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Seeking closure

18/12/2004 NST

SURVIVORS of the Highland Towers tragedy are in desperate need of closure, but it won't come about until two issues can be resolved. One of the hindrances lies with their ongoing battle with the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ) and the other, the blatant disregard for hillslope  development that continues to ravage lives.

As the local council responsible for approving and maintaining the area in which the remaining two blocks of Highland Towers stand in Ulu Klang, Selangor, MPAJ has refused to grant the owners compensation as directed by the High Court, and has taken the matter to the Federal Court.

The High Court had ruled on Aug 11, 2000 that MPAJ and six other defendants contributed to the landslide that caused the collapse of Block One, one of the three Highland Towers condominium blocks, resulting in the death of 48 people.

Highland Towers Owners and Residents' Committee chairman Dr Benjamin George has appealed to MPAJ for an out-of-court settlement.

"Please do not take us through the financial burden and trauma of fighting in the Federal Court. For 11 long years the authorities that should have come forward to solve our problems (instead) fought us," he

"Please have pity on us who lost dear ones and our properties. Let us come to a settlement. Let us put an end to this heartache once and for all," he said.

Besides appealing for an out-of-court settlement, Dr George also urged the Government and local authorities to enforce better controls on hillslope developments.

"We who have suffered much do not want to see our fellow citizens suffer the same fate. It is a pity the life of eight-year-old Haseenah was lost as recently as last month, on Nov 5, in Gombak, through a similar tragedy we suffered 11 years ago.

"We are told that there are enough laws in the land. Why then, is there no proper implementation? How long will developers be allowed to flout laws? The very hills that former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad stopped from being developed because of the destruction of the rainforests are now going to be cut down. Next door to us, the residents of Ukay Heights are fighting to preserve the hillslopes, their lives and property," he added.

His concern was echoed by Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, Dr Mahathir's wife, who was among the crowd lending moral support to the survivors at the Highland Towers memorial last Saturday.

"Deep in my heart remains a feeling of sadness and concern, not so much as to why they went, but how they went," she said in a message.

"Some tragedies are unavoidable, but some can be prevented. Let us therefore take heed of these tragedies and do the utmost to prevent them."


On this issue, National House Buyers Association secretary-general Chang Kim Loong said all future hillside developments should take Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies into account.

"It's extremely important that all the relevant assessments for development comply with Local Agenda 21, but unfortunately, certain local government councils overlook it because it is only a directive.

"Agenda 21 requires that local authorities involve the participation of the public, and that owners of neighbouring lots should give their consent or objections to future development," he said.

Chang noted with concern that objections against developments in the hilly areas of Ukay Heights and Ulu Klang have been brushed aside. He urged the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to make it
mandatory for soil tests and geological studies to be carried out before any housing project is approved, especially if it is on a hillside.

On a more positive note, Dr George sees a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel following the settlement with Arab-Malaysian Finance Bhd, as this would help ease the financial burdens of victims of the disaster.

"We are thankful for that. The compensation is far less than what the value of the properties would have been today if not for the tragedy, besides the income we lost and the damages we suffered. But we had no choice but to accept it and be satisfied, for something is better than nothing," he said.

He also expressed gratitude to Dr Mahathir, who ordered an inquiry into the cause of the tragedy within months of the collapse of Block One. The expert committee found MPAJ, the Selangor State Government and other defendants had been negligent and had directly contributed to the collapse of Block One.


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