Shamsuddin found Kanawagi, his son Dinesh and their legal firm, Messrs Khana & Co, liable for the misuse, mismanagement, and misappropriation of money meant as compensation from the Johor government.
He also ordered Virgin Properties Sdn Bhd, its director Ku Azahar Ku Abdul Razak, lawyers Riza Makhzan Arifin and Puteri Intan Nurul Arzian Abdul Aziz from Sharifah & Associates and Mampu Jaya Sdn Bhd to pay RM10 million in damages and 57 units of apartments purchased to be returned to the trust.
Last year, the Court of Appeal appointed RHB Trustees to manage the trust fund.
Former Malaysian Bar presidents Ragunath Kesavan and Lim Chee Wee represented the trust fund while G Ragumaren appeared for the Orang Asli.
Ragumaren said the refusal of the leave application was a sweet victory for the Orang Asli after a protracted legal battle since 2009.
“We must also thank Colin Nicholas of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns who discovered the fraud in 2004 after the (2000) High Court decision,” he said.
Ragumaren said the entire episode revealed that trustees must put the interest of their beneficiaries before anything else.
He said the current court-appointed trustee, RHB Trustees, last year paid RM30,000 each to the Orang Asli and the monthly contribution had been raised from RM900 to RM1,200.
“We will now take steps to recover the judgment sum amounting to RM32 million and also get the 57 units of apartments transferred to the trust,” he told reporters.
The property is now said to be valued between RM15 million and RM20 million.
Ragumaren said the trust would expire in five years and all money would be apportioned and distributed to the Orang Asli as soon as possible. – Free Malaysia Today