14Ogos2020

Agenda Daily

LANDSLIDES & BURIED PROMISES

Another year, another landslide tragedy involving hillside development in this country, it would seem. But the real scary part is that we never seem to learn from our mistakes or punish those responsible.

 

There’s Malay saying that sekali air bah, sekali pantai berubah. Translated literally. It means that each time it floods, the position of the shorelines changes. In other words, a person’s life is altered by the experience he or she goes through.

In tropical Malaysia, floods are a frequent occurrence. They are predictable in terms of time and location.

They may not occur with clockwork precision but experience can tell when and where it will flood.

Thus, there is yet another Malay saying that relates to the forces of nature, it says kalau takut dilanda badai jangan berumah di tepi pantai. It means that if you are afraid of being pounded by the waves, do not build your house by the seashore.

But for the fisher folk and ordinary villagers of the East Coast, building houses by the seashore and making peace with the sea are a way of life.

By understanding nature and showing a healthy respect for its forces, they have been able to manage risk and harvest the bounty of the surrounding waters.

I was born and raised by the bank of a river in Kedah where floods were both a boon and a bane. The floods brought suffering and even death. But it also brought fish and nutrients to the soil.

That was before the implementation of the Muda Irrigation Scheme in the late 1960s that enable rice to be grown twice a year, substantially improving the well-being of the rice farmers.

The one mighty river-murky and angry during the rainy season and crystal clear and gentle during the dry-has since been reduced to a trickle, dirty and toxic, thanks to the indiscriminate usage and discharge of chemicals.

To these saying, a newer one has to be improvised and added. The best I came up with is – as written in my blog – kalau takut ditimbus tanah, di lereng bukit jangan berumah. The English approximation is : if you are afraid of being buried by landslide, do not build your house on a hill slope.

But I do not expect anybody to take this advice seriously. A growing number of Malaysians are becoming less respectful of nature, thinking that their fat bank accounts and friends high places are all that they need to conquer nature and reverse the law of gravity.

So, unscrupulous developers and the rich and famous think nothing of building luxury apartments and million-ringgit homes on slopes and hilltops.

And in the case of the Klang Valley, Bukit Antarabangsa is a classic example where greed unscrupulousness, opulence, abuse of power and an insatiable taste for the good life collide with nature with tragic consequences.

The collapse of the Highland Tower in December 1993 killing 48 people has done nothing to stop the authorities from approving similar projects on hillsides. Instead, more such projects have been allowed in the very same area.

The best that political master, including Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, could or would do was to set up committees and working groups to supposedly moniter hillside developments.

And when nature once again exacted its punishment and several luxury homes came crashing down the International Hill on Dec 6, both Abdullah and his Deputy, Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak, promptly replayed the standart promise – no more development on hill slopes.

Abdullah, according to a Star newspaper report on Dec 9, went a step further by suggesting that the government would consider compensating the victims.

I am not against the government helping the victims, especially the poorer ones. But to compensate them is a bit too much. Surely they know the risk of building or buying homes on hill slopes.

In fact, despite the tragedy, the victims of this latest incident should thank their lucky stars.

Owing to the celebrity status of some of the house owner, headed by Abdullah’s own Principal Private Secretary, Datuk Thajuddeen Abdul Wahab, the incident filled prime-time TV news and the front pages of newspaper and sent rescue and air workers scurrying for action and, not the least, media attention.

And with thousands of other house owner and apartment dwellers forced out their homes, widespread looting and stealing, according to media reports, have been reported.

This brought to mind what I had repeatedly warned through this column and my blog, that is, the general disintegration of low and order. Looting and stealing in a emergency situation is the clearest manifestation of such a situation.

I was also reminded by several commentators in my blog that this is the reflection of the antara dua darjat syndrome where the poor use the incident to seek revenge on the rich, believing that the latter have – in one way or another-victimised and marginalized them.

Antara dua darjat, which literally translated means ‘between two classes’, refers to a highly acclaimed Malay movie by the late Tan Sri P Ramlee. It tells the love story and subsequent tragedy involving a commoner and a princess.

Let’s address the root of the problem

Let’s face facts and reality. This is neither the last nor the largest landslide that will affect hillside homes and apartments.

As they gaze into the heavens and view eternity from the lofty heights of their hillside and hilltop homes and apartments, the homeowners must bear in mind that nature has its own rules.

Interfere with these rules and they put their lives and properties in peril. These are the rules of gravity and equilibrium.

It does not take a Nobel prize-winning physicist, geologist or hydrologist to tell you that the hills and mountains take millions of years to form and achieve equilibrium.

And with heavy rain, hills and mountains in Malaysia are constantly changing. Landslides are common even in virgin, undisturbed hills and mountains.

A drive along the North-South or Karak Highways would tell the observant just how easy it is for landslides to occur when the equilibrium is disturbed.

But greed, corruption and foolishness have caused developers. Civil servants, their political master and unsuspecting buyer to dice with death.

Let’s also not beat around the bush. Let’s be frank and call a spade. The real problem with hillside development and the high risk it carries is rooted in greed and corruption.

Granted that construction and real estate are important to the economy as they generate jobs, facilitate house ownership, create commercial space and promote value-added activities, it is clear that in recent decades, developers have been pampered to the extent that they have overbuilt.

The prevalence of ‘for sale’ and ‘for sent’ signs and unoccupied shops and house point to a property glut.

If anything, they property bubble that brought the banking system and the real estate sector to its knees during the 1997/98 crisis, forcing the government to launch a massive bailout via Danamodal and Danaharta, is getting worse.

Yet, property prices keep rising, thanks to unabated speculation and the government’s own decision to abolish the capital gains tax.

Sadly, while the speculators can continue to dabble and foreigners, with hard currencies, can buy premium properties the ‘Malaysia Your Second Home Programme’, the genuine local buyers are being pushed out.

Yet, the government dares to pretend to be surprised and even angry when middle-level civil servants and corporate sector managers buy or rent low-cost houses and apartments meant for the low-income people.

Short memories

It may sound sweeping, but it is a well-known fact that the local authorities – from the uncelebrated ones to the City Hall of Kuala Lumpur – are corrupt.

And we are not talking just about monetary inducement that some unscrupulous developers, including some very illustrious award-winning names, are willing to fork out to hasten the approval of their projects, to increase density and allow changes to the approved plans. We are talking about the outright abuse of power, dereliction of duty and incompetence.

It’s not a new or unfamiliar story that two developers building condominiums side by side are allowed different heights because one is more generous with bribes than the order.

Thanks to this, we have congested squatter colonies like Kampung Kerinchi, Kampung Pandan and Kampung Abdullah Hukum being turned into even more congested high-end residential and commercial projects.

We have five-story bungalows in Bukit Tunku and skyscrapers at busy intersections.

On the pretext of high land prices, developers have been able to influence city administrators, most of whom are not trained planners, to increase density without sufficient regard for the environment, traffic flow, parking and safety.

In 1957, the population density of Kuala Lumpur was 3,720 per square kilometer. By 1994 it was 5,237. The latest available statistics put the density at 6,602 in 2006.

Former Finance Minister, Tun Daim Zainuddin, who himself was developer in the 1970s, had warned as early as 1994 that the Highland Towers tragedy would not change much.

In his speech when accepting the honorary fellowship of the Malaysian Institute of Planners, Daim said it look a tragedy like the Highland Tower to wake us up but added that Malaysians have short memories.

He said after a tragedy, everybody would express shock and regret and the same time try to find a scapegoat, but after the initial shock, everything would be back to how it was before.

Who is accountable?

The outcome of the Highland Tower trial has not helped to discipline the local authorities when the court absolved the Ampang Jaya municipal Council of responsibility, although, asmanu legal expert would argue, negligence is an offence.

Irrespective of the Federal Court ruling, the local authorities must be punished. More so if the approval for the houses affected by the most recent landslide took place after the collapse of Highland Towers.

Civil servants and their political overseers, be they minister or members of the governing councils, must be made to suffer the consequences of their ineptitude.

It makes a mockery of the Excellence Service Award and the continuous improvement of civil servants’ term and conditions of service when they are rewarded for doing what they are paid to do but are not punished when they make mistakes that cost lives and limbs.

This is not taking into account the corrupt practices that lead to these disasters. But given the government’s hangat-hangat tahi ayam – lackadaisical attitude – I don’t think any heads will roll.

Still, I hope the government will have the courage to include the approved and ongoing projects in its review of hillside developments.

If need be, they should be stopped or the government should undertake to advise the people no to purchase them. But I am certainly against the idea of compensating the victims. Nobody forced them to scale the hills and mountains in the first place.

In fact, it has become vogue with the rich and famous these day to build palatial homes up the hills and in the mountains. It’s immoral to make the taxpayers pay for their extravagance and conspicuous spending.

But should such a tragedy befall the poor who are forced to take up residence in jungle fringes and on riverbanks because they can’t afford to compete in the speculative housing market, by all means, use the taxpayer’s money to help them.

We are not land-starved Hong Kong where skyscrapers are allowed on hills and mountains. But it would appear that we are as bad, if not worse, than Hong Kong in allowing high-rise building on hills and slopes.

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