A LANDSLIDE occurred near Lorong Lembah Permah 3 in Tanjung Bungah, Penang, at 8.30am on Oct 21, killing 11 people. In the absence of any conclusive evidence of negligent action or omission by any party (developer, contractor, the state government or local authority), for the present moment, let us describe it as a “tragedy — cause yet unknown”.
I welcome the decision to set up a State Commission of Inquiry (SCI), whose terms of reference must be focused on finding out what caused the worksite slope to collapse. SCI is required to ascertain who should be held responsible, recommend suitable actions to be taken against the guilty party, examine existing procedures and guidelines, and give recommendations to improve them.
Meanwhile, a stop-work order has been issued to the developer and building contractor, who has since been “blacklisted”.
Tanjung Bungah lies to the west of Tanjung Tokong; further west are Batu Feringghi and Teluk Bahang.
Tanjung Bungah is dotted with tall residential towers built on steep hillsides, and if you happen to drive along the narrow winding road in this area after heavy rain, you will never miss the rivulets of water coming down the steep slopes — making you fearfully aware that construction is occurring on the hilltops.
Available literature in cyberspace shows that there is some dispute as to whether Tanjung Bungah is a secondary corridor or a primary corridor for development. The former allows a density of 15 units per acre, while the latter allows a maximum density of 30 units per acre.
The confusion arose because the text of the Penang Structure Plan states that Tanjung Bungah is a secondary corridor, but a graphic had been altered to state that it is a primary corridor. Tanjung Bungah Residents Association (TBRA) took the issue to court, but the suit was thrown out because it was time-barred. The shroud of doubt and uncertainty, therefore, remains.
Whether Tanjung Bungah is a secondary corridor or a primary corridor, the fact remains that the housing project (two tall tower blocks comprising 980 units) at the worksite involves a much higher density.
Penang Hill Watch (PHW), a citizens’ initiative started by the non-governmental organisation, Penang Forum, had been calling upon the state government to stop further hillslope projects but the call fell on deaf ears. PHW has sent reports of landslides and photographs of hill-cutting in the area but the response from the authorities was merely a statement that “earthworks were being monitored”.
I recently came across a 32-page document called “Safety Guideline for Hillsite Development 2012”, issued by the Penang government, wherein the chief minister had said that the guideline would serve “as the main reference in considerations of planning approval for hillsite development applications and to be used by all the relevant agencies”.
It is important to bear this in mind because the day after the tragedy, Penang Island City Council (MBPP) Mayor Maimunah Sharif told reporters that the 980 affordable housing-unit project was approved by the local authority’s One-Stop Centre because it had complied with the guideline.
When Penang executive councilor Chow Kon Yeow was asked why approval was given despite objection by the Department of Environment (DoE), he replied that “DoE does not have the authority to decide on applications for planning permission submitted by developers. The authority lies with MBPP”.
To sum up, what went wrong? Was it because the state development plans (structure plan and local plans) were non-existent, unclear or not fully enforced? Was it because approval was wrongfully given by the One-Stop Centre, or was it because of inadequate or faulty monitoring by the authorities? Was it due to professional negligence by certain quarters — developers, contractors, workers, consultants? Was it because DoE has no teeth? More importantly, was it because old legislation like the Land Conservation Act 1960 is ineffective in protecting and preserving our hills?
As we await the outcome of SCI, it is timely to reflect on the recent case in Sungai Ara involving the proposed development of 600 housing units at a hill located 76m above sea level, having a gradient exceeding 25 degrees.
The local planning authority had approved the project (dubbed as “Sunway Hills Project”) but the Appeal Board had (on Nov 20, 2015) upheld residents’ objections and set aside the approval.
Unfortunately for the residents, the High Court ruled in favour of the developer and overturned the Appeals Board’s decision on May 29 this year.
The judge said the Penang Structure Plan “need not be slavishly complied with” by the local planning authority. The matter is now pending appeal to the Court of Appeal.
For the sake of future generations, this obsession with development on hilltops and hillsides must stop. The ideals of sustainable development must not be abandoned. Our hilltops and hillsides should not continue to be sacrificed at the altar of development.
Salleh Buang formerly served the Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for practice, the corporate sector and academia.