Wanted: Leaders who listen !


Turning a blind eye: The grumblings over exposed hills are growing louder but little is being done to rectify the situation

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 Grievances from residents warning of environmental damages must not fall on deaf ears

 “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.

MY family home in Kampung Melayu, Air Itam in Penang, is more than 56 years old. That’s about my age, and it has never been hit by floods. Not once!

But last week, my parents – dad is 92 years old and mum, 86, – had their sleep rudely interrupted sometime after 1am by water gushing into their home.

They have been sleeping on the ground floor for years now because they are too old to climb the stairs to their bedroom.

The water that flowed into their room almost touched the top of their bed but fortunately, one of my nephews and his wife from Kuala Lumpur were staying over that night.

It was so fortunate that they were there to calm my anxious parents down and assure them all would be fine. They managed to comfort my stunned folks, who had never experienced such an unpleasant situation before. My father had to be carried to the room upstairs as the house remained flooded throughout the early morning.

Our home was filled with layers of mud the next day and the cars parked outside were all damaged. They sadly look like write-offs.

My father’s pride and joy, his first-generation Proton Saga car – which he bought in 1985 – is now unusable.

A week on, my brothers and nieces are still cleaning up the mess from the massive flood. They haven’t had the time or mood to even assess the financial losses.

And bound by a common sentiment as Penangites, they are tired of the blame game, a trade the state’s politicians have plied to near-perfection.

How many times can the finger be pointed at the previous government, with the incumbent almost 10 years in power? And how many more times can we blame it on torrential rain, which came from Vietnam – or wherever? Worst of all is, when discussions are mooted on flood issues, the voices of the people are swiftly silenced.

It appears that even to talk about hillslope development, one would have to contest in the elections, or be perceived to be challenging the state government, or more extremely, be some kind of lackey in cahoots with the Federal Government.

Blaming everyone else except oneself is simply a way of covering up one’s weaknesses. But the discerning public, in a maturing democracy with heightened transparency and a huge middle class like Penang, will not tolerate such short-term manoeuvring for long.

Suddenly, civil society – a buzzword among politicians – has vanished, with NGOs now regarded as irritants and an affront to the state establishment. Politics is apparently the monopoly of politicians now.

As the National Human Rights Society aptly puts it, “With the benefit of hindsight, we are sure that the Penang government now realises that they should not so readily malign civil society, howsoever obliquely – for the legitimate and well-founded articulation of matters of great concern to civil society.

“This is because it undermines the fundamental values of a functioning democracy and the fundamental human rights of the populace at large.”

Perhaps, the state political elites, many of whom aren’t pure blood Penangites, don’t realise the state is the home of a vibrant civil society, with many active NGOs and activists who are respected influencers of society.

Having walked through the corridors of power and appreciated power’s pleasures, perks and the adulation it brings, maybe it is becoming much harder for people to take criticism. This is, in fact, a reflection of the arrogance of power.

Many have developed thin skin now, with little tolerance for the slightest form of criticism. If anyone even dares raise their voice, an army of cybertroopers, hiding behind anonymity, are unleashed to attack them.

Freedom of speech, it seems, is only the domain of the opposition, with some media (regarded as unfriendly) unceremoniously ridiculed and questioned for their attendance at press conferences.

There are politicians from the Federal Government, too, who are shamelessly cashing in on the flood situation in Penang.

Their relief work must be splashed across news pages, and they have to be seen wading through the flood waters for dramatic purpose. Phua Chu Kang’s iconic yellow boots could likely be the hottest item in the state, as politicians bask in the media’s glare.

Ridiculous remarks have also been passed, one even blaming the state government, saying it has earned the wrath of God.

The rain and floods will go away, eventually. Penangites are stakeholders in the state, and they don’t only make up politicians. The state doesn’t belong to the state government or the opposition.

Caught up in the thick of the action, we seem to have forgotten that the hills are crumbling even without rain. As a stern reminder, just last month, a landslide buried some people in Tanjung Bungah. Investigations on that tragedy are still ongoing.

Basically, the trees – which act as sponge on the hills – are gone. We don’t need to be soil experts to know that.

The grumblings are growing louder because the hills have been progressively going bald in recent years. But the voice of discontent has fallen on deaf ears.

Penangites are alarmed at what they are seeing, and they don’t like it one bit, as much as they understand that land is scarce on the island and property developers need to source some to build homes on.

While it’s easy to hang the Penang state government out to dry for its follies, it’s difficult to ignore how the floods in the east coast states have become annual affairs, too. So, what effective flood mitigation plans have been put in place there?

Kelantan has suffered senselessly, and after more than a year of having been subjected to Mother Nature’s havoc, many victims have yet to recover from their losses. Flooding is obviously nothing exclusive and doesn’t discriminate. Every state has, unfortunately, experienced it in some shape or form.

So, irrespective of location, when life returns to normal, you can expect the politicians to resume their old denying ways.

If there’s a thread that binds our politicians – regardless of which side of the political divide they come from – it is their inability to apologise for their mistakes, despite waxing lyrical about accountability.

Don’t expect them to say sorry, because an apology would be admission of guilt, or worse, a sign of weakness in their realm of inflated egos.

And to put things into perspective, perhaps we could learn a lesson from a quote by prominent American pastor Andy Stanley – “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”
On the beat Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now the group’s managing director/chief executive officer and formerly the group chief editor.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.

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Sustainable Development in Penang


Why did MBPP approve the Tanjung Bungah development project?
Read more at https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/399357#qbRd534yu1JfC551.99 

The never ending torrential rain in Penang over the weekend was an act of God. A natural phenomenon which is a perpetual feature of our equatorial climate. Nobody would wish to have the heavens open up with such vengeance on any state.

Naturally, when the rain intensity is so great, floods will occur. We should always be vigilant during the annual monsoon season.

Flood mitigation starts from the local council and state government. Every council must take into consideration the terrain, rainfall and built up surfaces in their area. While we can always engineer ourselves out of a flood, there is always a cost versus benefit consideration. There are some low-lying areas in a flood plain that will perpetually be flooded when it rains and if we situate developments in those areas, we have to be prepared for such events.

On a small island like Penang, with its hilly terrain, engineering flood mitigation measures must be a long term and all-inclusive plan encompassing all urban growth zones. It will not be cheap, mainly due to the high land cost and the expense incurred to provide adequate storage for the surface runoff.

As the island develops, open permeable spaces will continue to diminish causing higher runoff to flow downstream into the coastal areas. Couple that with tidal phenomenon and the incoming surface runoff will easily overwhelm the drainage system causing a rise in water level.

The question we should all be asking is how do we reduce the incidence of flooding? Unfortunately, especially with our tropical climate, it is quite impossible to entirely eliminate flooding. Anybody that promises that is telling you a blatant lie.

With the right planning and engineering, we can reduce the incidence of flooding and lower the magnitude of the damage caused.

Penang’s terrain bears much similarity to Hong Kong. Being in the path of tropical storms and typhoons from the Pacific Ocean, Hong Kong bears the brunt of some of the regions worst storms. On average, six tropical cyclones slam into Hong Kong every year. While flooding still occurs in Hong Kong, they have managed to reduce the damage it causes.

There are many lessons Penang can learn from Hong Kong.

If DAP still wants to continue to develop the state in a sustainable manner, they must implement special flood mitigation requirements in addition to the ones provided by the JPS Masma manual. If the hills are being cleared, the increased runoff will tax the existing drainage system. Siltation will occur, evident from the brownish flood waters, as topsoil and sediment from the hills wash down into the coastal plain. These sediments, unless periodically maintained, will clog existing waterways, thus reducing drainage efficiency.

The ultimate problem with highly built up areas is the immense volume of runoff from storms. Sufficient storage areas in the form of retention ponds and green open areas should be provided to retard the flow of water into the rivers.

Due to its terrain and the high-density development on the island, it is expensive to provide adequate stormwater storage within a development.

Catchment areas next to hillslopes also have a large volume of runoff moving at a high velocity. The damaging effect of erosion is quite evident on many of these hill projects. Sometimes water currents are so strong, even paved roads can be ripped apart.

Some of the more innovative solutions for Hong Kong’s flooding problems like the underground stormwater storage system has worked very well over the years together with a comprehensive Drainage Master Plan.

The Drainage Services Department of the Hong Kong SAR constructed massive underground tanks to route surface runoff intercepted from uphill catchments during storms only to slowly release the stormwater into the natural waterways when the storm abates.

The Penang state government has a duty of care to the residents of Penang to ensure that disasters of such proportion should not happen.

Over the past four years, a total of 119 incidences of flooding has been recorded in Penang. Penang is an economic powerhouse and home to some of the world most high-tech electronics producers.

The state government has to provide a safe and secure environment for investor to house their production facilities and assets. Otherwise, multinationals might shun the island because of the cost of protecting and insuring their priceless assets. Productivity would be affected and the cost to remedy the damage.

We will only find out the true financial cost of this disaster over the next few weeks.

For Penang to recover from this tragedy, federal funding is required to repair all the damaged infrastructure within the state.

The very least they can do is to provide a COMPETENT flood mitigation plan for the state starting with a comprehensive Drainage Master Plan Study.

The Penang government has to be ACCOUNTABLE to the people and not private developers. If certain waterways and catchment areas have to be gazetted as permanent drainage and storage areas, then so be it.

The safety and well-being of the Rakyat has to come first. Lastly, in the interest of  TRANSPARENCY, Penang has to launch an inquiry into how the local council approved property developments on Class III slopes without adequate slope protection.

The collapse of many retaining structures and slope failures in such risky locations is cause to for concern because as of right now, any dwelling structure located downstream to those development could possibly be the scene for the next Highland Towers.

Kong Len Wei@konglen wei

Source: by Kong Len Wei, a Civil engineer  and councilor for Majlis Perbandaran Manjung and the Chairman of MCA Youth Perak Young Professional’s Bureau
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PAC blamed Penang Island City Council (MBPP) for failing to enforce laws on hillside development


Becoming bald: A view of the clearing work seen at Bukit Relau which was visible from the Penang Bridge in November last year.

GEORGE TOWN: The Penang Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had faulted the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) for failing to monitor and enforce laws on hillside development in the state.

In its report on hill land development tabled on May 19, PAC said the lax monitoring not only resulted in unchecked hill clearing, but landowners were able to build houses, chalets, hotels and restaurants on Penang’s hill range.

“This situation happened because of MBPP’s failure to monitor and patrol hill land after notices were issued to landowners.

“This led to risks of soil erosion, landslides, mudslides, river sedimentation and disruptions to the surroundings,” it stated.

PAC’s report gained public attention after Penanti assemblyman Dr Norlela Ariffin brought it up in a dialogue session held by Penang NGOs and residents associations on flood and landslides on Sunday.

She told 200-odd members of the civil society that the report was tabled in the state assembly but never presented.

PAC stated that according to the state Audit Department, out of 31 illegal hill land clearing cases in 2015, four were in the Teluk Bahang water catchment area.

The committee, chaired by Bagan Dalam assemblyman A. Tanasekharan, visited nine of the cases on March 1.

It highlighted the Bukit Relau hill clearing case 410m above sea level and visible from Penang Bridge.

“Media reports and public comments should have been enough for MBPP and other authorities to take immediate action.

“Mitigation works on Bukit Relau have taken so long to be completed. The local authorities neither monitor the work frequently nor supply regular updates,” it added.

On illegal clearing that took place on Penang Hill, PAC expressed frustration that the actual dates and specific locations of the earthworks could not be determined because of the unsatisfactory records and monitoring.

“On Penang Hill, there was confusion on the existing agricultural plot and the new clearings.

“There are no definitions of allowable hill land agricultural works that involves digging,” it added.

PAC also objected to an earlier suggestion by the state Local Government Committee to exclude hill land earthworks related to agricultural activities from needing work permits.

Source: The Star by Arnold Loh

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Councillors ready to serve Penangites to make a difference?

Penang floods, support pours in for dialogue


(From left) Dr Kam will deliver a talk on ‘Understanding the Causes of Floods and Seeking Solutions. State assemblymen expressing interest in attending are Dr Norlela, Cheah, Muhamad Farid, Ooi and Shah Headan.

School students and the public wading through floodwaters in Jalan Trengganu
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Filepix of cars getting stalled on flooded Jalan Ayer Itam

MORE than 10 elected representatives from Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional have so far confirmed their attendance at the dialogue session ‘Penang Floods: A Call for Action’ to discuss floods at the Teow Chew Association in Chulia Street on Sunday from 10am till noon.

Kebun Bunga assemblyman Cheah Kah Peng from PKR said the briefing was a good initiative to gather feedback from the people.

“As people’s representatives, we should always have a positive mind dtowards discussions, whether it is positive or negative.

“Dialectics process is necessary to get to the bottom of a problem,” he said yesterday.

Penanti assemblyman Dr Norlela Ariffin, also from PKR, believes the dialogue session would be a great resource for her to learn more about what was happening on the island.

“I have always been concerned about the flooding woes in my constituency and other parts on the mainland.

“I want to know more about flooding on the island too,” she said.

Dr Norlela said the input from the session would be useful for help to raise questions in the state assembly sitting from Nov 2.

Teluk Bahang assemblyman Datuk Shah Headan Ayoob Hussain Shah from Barisan Nasional said the session would be a good platform for the people and affected flood victims to raise their concerns.

“Our priority is to help the rakyat (people) and we will come in support of them,” he said.

Tanjung Bungah assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu, from the DAP, said he would send two of his representatives to the session.

“I will raise flood issues during the assembly sitting. I have done this many times before,” he said.

Pulau Betong assemblyman Muhammad Farid Saad said he would be attending a function in his constituency. However, he said he would try to attend the dialogue “even though I may be late.”

Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi said he would be attending an event to foster unity between Muslims and non-Muslims at Jamek Mosque in his constituency at the same time.

“I will be late if the event at the mosque starts late,” he said.

The dialogue will be moderated by Penang Forum steering committee member Ahmad Chik.

Forum member Dr Kam Suan Pheng, a soil expert and scientist, will deliver a talk on ‘Understand-ing the Causes of Floods and Seeking Solutions’.

Lawyer Datuk Agatha Foo will talk on ‘Laws and Guidelines Relating to Hill Land and Hill Slope Development’.

Consumers Association of Penang legal adviser Meenakshi Raman will touch on the ‘Demands of Residents’ Associations of Penang’ and it will be followed by the dialogue session.

Meenakshi, who is Tanjung Bungah Residents Association chairman, urged resident associations and management corporations to attend the event.

She said 24 resident associations, management corporations and residents groups had joined the Residents’ Associations of Penang which was formed last year.

“We hope more will sign up. More members means more strength in handling issues affecting the community,” she said.

For details on the dialogue, email penangforumm@gmail.com or call 04-8299511 (Jaspal).

Source: The Star by Logeiswary Thevadass

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Penang Paya Terubong Residents living under shadow of fear!


Put on hold: A view of the site for the development of four apartment buildings in Paya Terubong, Air Itam.

GEORGE TOWN: Since the deadly landslide in Tanjung Bungah, people in Paya Terubong are looking over their shoulder – and up at a nearby hill.

They have been trying for years to stop a project comprising four towers, each over 40 storeys tall, approved on a hillside across the road from their homes.

Because the project has already been approved, the residents are down to one last resort – the state Planning Appeals Board.

“We must try. The only thing between our homes and those four towers will be a new two-way street that the developer will build if this project goes on,” said Taman Sri Rambai and Taman Lau Geok Swee Residents’ Association chairman Dr Ti Lian Geh.

The plan, he said, was supposed to be six-storey townhouses but the developer put in a request to change it to high-density apartments.

He said the residents have been living in fear after learning that the development plan was changed to three blocks of 47-storey luxury apartments and a 41-storey block of affordable housing.

He said a hearing is ongoing with the Planning Appeals Board to stop the development.

“Building skyscrapers on a steep hillslope is dangerous. If the towers come down, the whole neighbourhood will be gone,” he said, adding that the high-density project will also worsen traffic congestion there.

He told a press conference yesterday that the earthworks two years ago caused frequent flash floods, mudslides and torrential mudflows in the neighbourhood.

Penang MCA and Gerakan, which organised the press conference, urged the state government to revoke the approval.

Bukit Gelugor MCA division deputy secretary Choong Jun Jie said that every time there is a downpour, the residents worry.

“We do not want another tragedy,” he said.

Penang Gerakan vice-chairman Oh Tong Keong said people’s lives are in jeopardy when highrise projects are given priority.

The staggered hillslope is now covered with geotextile sheets after the Penang Island City Council issued a stop-work order about two years ago.

Penang Island City Council Engineering Department director Addnan Mohd Razali said all construction work there except for mitigation measures have been stopped pending the outcome of the residents’ appeal.

Source: The Star by Logeiswary Thevadass and Rena Lim

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Penang landslide, whose faults?


GEORGE TOWN: The Penang Island City Council has lodged a police report against the consultant of the affordable housing project that was hit by a landslide in Tanjung Bungah on Saturday, claiming the lives of 11 workers.

This is because the state government wants the matter investigated and the responsible parties to be charged, state Local Government Committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow said.

He stressed that the incident was a construction site accident.

“We hope the council and other related agencies will give their fullest cooperation to the police,” he told a press conference at Komtar yesterday.

At the same conference, Mayor Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif acknowledged that the project was rejected by the Department of Environment (DOE) but said it was approved by the state because it complied with Penang’s Safety Guidelines for Hill Site Development 2012.

Besides, she said, the DOE had approved a residential project and a private education institution that were even closer to the quarry.

“It is located more than 500m from the quarry’s blasting point while federal guidelines only require a minimum distance of 350m.

“The project’s site is zoned as ‘general residential’ and the slope gradient is less than 20°.

What a mess: Some groups believe that if the
DOE’s advice had been heeded, the landslide tragedy could have been
avoided. — Bernama

“The land is also less than 76m above sea level with the site located on a contour between 18m and 40m,” she said.

Maimunah said that based on all the requirements, the council’s One-Stop Centre (OSC) – which comprises members from more than 20 technical agencies at state and federal level – agreed to approve the project.

The OSC is in charge of approving property development plans on the island.

“The earthworks planning permission was presented to the OSC on May 14, 2015, and it was approved with conditions on June 6, 2015, while the commencement of work approval was given on Jan 18 last year,” she said.

However, the Tanjung Bungah Residents Association was not happy with the reasons given by the council for allowing the project.

“How could the council ignore the advice when the DOE is the authority responsible for protecting the environment?” association chairman Meenakshi Raman asked.

Penang Island City Council mayor Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif telling a press conference that the project met state guidelines.

“If they had heeded the DOE’s advice, this tragedy could have been avoided and lives would not have been lost.”

“We feel betrayed … the state government failed to listen to us,” she said yesterday, commenting on Maimunah’s statements at the press conference.

Penang Federal Action Council chairman Datuk Seri Zainal Abidin Osman urged the state government to immediately set up an independent body to audit all approvals of hillslope development projects made by the various state authorities.

“The Penang government has to take responsibility and be accountable for the tragedy involving the loss of 11 lives.

“We ask it to stop blaming others for any accident which occurred since it became the state government.

“We are surprised that a project which was not supported by a technical department was still given approval by the state authority,” he said in a statement.

An undertaker (in white) and a priest performing prayers at the scene of
the landslide for site supervisor Yuan Kuok Wern, 27, who was killed in
the tragedy.

The Institution of Engineers Malaysia (IEM) also came forward to offer technical assistance and opinions in the investigation.

Its president Dr Tan Yean Chin said in a statement that IEM is recognised locally and internationally as a professional body representing a wide cross-section of the engineering practice.

“As a learned society with over 40,000 members and affiliated to several international engineering organisations, IEM is able to offer expert opinions on this tragic event,” he said.

Source: The Starby lo tern chern, logeiswary thevadass, cavina lim, crystal chiam shiying, r. sekaran, rahmah ghazali, danial albakri

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Penang landslide tragedy, why it happened?


Speaking out: Penang Forum members protesting outside the CAP office in George Town.

Don’t just make it about worker safety issues

 

GEORGE TOWN: A Penang Forum member is worried that the state’s proposed inquiry into the Tanjung Bungah landslide will only focus on worker safety issues.

Meenakshi Raman, who is also Tanjung Bungah Residents Associa­tion chairman, said the inquiry should instead look at the laws that have not been followed and whether or not the Penang Structure Plan (PSP) was neglected.

“It should also look at whether the Penang Island City Council (MBPP), which has the authority to act, failed to properly do its job.

“We hope the commission will broaden its scope of inquiry,” she told press conference at the Consu­mers Association of Penang (CAP) office yesterday.

Penang Forum is a loose coalition of several civil society groups in the state.

The coalition, which includes Sahabat Alam Malaysia, CAP, Malay­sian Nature Society, Women’s Centre for Change, Penang Heritage Trust, Friends of Botanical Gardens, and 25 residents’ associations and management committees, urged the state to halt all hillslope projects immediately.

It also wants the state to amend the 2009 guidelines on “special projects” to explicitly prohibit development on hill lands except for essential public services.

Forum member Dr Lim Mah Hui said the Penang Hills Watch citizens’ initiative provided the state government with information on hill cutting it collected from the public.

“In January, this site was the first case we highlighted to the state government.

“Photos of construction and hill cutting there were presented to the state government. It responded that the ‘earthwork is being monitored’,” he said.

Dr Lim said Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng wrote in the Safety Guidelines for Hillside Development in 2012 that local governments were to strengthen their geotechnical units, which process and approve applications for hillside developments, and follow up with strict enforcement.

“It says a monitoring team will be established to ensure compliance in construction and performance (of projects).

“The question is what happened then? Did the state and local governments follow their own guidelines? Or was there gross negligence?

“Such a tragedy could have been avoided,” Dr Lim claimed.

He also said parties like the State Planning Committee, MBPP’s One-Stop-Centre Committee (which approved the project), the engineers, the developer and contractors should be investigated.

CAP vice-president Mohideen Abdul Kader said Penangites’ concerns over hill development dated back some three decades.

“Remember the proposed Penang Hill development which we managed to cancel in the end? What the state must do now is look after the natural resources and listen to the NGOs.

“Public pressure can make a difference,” he said.

Another forum member, Dr Kam Suan Pheng, said the Penang Structure Plan forbade development on hill land 76m (250ft) above sea level or with a gradient of 25° and above.

“But many developers cut hillslopes, making them steeper and less stable.

“The weather is always blamed but there was no rain for the past week. So how did the landslide happen?” she asked.

Dr Kam said the Safety Guidelines for Hillside Development clearly state that “if you have a slope … depending on the height of the slope, you need to have a buffer zone that is greater than the height of the slope.”

“From the media reports, the height of the affected slope is 10m, so there should be a buffer zone of 10m from the foothill,” she said, adding that the inquiry should explore this aspect.

Penang Citizens Awareness Chant Group adviser Yan Lee urged the developer to conduct studies on improving on-site safety measures and engage foreign consultants to make sure the project can go on safely.

“They should also make sure the deceased workers’ families are taken care of.”

 

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