KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 8 – In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the earth around the hill slopes of Bukit Antarabangsa, a suburban development in a thickly forested water catchment area in the city, groaned, shook and surged forward, buckling roads, overturning cars, snapping lamp posts, and flattening 14 houses in its wake.

Four people died, 14 others have been injured and over 2,000 people have been told to evacuate their homes.

Almost 15 years ago, 48 people, including the son of former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam, died after one of the three Highland Towers condominium blocks located within the same Bukit Antarabangsa area came crashing down as a result of yet another landslide. At the time, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad put a stop to further hillside development.

Was anyone listening?

One doubts it. Said Benjamin George, an 80-year-old doctor who survived the Highland Towers tragedy: “In three months, the tractors will start work again,” he told the press bitterly. “I have survived long enough to see all this nonsense repeated.”

Predictably, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose private secretary’s house was also crushed in Saturday’s landslide, echoed much of what his predecessor said 15 years ago. Saying that enough is enough, Abdullah decreed that there would be no more hillside housing projects in the area.

“Malaysians never want to learn from past experience,” said Abdullah, waxing philosophical. “They only want good views and developers only want to profit, but no one takes safety and soil stability into consideration.”

Abdullah is seriously missing the point here. In the first place, Bukit Antarabangsa isn’t an isolated case.

Last week, the earth moved in the swank suburb of Damansara Heights, burying 15 cars and forcing the staff of two buildings, including the headquarters of Malaysia’s largest investment bank CIMB, to flee.

And yet, residents of nearby Medan Damansara protesting a massive development of a hill slope area in their backyards have largely had their protests ignored.

Indeed, the developer has sued at least four members of its association for defamation. Even so, the hill slope has been largely denuded, leaving a gaping red wound in the area. Incidentally, Medan Damansara is about a kilometre or so from the CIMB building.

Abdullah should ask who are the people who approved such developments. Which are the agencies who agreed to allow potentially dangerous places to be sliced and diced into houses with a view? Clearly, some procedures aren’t being followed.

If they were, we might not be pondering the imponderable. How was a forest gazetted by the British as a water catchment area allowed to be developed in the first place?

All it takes is for the rules to be strictly enforced. There is, for example, a guideline issued by the Federal, Town and Country Planning Department which says that all development of slopes exceeding 25 degrees should be strictly prohibited.

But these strictures are largely ignored because they aren’t laws but mere guidelines. The solution is obvious. Parliament should make it a law. If it had, the nightmares in Bukit Antarabangsa and Damansara could have been avoided.

And proper drainage systems in a city that is palpably overdeveloped are a must. Anything less is neglect of criminal proportions. One only ignores nature at one’s peril. – Business Times Singapore