We haven’t learnt from Highland Towers

26 Oct 2018 / 07:42 H.

WE are fast approaching the 25th anniversary of the Highland Towers condominium tragedy but nobody in the construction industry and the regulating authorities seems bothered to learn anything from it.

Yes, how time flies and for those who lost their loved ones in the nation’s worst hillslope housing tragedy, the chilling memories shall remain forever.

The laws are all there to govern all sorts of construction activities but the enforcement is something else completely or doesn’t seem to go in tandem.

The collapse of Block 1 of three blocks at Taman Hillview in Hulu Klang on the fringes of Kuala Lumpur on Dec 11, 1993 that killed 49 people was caused by a landslide after the retaining wall behind the block was destroyed following two weeks of continuous rainfall.

At least four more landslides occurred since then in the vicinity of Highland Towers, killing 16 residents in housing estates including upscale bungalows.

Some might want to argue that landslides, which caused the collapse of these housing units, are natural disasters but can we really blame nature if industry players continue to erect highrise blocks perched on perilously-looking hillslopes?

If you care to ask those who bought or lived in hillslope housing areas why they did so, the common answer would be they just loved the panoramic view of the city, for instance, especially at night.

So developers continue to seize the opportunity to apply for licences from the authorities to monetise their hillslope landbank, knowing that there would certainly be ready buyers at the end of the line.

These buyers, especially those in the working class, normally had their biggest single investment sunk in when buying these hillslope condos but when landslides occurred, they would pay the ultimate price with their lives, such as the victims in tragedies mentioned above.

Of course seemingly strict rules were imposed on such hillslope construction but are they really strictly complied with and, more importantly, are the authorities that permitted such a construction in the first place really up to the mark in their enforcement?

These are highly pertinent questions begging for an answer in a country that is well known for being over-regulated but enforcement is grossly lacking and where maintenance for the many first-world infrastructures that we have is still third world if at all.

It has to be acknowledged that maintenance has yet to become part of the Malaysian culture as could be seen in poorly maintained public utilities and badly clogged drains all over the country.

In the case of hillslope housing development, the classic example of this is none other than Penang, where such condos or apartments have sprouted up left, right, centre, front and back or wherever you may be on the island.

To be frank, every time I’m in Penang, I shudder to think what would have happened if there was a landslide on these hillslopes.

The architects, engineers or geologists might assure you that they have complied with whatever they need to but look at the intensity and frequency of our rainfall, especially in the past two or three weeks.

The current monsoon season, at least to me, is quite unprecedented and for this those who are tasked with managing the soil conditions should leave the comfort of their office and get out to closely monitor these “soft spots”, so to speak.

Which brings me to the latest landslide on Oct 19 that caused the collapse of hillslope roads under construction at Bukit Kukus – yes , in Penang – where nine people have perished.

Rescue operations have since been halted and it’s not actually known how many more victims remain unaccounted for.

As usual, there’s the blame game and finger-pointing flying left and right over yet another tragedy but the most telling sign came from the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH).

Its Penang director Mohd Rosdee Yaakob said the road builders had defied a stop-work order issued after an earlier accident where 14 concrete beams came crashing down from an elevated section of the highway.

What it means here is that DOSH after issuing the stop-work order didn’t check if it was complied with and enabling the contractors to defy it.

So, who is to blame here? Certainly common sense dictates that once such an order has been issued there ought to be a follow-up to determine whether it has been complied with or ignored for the purpose of preventing mishaps or tragedies. When can we ever learn from tragedies?

If such apathy persists, perhaps we shall never learn whatever lessons that tragedies brought upon us.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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