Countering mistruths about the Tanjung Bungah tragedy

In the wake of the fatal construction site tragedy that occurred in Lembah Permai, Tanjung Bungah on last Satuday, 21 October 2017, there has been a deluge of opinions, calls for action, finger-pointing and accusations, most of which are peppered with emotion and anger.

This is of course understandable given the severity of the incident and the number of lives that were lost unnecessarily. That said, it is also important to set the record straight on a number of mistruths and misinformation that is being spread around, whether deliberately or otherwise.

Mistruths and misinformation

One such example is a statement by the Minister of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government, Tan Sri Noh Omar, who claimed that PLANMalaysia (hitherto called the Town and Country Planning Department) had rejected the said development application.

Noh’s statement is nothing short of an outright lie. According to information declassified by the Penang state government, PLANMalaysia had in fact stated in a letter to the local authority dated 11 December 2014 that they had no objections to the development.

There are many other accusations and it would be impossible to respond to each and every one, but I would like to address a particular concern raised by a number of people, including in an opinion piece in the New Straits Times by Fauziah Ismail as well as other commentators, most notably Anil Netto.

In her piece published on 26 October,[1] Fauziah suggested that the “developer of the residential building did not even have approval to undertake the project there” and that “it was only after the landslide when it was revealed that the application had been denied by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.” Cynically, she also stated that “no one bothered to check on it earlier”.

Similarly, Anil Netto, in a blog post dated 26 October,[2] suggested that most of the technical departments that approved the project “have no real bearing on the risk of building so near a hill slope,” and that “the DOE (Department of Environment, an agency under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment) objection should carry the most weight”.

In their assertions, both Fauziah and Anil are referring to an objection by the DOE to the development in question. While it is true that the DOE was the sole technical department out of 19 in total that objected to the project, it is important to note that their objection did not mention hill slopes or any other concerns regarding soil stability. Instead, the DOE only questioned the site’s proximity to a nearby granite quarry.

At the same time, the statements by Fauziah and Anil are also ignorant of the fact that the proper authority on slope and soil stability, as well as mining and quarrying, is not the DOE but actually the Department of Minerals and Geoscience (also an agency under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment), which was one of the technical departments that had given a green light to the development in question.

However, it is indeed fair to question why the City Council approved the project despite the DOE’s reservations. On this, the Council was guided by two points. Firstly, that the authority on slopes and quarrying, viz. the Department of Minerals and Geoscience, did not object. Secondly, that there was already a precedence when the development of the adjacent Tunku Abdul Rahman College had been approved by the previous state government as well as the DOE despite it being closer in proximity to the blasting site of the quarry. For the record, the accident site is 715 metres away from the blasting site, compared to 589 metres for the college.

Double standards

I find it strange that the same people who extol the DOE do not call into question the department’s blatant double standards when it raised no objection to other developments closer to the quarry including the Tunku Abdul Rahman College. This is the case even in other states such as Sarawak, where my parliamentary colleagues have pointed out that there are two quarries in Kuching, one at 7th Mile and one at Batu Stigang, with blast sites within 250 to 350 metres of residential developments. Does it not seem peculiar that the DOE has acted inconsistently and selectively?

I would like to state once again for the record that the Penang state government has been transparent from day one of the incident. Within hours of the incident occurring, the Chief Minister had announced that he would establish a state-level Commission of Inquiry with a full mandate to investigate the causes of the tragic accident, and more importantly ensure that action is taken upon those responsible. The Commission will also be given powers to summon anyone or any party for questioning.

On top of that, the Penang state government has also acted to declassify meeting minutes and official letters in the name of transparency. As I have stated in a previous statement, no stone will be left unturned. The state government has committed itself to unearthing the truth of the matter, and it is important that investigations are allowed to proceed unhindered. Spreading more lies and falsehoods about the incident will not only jeopardise the process but also create unnecessary tension and grief, especially for the families of the victims.

Zairil Khir Johari
Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera
Vice-Chairman, DAP Penang
DAP Assistant National Publicity Secretary

[1] https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2017/10/295182/it-should-not-have-happened#cxrecs_s

[2] http://anilnetto.com/environmentclimate-change/tanjung-bungah-landslide-five-real-facts-know/

NB: This press statement was released on 27 October 2017 in Kuala Lumpur.

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