Hill destruction in Penang

MPPP Councillor and NGO representative Dr. Lim Mah Hui expresses grave concern about the destruction of hill-land for property development done in full view of the authorities to the MPPP at a Full Council Meeting on 31 May 2013.

It is with a heavy heart that I am addressing the council on this topic. Two days ago, a section of a so-called retaining wall in Bukit Gambier collapsed.

We are fortunate that it did not claim any lives. But this disaster was just waiting to happen. It is not a question of IF, but just WHEN, the disaster will happen. It is not an act of nature or of God. It is simply a result of bad government policy and the dismal and unacceptable performance of our city and state government officials.

Residents and the public in Penang have been appealing to the state and local authorities to stop approval for hill- slope development. Many, such as residents in Sungai Ara, Chee Seng Gardens, Majestic Heights etc., are living in fear as they see their surrounding environment destroyed. But so far, their voices have fallen on deaf ears. But this week’s incident should be a wake-up call to our authorities that it should NOT be business as usual anymore.

Penang island has two very important assets that make it an attractive place – the hills and the heritage. It is fortunate that Penang heritage has been internationally recognised now and certain areas are under protection.

As for the hills, they are under grave threat even though they are supposed to be under conservation and protection. Sustainable development is one of the objectives in the 2007 Penang State Structure Plan – hill land above 250 feet OR with slopes of more than 25 degrees is classified as under conservation unless it is “special project”. But because there are too many exceptions, developers have exploited the loopholes and are having a field day.

To date, the people of Penang have not been given a good explanation from the authorities what are special projects that are so special as to be exempt from conservation. In the name of special projects developers with or without permission have started to gouge into hills to build luxury projects causing environmental destruction and consternation among affected residents.

Because Penang Hill is protected, Bukit Gambier is now free for all. The most recent flagrant violation of hill slopes is the wanton destruction of Bukit Gambier. I am told this landowner and developer has bulldozed the hills WITHOUT any planning approval. This must be confirmed. This is not a case of a few workers cutting down some trees in the middle of the night. It is sending in heavy equipment, felling trees and cutting huge swathes of land, removing all the topsoil in bright daylight under our noses. It is equivalent to a rape of our hills.

For the authorities, the following questions need to be answered:
• How is it possible for MPPP not to know of this massive destruction? We want the council to provide the names of its engineers and site inspectors who are in charge in this area. Why did they not monitor the situation and take early preventive action? Isn’t this a dereliction of duties and what action will be taken?
• Why are the State government, the MPPP, the Forestry Department, the Department of Environment, the newly set up Penang Green Council silent on this matter? They are sending wrong signals to landowners and developers?

I call upon the council to set up an independent committee (including people outside MPPP) of up to five people to study why such a serious lapse occurred and how it can be prevented in the future.

The public is rightly incensed with this latest episode of hill destruction and demands answers and accountability. This newly elected state government promised us CAT governance and we demand it be practised.

The public has a right to know the following facts:
• What is the name of the company that owns this plot of land and who are the ultimate owner(s) of this land and project?
• What is the classification of this land? Has there been a reclassification or rezoning of this land? If so, when was it approved and by which government agencies?
• Why has such reclassification been allowed?
• How does the government reconcile this to its talk of sustainable development?
• Was there any planning or other approvals given for this project?
• If not, will the authorities proceed with to prosecute and ask for the full force of the law to be applied, including imprisonment, as provided for by the law, and not just settle for a paltry fine. The directors and managers of the company should be personally liable, not just the company.

The company should not be allowed to apply for permit on a retroactive basis as this would set a precedent for other developers who will just factor in a paltry fine into their project. This company and all other companies associated with the directors of this company, should be blacklisted for all future development.

Furthermore, the developer must be asked to replant the area that has been destroyed. There is a recent field of study called “restoration ecology” that deals with how to restore an environmentally destroyed area. The Green Council of Penang should be spearheading this.

Besides, this illegal project, there are other projects in Bukit Gambier, one of which is Beverly Heights. It is advertised and marketed on its website as an exclusive hill top residence with houses costing between RM4.9m to RM6m and was launched in March 2013. I understand that the project where the retaining wall collapsed this week belongs to another developer. What other projects have been approved in Bukit Gambier?

I call on the MPPP to provide the public with all the below details for this project and all other hill-slope projects approved in the last three years as well as those pending approval on its website by the end of June.
1. Location of project
2. Height and slope of the hill
3. Name of developer and all their directors
4. Type of units built
5. Number of units built
6. Which committees gave approval to exempt the project from the restrictions in Rancangan Struktur Negeri.
7. When was this approval given?
8. What is the basis for this exemption?
9. When did the One-Stop Committee approve the project?

Why are we still approving projects based on 1996 guidelines? Who is responsible for maintaining the slopes and retaining walls after development is completed and for how long? Who bears the costs of maintenance?

In conclusion, given the dismal and unworthy track record of hill slope construction and maintenance in Malaysia, Penang state and local governments should LEAD and be the first to ban further hill development of above 250 feet or more than 25-degree slopes. Penang should preserve its pristine hills and not allow more residential hill developments that cater to only high-end investors and speculators. We have a glut of such projects and many of them are unoccupied. Such projects do not contribute to affordable housing.

This State government talks of reformasi. We should start by reforming our councils for which it has the powers to do. For a start, the One Stop Centre committee, the most powerful committee in council, should be democratised. Public information should be posted for all projects beyond a certain size, way ahead of approval process and the meetings of the OSC should be opened to members of public to attend and to ask questions.

Dr. Lim Mah Hui has a multi-disciplinary background in finance, economics and politics and is a sought after conference speaker on International Finance, Malaysian Economics and Politics.