Stern-faced soldiers wielding M-16 rifles stood guard as bright yellow excavators mowed down rows of chrysanthemums, leaving behind broken stalks.


Farmers stood at a distance, watching years of hard work being laid to waste.


There was nothing they could do— the destruction was in fact ordered by the government, so as to prevent future floods in Bertam Valley.


All illegal farms encroaching the river, existing forest reserves, and water catchment areas had to go.


Escalating floods in the highlands were the culmination of centuries of environmental, political and racial tensions, according to Ramakrishnan Ramasamy, president of the non-governmental organisation, Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands. (R.E.A.C.H.)

Roots of the problem hail back to 1885 when William Cameron, a British government surveyor, discovered the plateau at an elevation of 4,500 – 5,600ft above sea level.

From 1896 to 1902, the British widened and
improved the narrow path to the highlands.
The land was developed into one of Malaysia’s
hill stations, holiday destinations where people
found respite from the heat of the
tropical lowlands.

Between 1926 to 1931, the land was
zoned into agricultural areas, township
and residential areas, national parks,
and recreational areas.

After the Japanese occupation and
the Malayan Emergency in the 1960s,
Cameron Highlands was further developed
into a popular tourist destination.

As time passed, agricultural businesses
flourished, bringing change to fetching
better income for the locals.

The floods are a by-product of a long-time
plague— illegal farms across the Highlands.

Government officials see weeding out the
farms as the solution to the floods. Thus, the
formation of Operation Gading on 4 Dec 2014.

The operation involved 523 personnel
from 16 government agencies, who were
instructed by the Prime Minister to stamp out
every single illegal farm on Cameron Highlands
and to arrest workers without proper work permits.

Illegal farms along the river were told to
vacate their land within a mere five days,
or face a fine of RM 10,000 (S$3,722)
and imprisonment for a year.

The task force moved quickly. Some farms
were not even given a grace period of five
days, and were immediately set upon by
soldiers and excavators.

“We were caught by surprise. The trucks
just started coming in two days ago and
before we knew it, farms were being destroyed
without mercy,” said Lim Guek Hoon, a flower
farmer from Bertam Valley.

Cars and motorcycles were left by the side
of the road as dozens of farmers gathered,
empty-handed and helpless. Countless
excavators started rolling in to start the
demolition work.

Some farmers even started to tear
down their own farms by hand.

“If we don’t tear the illegal parts of
our farm down ourselves, the military
will do it for us and everything will be
laid to waste,” said Guek Hoon.

The farmer’s association organised an
emergency meeting at the Bertam Valley
Tokong Temple a few hours after the first
wave of excavators chugged in.

The meeting did not come to fruition.

Instead of coming up with ways to mitigate the
damage, the session was abuzz with conspiracy
theories, as grassroot leaders speculated over
the government’s motive for the operations.

Meanwhile, without knowing when the task
force would swoop down upon their farm,
farmers could only wait at the side of the road
as the military drew up boundaries using barbed
wire and tape to indicate which farms were
marked for destruction.

They knew that staying put on their
land to confront the soldiers was not
going to stop the demolition.

Guek Hoon’s neighbour,  Poon Mooi, 65,
was no better off—her entire farm was built
illegally beside the river.

“I was totally shaking,” she said. “After
three generations of running this farm,
I’m now told that the land needs to be
cleared just to widen the river. What’s
to become of my grandchildren?”

Over the next five days, Poon Mooi and her family worked relentlessly to tear down forty years of hard work before the military took more drastic action.


NSC National Opera­tions Management Centre deputy director Asst Commissioner Mohd Shaharudin Baharom, said, “All farmers should be pandai-pandai, be smart. Ignorance is not an excuse.”


“There will be no negotiations—we will remove all illegal farms, and catch all illegal immigrants working in these farms.”

But for Poon Moi, losing her farm would
mean that her family would have to rely
solely on their savings for the rest of the
year, before they find a new source of
income. The entire’s family’s rice bowl
depended on that plot of land.

She recalled being so distressed that
she came down with a high fever a day
after receiving the eviction notice from
the authorities.

Given just five days to clear her farm,
she was up again the next day despite
the fever, salvaging as much as she
could before excavators manned by
soldiers leveled her farm.

Less than a year after the devastating
floods in 2014, there was again widespread
destruction in the highlands; this time,
however, it was man-made.

As the soldiers left each farm, chunks
of metal from what used to be roofs
littered the bare soil; shredded flowers
and vegetables lay flattened on the soil,
while plastic sheets were left by the river.

Truckloads of soldiers continued rolling
up the hills over the next four days,
scouring every nook and cranny for
illegal sites and workers.

Only a lucky few farmers whose title
deeds passed the soldiers’ inspection
had their life’s work spared.

“Only the gods can help us now,” said Guek Hoon.