Last Saturday, 21 October 2017, a tragic accident took place at the construction site of an affordable housing scheme in Lembah Permai, Tanjung Bungah, which claimed the lives of 11 workers, one of whom was Malaysian.
The incident was nothing short of a tragedy, and an especially painful one for the victims’ families. I was there personally for two days and it was heart wrenching to watch the rescue workers pull body after body out of the rubble. Understandably, there is now a lot of emotion and anger over what happened.
As the Member of Parliament for the area, I am deeply concerned about how such an accident could have occurred. Early observations point towards professional negligence, and I am therefore adamant that no stones are left unturned to uncover the cause of the mishap and that appropriate and commensurate action is taken against those responsible.
At the same time, I am disappointed by the extremely biased reporting by the mainstream media, which appears too eager to lay the blame of the incident on the Penang state government. Unfortunately, these irresponsible accusations are based on deliberate misinformation and a politically motivated statement by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment questioning the approval process of the development. These half-truths need to be dispelled.
Quick and decisive action
Firstly, as a first-hand observer who was present from the beginning, I can confirm that the state government’s response to the tragedy was quick and decisive. Within an hour of the incident occurring, our state leaders were on site to assist in securing the area and helping to coordinate the search and rescue operations, alongside all the other agencies mobilised including the Fire and Rescue Department, the Royal Malaysian Police and the Civil Defence Force, among others.
That afternoon, the Chief Minister of Penang himself visited the site and announced on the spot that an independent state-level Commission of Inquiry would be put together to ensure that there is no cover up in ascertaining the cause of the incident.
At the same time, a stop-work order was immediately issued to the developer, while the professional consultants and contractors involved in the project were blacklisted pending the outcome of the inquiry. In addition, the state government also ordered the City Council to lodge a police report seeking an investigation into the possibility of professional negligence. As far as the state government is concerned, those responsible will be ultimately held accountable.
Questionable approval process?
Many questions abound regarding the approval process of the development in question. In this regard, it has always been the practice of the Penang state government to follow due procedure in reviewing all planning applications.
The development in question was first submitted to the City Council in November 2014. After a thorough process of review, a commencement of work order was issued in January 2016, more than a year later. The City Council had approved the project after taking into account the views of 17 different technical departments, most of which are federal government agencies.
Out of the 17 departments that reviewed the application, 16 had given their approval and support including the Department of Minerals and Geoscience, which is in fact the primary agency responsible for mining activities (including quarrying) and slope safety. With the green light from the Department of Minerals and Geoscience, itself an agency under the purview of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, there is no issue of non-compliance.
Only one of the 17 departments did not agree to the development, which was the Department of Environment (DOE). According to their official reply, the DOE’s objection was based on the proximity of the site to a nearby granite quarry, with no mention whatsoever of hill slopes.
While the DOE’s objection was noted, the City Council in approving the development had been guided by precedence because the development in question is actually not the closest development to the quarry, being 715 metres away from the blasting site, which is well over the 500 metres guideline set by the DOE itself.
In contrast, the Tunku Abdul Rahman College next door is closer to the blasting site with a distance of 589 metres. The development of the college was approved by both the previous state government and the DOE, which somehow did not raise the same objections. Clearly, the DOE is inconsistent and practising double standards.
Penang has strict hill slope development guidelines
Another point of accusation is that the Penang state government approves hill slope developments indiscriminately. This is far from the truth. In the case of the development in question, the area has been zoned as residential since 1972, while the quarry has been in operation since the 1960s. As the same conditions had existed for decades, there is no justification to accuse the state of arbitrary decision-making.
Furthermore, the project involves slopes with a gradient of around 20 degrees, which makes it a Category 2 slope (15 to 25 degrees) according to national guidelines. Meanwhile, the land contour of the project area varies between 18 metres to 40 metres, which is well within acceptable limits. According to the same national guidelines, a Category 2 slope at 40 metres maximum contour means that the land is technically classified as low land (tanah rendah) and not hill land (tanah bukit). All accusations to the contrary are therefore misleading.
Finally, it is worth noting that Penang actually practices stricter hill slope development guidelines than the rest of the country. The Penang state government does not allow any developments on hill land above 76 metres, while national guidelines set 300 metres as the limit. This fact does not appear to be taken into consideration by those seeking to condemn the state government.
Stop politicising the tragedy
The incident that occurred was an unfortunate construction site tragedy. If there was indeed negligence involved, then all responsible must be held to account. The setting up of the state-level Commission of Inquiry is proof of the Penang state government’s commitment towards this end.
At such a tragic time, it is best if all efforts are focused on assisting the victims’ families, as well as to ensure investigations into the incident can be conducted as quickly and as objectively as possible. It does not help when certain parties try to politicise the issue and cast judgement on the state government even before the Commission of Inquiry can begin its investigations.
Zairil Khir Johari
Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera
DAP Penang Vice-Chairman
NB: This press statement was released on 24 October 2017 in George Town.