Guan Eng under pressure to stop hill-slope projects



Pearlhill Townhouses perched precariously on a steep hill-slope: Plans were approved for development on the slopes directly below

Penang residents, especially those along the northern coastline, continue to worry about projects on steep hill-slopes. I received the following from a blog reader, who also included a well-reasoned and articulate letter to the Penang Chief Minister from the Management Committee of Mt Evergreen Phase 1 (reproduced further below).

We are owners and residents of a string of four blocks of 87 apartment units perched on the side of Pearl Hill, Penang. About a year ago the previous State government approved the building of apartment blocks right below our properties. This part of Pearl Hill has slopes categorised as class 3, that is, more than 25 degrees with some localised sections in excess of 35 degrees.

The proposed development will cut away two-thirds of the trees. Blasting is bound to be undertaken, as huge rocks – some as big as cars – are evident in the landscape of the hill. Cracks have appeared both on the public road serving our residences as well as on our walls, indicating possible potential slope failure.

We wrote the following letter to YAB Lim Guan Eng, the Chief Minister of Penang soon after the Bukit Antarabangsa tragedy. We want the approval withdrawn. We cannot risk having the development proceed, even if the building work is to be monitored for the reasons given in our letter to the Chief Minister of Penang, reproduced below.

YAB Lim Guan Eng

Chief Minister of Penang

13 December 2008

Dear Sir

Development on Hill Slopes

As all Malaysians, we were horrified to hear of the recent landslide at Bukit Antarabangsa, and dismayed that, so many years after Highland Towers, these loss of precious lives and properties continue. It is all the more lamentable because they could have been avoided.

We read with interest and concern the recent press statements you made in response to the tragedy. Concern because you seemed to have made light of the Prime Minister’s call for a stop to development on slopes. Politics aside, we had been heartened by it, and though we reserve our cynicism that things will not change, his statement seemed to us a national clarion call to reason.

In contrast to your own statement, read what YB Elizabeth Wong says in her blog, in an article called “Bukit Antarabangsa Landslide : Bitter Vindication”, on 7 December 2008;

“We heartened that finally, after 8 months of battling the housing industry alone, that the Federal Government has come on to our side to give Selangor, both the moral and policy support it needs, with both the PM and DPM calling for all hillslope development permits nationwide to be cancelled.”

We had been encouraged and cheered by the Selangor State Government’s ban, soon after they assumed office, on development on sensitive slopes. We waited with bated breath for a similar pronouncement from the new Penang Government, and so far have been disappointed.

Penang’s position seems to be to emulate Hong Kong, forgetting that while our total land areas might be similar, their population of 7 million far exceeds our island’s 678,000. At 6303 persons per sq kilometer, Hong Kong is the fourth densest place on the planet. And most of Hong Kong is mountainous and hilly, so they build from absolute necessity. Even so, their own official position on building on hill slopes is summed up thus: “The strategy for dealing with natural terrain landslide hazards in Hong Kong has been to avoid, as far as possible, new developments in vulnerable areas.” [ “Geotechnical Engineering”, Ken K S Ho, K S Li ]

Malaysia is not like Hong Kong in many crucial ways. For one thing, our geologies are different. Theirs is mostly solid granite, while ours is mostly weathered rock with a high propensity for water saturation. Our year-round high humidity and constant rains weather rocks differently.

We are also different from Hong Kong in the very important way of our resources, both financial as well as human. To avoid conflicts of interest, it would be imperative that government departments be charged with your new tasks, not professionals in the industry. Hong Kong draws from a vast pool of government experts. Their departments have not been crafted from decades of dubious official policies, while many of ours operate in a culture of institutionalised complacency, mediocrity and maybe even incompetence. And corruption.

Days before the tragedy, residents in Bukit Antarabangsa had made known to the authorities that some 8 trees had fallen on the slopes, and that someone’s retaining wall was issuing water, and his badminton court was flooded. In nearly all cases of landslides in Malaysia and the attendant death toll, there is that same repeated story of reports having been made.

We enclose some recent photographs which show cracks on a road in Pearl Hill, between nos. 43, 45, Puncak Bukit Mutiara Satu, and a project being built on slopes. We had written to the relevant departments as long ago as 2006 about the appearance of cracks on this and other roads here. Geotechnical engineers say tension cracks on roads are evidence of slope movement, and might be precursor to slope failure. As far as we know, nothing has been done, and the cracks have worsened.

Unlike Hong Kong, we have never ever had any maintenance done on our slope developments. We have never ever had slope audits and regular inspections. And enforcement on on-going slope works is far-lacking or non-existent. So it is necessary, indeed vital, to have that commission of landslide experts that you have initiated, for on-going projects and maintenance reasons.

But you cannot rely on industry players to help formulate your policies on the matter. There are vested interests. And the experts don’t always get things right; disaster struck despite a RM1.6 million contract to solely monitor geological conditions including earth movements in the Bukit Antarabangsa area.

Were geotechnical consultants not involved in the huge retaining wall that collapsed in Jalan Semantan, just 2 days before Bukit Antarabangsa? Even Putrajaya was not spared, 22 March 2007.

Despite these and dozens more cases, there is a certain proclivity to believe that modern engineering, applied assiduously enough, can safely tame slopes, hills and mountains with mathematical exactitude. In reality, geotechnical literature abounds with the language of uncertainty: geological risk, geotechnical risk, parameter uncertainties, model uncertainties, human uncertainties, hazard models, societal risks, quantitative risk analysis [QRA], population and vulnerability factors, assessed risk level, acceptable risk level, interim risk guidelines [IRG], probability of death, potential loss of life [PLL]. [ref: “Geological Uncertainty and Geotechnical Risk Determination”, by J L Knill, and other sources]

Quoting J L Knill:

“Ground conditions are always uncertain… [There is] a fundamental and continuing inability in engineering practice to understand geological uncertainty. It is a telling conclusion that these reviews, although fully acknowledging the importance of geological risk, add little to its fuller understanding.”

In Hong Kong, major emphasis is always placed on trying to understand, evaluate and minimise risks to human lives and properties, but it is a science of many assumptions and variables :

Individual Risk [IR] = f x P (run-out) x P (width) x V, where f is the frequency of occurrence of hazard, P (run-out) is the probability of run-out of certain distance, P (width) is the width probability of the landslide, and V is the vulnerability of the outdoor and indoor population accounting for the time of day.
Societal risk results are presented as PLL and fN curves.
PLL = IR x N, where IR is individual risk and N is the population likely to be affected by the landslide.
N = population x OZP area affected [Outline Zoning Plans]

We attach some photographs of our houses on the slopes of Pearl Hill. It is obvious how precarious the terrain and buildings are, but because the approving authorities trust in the infallibility of engineers, plans have been approved for development on the slopes directly below us. Much of the slopes will be shorn of trees and cut. There is no consideration of variables and uncertainties, no need for QRA, P, IR, V, fN and PLL, just theoretical exactitudes.

In YB Wong’s same article, she points out: “Selangor became the first and only state in the Federation to have complied with the Federal Town and Country Planning Department’s “Total Planning Guidelines” 1997 (2nd edition, 2001) which states that no housing development should be allowed on 25 degrees and above gradient slopes. “.

Penang still allows building on slopes up to 35 degrees, or “critical” slopes. One would have thought that there is an urgent and pressing rationale for Penang’s green hills, even more than Selangor, to be preserved. We depend so much on tourism, and Unesco’s heritage citing can only be enhanced by preservation of her natural resources as well.

In defending the Selangor Government’s position against that of developers, YB Iskandar Abdul Samad writes in his blog, “Bukit Antarabangsa : A govt must do what is right and not what is popular”, 9 December 2008.

The irony is that the general populace in Penang wants her green hills preserved. It would be both right and popular, that the State Government of Penang to revisit those policies which would have our lush hills turned into mountains of concrete.

Ultimately, though, it is about people – their lives, loved ones, limbs and properties. YB Wong says succinctly, “We ask that ‘People’ be put ahead of ‘Profits’.”

Is human life worth any less in this State, that there can be such a glaring discrepancy in the official positions of both these Pakatan governments?

Hong Kong clearly emphasises our weaknesses and has lessons to learn from. On the broader matter of policy, we humbly urge you to reconsider your faith in the government departments, in engineers and the uncertain science of geotechnics. Please follow Selangor.

Thank you.


Management Committee (Perbadanan Pengurusan Mt Evergreen Fasa 1)

Tanjung Bungah


Attached : Pic of our homes at Mt Evergreen Fasa 1

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4 Jan 2009 3.58am

It is easy to issue stop order, but when state government is sued by developer and hillside home buyer, will Penangites willing to hand out their money for legal fund and loss verdict?

3 Jan 2009 10.59pm

moby_44, perhaps..different contract have different terms???… u cant expect LGE to be so ignorant, can u? look at selangor’s klang bus terminal problem now.. its not as easy as u say terminate the contract.. compensation has to be paid.. understand? there is no easy way out even if approval given by the govt is later revoked for some other reason.. u wont want those umno … to do another gerbang u? and penang is not that rich as far as Im aware with a hostile federal govt.. frankly, the only way out i see is to attempt to frustrate… Read more »

2 Jan 2009 5.53pm

selangor stopped approving new projects. they did not stop work on ongoing projects other than those around bkt antarabangsa, and that was only after the latest tragedy.

1 Jan 2009 5.49pm

To LGE’s rehearsed pleadings about the possibility of being sued, I have just one question: how come the Selangor State Govt can do it?!

There, they saw that there was a clear and reasoned rationale to stop development on sensitive slopes, and applied themselves to righting a wrong, no matter what. They stuck to a principle, and fought for it.

Like mentioned in the letter to the CM, are lives here in Penang worth less than in Selangor?

Can the Selangor State Govt afford lawsuits more than Penang can?

31 Dec 2008 11.45am

Do offer your services though there are so many prominent lawyers within DAP. That includings Karpal Singh & co. However, as a lawyer like yourself, perhaps getting the opportunity to read the entire document before commenting. Well, I guess you know what you are doing. No point teaching grandma to suck egg


31 Dec 2008 11.42am

Dear Hans & the Rest, I understood that there are on going talks between the developers and the residents with the state government being the middleman. What’s the conclusion of those meetings? Perhaps LGE and state government can anoounce the conclusion. Affected residents can disclose the findings. I absolyte agree with you that life is important. However, we got to ensure all grounds are covered. Have a systematic approach in resolving the problems. Rather than jumping into conclusion and providing solutions that won’t solve the real root cause of the peoblem. Perhaps, those legals experts can offer advices on the… Read more »

31 Dec 2008 3.10am

LGE keeps worrying about lawsuits, for this matter as well as PGCC and the Turf Club land. Part of his problem might be the quality of the legal advice the bureaucrats in admin feed him. Remember he seeks legal counsel from a civil service inherited from Koh Tsu Koon’s time. I am from the legal profession, and I can safely say a good many of us bristle when he falls back on those anxieties at a time when we expect him to change things for Penang. If he had the political will to restrict development on Class 3 slopes, even… Read more »

We Care
We Care
31 Dec 2008 2.07am

Lulu is correct. Prospective buyers need to know how precarious the project is, if there is a landslide, whilst they may not lose their life.

Correct again, if no willing buyer, no point building.
Hillside projects will fade away.

Developers will go bankrupt as well when there are no buyers.

30 Dec 2008 10.24pm

the other thing that we can push for is to help ensure that there will be no buyers for the project. if there are no buyers, there will be no interest in the developer’s side to build. if what the residents are saying is true, the prospective buyers need to know how precarious the project is/ if there is a landslide, whilst they may not lose their life but the value of their condo unit will also drop ala bukit antarabangsa. also, blood is also on their hands if lifes are lost should there be a landslide. lose-lose, no point… Read more »

30 Dec 2008 4.00pm

One look at the Pearlhill Townhouses, you can only wonder why these people wanna play Russian Roulette with nature.

Either sheer arrogance or sheer foolishness.

Still a responsible State government should not have approved it in the first place, now it is left to see if the new DAP led state governemnt have the cojones to put an end to this pure foolishness.

Penangites is behind you, LGE, do the right thing, don’t wait till tragedy happens and Penangites won’t easily forgive you if it does !

30 Dec 2008 3.40pm

The apartment on stilt at the hillside will have only one ending, that is one day it will crash downhill. The owner who purchased it before do not care about hill side development or trees being chopped down, all they want is good sea view.

I am being tough here, good seaview does not compensate the everyday worry and the potential ending of these apartment. One day, it will all come crashing down.

Sam Gopal
Sam Gopal
30 Dec 2008 3.39pm

My apologies, In this cases, there is no “mitigation work to strengthen the slopes will continue, as NO construction work is taking place as the moment.

Sam Gopal
Sam Gopal
30 Dec 2008 3.35pm

This is where LGE and team lack the Management skills and strengths. Time to think like a CEO of a Billion $ corporation. Put the onus back to the developer, with a 95% (or 99.97%) confidence level that the development is safe. Not by mere verbal guarantee, but with rock solid evidence as mentioned by Ong Eu Soon. If you can’t justify you don’t continue! So the State Government has put its foot down and being firm. Tell the Developer, “Our” experts have said it is not stable, so prove me otherwise. Until then the mitigation work to strengten the… Read more »

30 Dec 2008 2.37pm

In the short 9 mths, we have witnessed the transformation of LGE from a “people-focused” to “business-focused” person. I had some inkling of this when his previously strong opposition to PGCC and other projects suddenly seem to be a bit ambigious. Instead of using the authority bestowed by his position, LGE seemed to waver and tried to find some excuse not to cancelled these projects. In addition to this, sudden fast-track approvals of projects (some of them previously rejected) cast a negative perception on his policies and principles. His much touted CAT principle sounds more like FAT CAT principles with… Read more »

Dalbinder Singh Gill
Dalbinder Singh Gill
30 Dec 2008 2.19pm

i feel sad for YAB LIM, as i mean the way i look at things is as if his hands are tied because all the hill raping was done by our so called People Friendly Barisan Nasional previous government, this should be a lesson to all of us , the raped most of the green lungs in Penang. Dont Worry YAB LIM, when we voted for your government (though i am not elegible to vote yet due to age), we were ready to and in fact we knew we were gonna gp through the tough times together with you as… Read more »

30 Dec 2008 12.15pm

The residence of Mt Evergreen still have the time to wait for CM LGE actions? Looking at the pic I think the best is abandon the house. Even if the project below is banned, I wouldn’t want to be in that town house no more. My ego is not that big. Stop fighting for the house , move out!!!

30 Dec 2008 10.44am

Dear Looes74, Are you saying that because…. i) it was the previous state government which gave the development go-ahead, and; ii) the state government now is broke (ie low in funds in the state coffers); these hillslope developments that have been priorly approved be continued and people’s lives and private properties are not important anymore. Just focus on the economy? I might have read you wrong, I hope so, but to me the lives of Penangites are paramount on top of everything else, including the economy. The present state government must have the political will to stop what is wrong.… Read more »

Andrew I
Andrew I
30 Dec 2008 9.54am

As most of you will be aware by now, absolutely nothing will be done until something happens. It’s called the be happy, don’t worry principle. A friend of mine opines that should there be a landslide, the houses being built above Moonlight Bay will land up on the beach. Not a comforting thought if you happen to be driving by. I’m also beginning to have my doubts about the daily abuse of the flyover in Green Lane. Was it built with traffic jams in mind? Same goes for the 2 becomes 1 idea after the tolls on Penang bridge. Does… Read more »

30 Dec 2008 9.43am

the letter is well written, so why was the town house built earlier and all the residents seems happy and contented but am now motivated to worry about the safety of their estate.

Ong Eu Soon
30 Dec 2008 9.33am

Do you know what Hong Kong have and what Penang don’t have? The following is what Hong Kong have: 1) Atkins China Ltd (1999). Scoping Study for a Global Quantitative Risk Assessment on Natural Terrain Landslides in Hong Kong. Report prepared for the Geotechnical Engineering Office, Hong Kong. 2) Ayotte, D. & Hungr, O. (1998). Runout Analysis of Debris Flows and Debris Avalanches in Hong Kong. Report prepared for the Geotechnical Engineering Office, Hong Kong. 3) ERM-Hong Kong Ltd (1995). Quantitative Risk Assessment of Boulder Fall Hazards in Hong Kong: Phase 2 Study. Report prepared for the Geotechnical Engineering Office,… Read more »

30 Dec 2008 9.09am

I was shocked to hear about the latest development plans BELOW the Pearl Hill Townhouses. The Townhouses (built over 15 years ago) should not have been constructed in the first place. Those buildings are resting almost entirely on thin concrete stilts going down 10-20 metres through thin air. Only a small front portion of the houses rest directly on soil. If part of the slope starts moving…God help them… Its sheer irresponsibility for the previous State Government to approve a project further down the slope. I guess somebody successfully put up the argument – you already approved the project on… Read more »

30 Dec 2008 8.41am

I am puzzled. Anil continues to be silent on the role of certain architect for whom we all know that he has a hand in one of the buildings being built in the heritage zone? Be transparentlar Anil. Even if your association with this person goes back a long way, write on that too. I think you have been quiet too long and I think it reflects bad on your character. Stop picking the fight with the state government but also on characters that are questionable. In fact, I am following your blog. I am sure you won’t have the… Read more »

30 Dec 2008 2.09am

Han, I believe Penang state government does have a political will put a ban on the future housing development on hillslope. However, what about the existing ones? Especially when some jokers in the previous administration has signed the dotted lines. Who will pay for all the penalty charges if the state government unilaterally halt all current development? You, Me, Anil, Penangites or Malaysians in general? Would you initiate the fund raising to pay these goons? How to ban if there is no official reports by officials including those from the international bodies condemning all those actions, those implementations? It’s economy,… Read more »

30 Dec 2008 1.33am

aiya, where can stop one? money more important than human lives maa.
like that oso dono meh?

30 Dec 2008 12.51am

I maybe wrong but sometime back I vaguely saw in a National Geographic magazine of a map of all earthquake prone areas and all fault lines globally.

If not mistaken, Malaysia lies on a fault line. Correct me if I am wrong as I vaguely can remember the info I read. This means that, we MIGHT have an earthquake one day.

Can you imagine what will happen to one or two hillslopes if earthquake hits? It would be the first to crumble.

See here