The Bukit Antarabangsa Landslides: – Highland Towers revisited
Posted by Oscar the Grouch on December 8, 2008
My heart goes out for the victims of the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide tragedy. It is indeed a sad day for Malaysia. Some 15 years later from the infamous Highland Tower tragedy, we have not learnt our lesson one bit.
It is almost surreal to see the drama unfolding before the television news broadcast; it is almost an uncanny reminiscence of the scenes played out a decade-plus ago: – the eerie earth-brown mudslide area, the confusing commotion all over, the familiar search and rescue unit, the poignant interviews and narration accounted by the victims, the solemn visits by leaders and authorities, the uproar by citizens and group bodies and finally, promises of investigative responsibility and setting up of task forces.
Trying to find out how the incident happened and who is to be blamed is not going to be easy. I should know; being a doctoral student for the past two years, researching on the topic of construction law liability, with a major segment of my thesis focusing on the court decisions of the Highland Tower case. I have read, and re-read the court judgement- decisions made by the High Court, Court of Appeal and the Federal Court, and I can safely say that, from my personal opinion, to now try to pinpoint cause and blameworthy parties will be somewhat impossible.
In that case (Steven Phoa Cheng Loon Appeal v Highland Properties Sdn Bhd (2000) 4 MLJ 200), legal proceedings were commenced against a total of ten defendants: – namely the developer, the architect, the engineer, the local authority, owners of adjoining land, the company that carried out clearing works on the said adjoining land, owners of another neighbouring land, the developer of the said neighbouring land, the State Government and the Director of Lands & Mines.
During the course of the legal proceedings in the High Court, two conflicting theories were being advanced by foreign experts in the field of geo-technology as to the cause of the collapse. One report put blame on the developer, the other lay guilt on the part of the owner of the said adjoining land. These theories, to me, remains as that: – theories. It can never be accepted as universally accurate. In the end, the court had to accept one finding against the other.
The fact is, once a landslide occurs, we may never find out the actual cause, and who is to shoulder the blame. It can be the weather; it can be the rain; it can be Act of God; it can be due to shoddy workmanship; perhaps it is the fault of the developer; perhaps it is the architect; or the engineer; contractors; it can also be the fault of the authorities for approving the projects. It can be any of them. Or it can be neither of the reasons. Or, perhaps, it can be all of the reasons put together. Who knows? At the end of the day, we can only theorize, not conclude.
The point being, there is nothing we can do in trying to look back, in trying to look for answers, in trying to look for culprits. But we will never find the answers; only guesses. We will also not find any culprits; only scapegoats. We should have move on back then, 15 years ago. This problem would have to be nip head on. Setting up committees and taskforce is only tackling the issue half-heartedly. Blaming the weather, the developer, the architect, engineers and landowners will do no good.
Why should the leaders declare, only at this juncture, that all hillside projects will stop? These projects should not have commenced in the first place. True, it doesn’t mean that the authorities are at fault by approving these projects. But the fact is we will never know who is at fault. But what we do know is that hillside projects will always court landslide disasters. If that is what we do know, why then must the projects be approved? Let’s face it. Developers are not going to care as long as the development order is approved and the projects are saleable. At the end of the day, it is for the authorities to be the protector of the citizens in not approving such projects. If the projects are not approved, then there will not be any development. It is as simple as that. And there will be no loss of lives when landslides occur.
Also to consider is the controversial section 95 (2) of the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974 which provides immunity against the local authorities. This is exactly what happened in the Highland Tower case, where litigants are being deprived of remedies against the local authorities. In our culture of tidak apa attitude and corruption, such immunity laws are no longer appropriate in today’s climate. There has to be a more responsible involvement on the part of the local authorities to ensure safer building environment. Government officers can no longer be allowed to hide within the veil of statutory protection when they are supposed to be the nation’s guardian and protector.