Former DPM speaks about losing his family to Highland Towers disaster

IT was a Saturday afternoon, and he was in the shower while his wife was with the baby.

Suddenly their 12-storey apartment block shook. She handed the little girl to the maid and told her to run. Maid and baby had barely passed the exit before the entire structure collapsed.

For Sime Darby Foundation chairman Tun Musa Hitam, the story is painful to remember.

His son, Carlos Rashid, and daughter-in law Rosina Abu Bakar were both killed in the 1993 Highland Towers tragedy, caused by a landslide that contained a mass equivalent of 200 jumbo jets ramming into the foundations of Block A.

“When I heard the news, I was in Kota Tinggi (in Johor), visiting the villages. I rushed back. One of my sons-in-law and bodyguard were with me but nobody could tell me the full story.

A photo taken in 1990 of Tun Musa Hitam. With him are (from right) son Carlos Rashid, daughter Rosana, and daughter-in-law Rosina Abu Bakar. (photo was taken after Tun Musa won a libel suit against political writer Syed Hussein Alattas)   

“The drive back took nearly three hours. I just had this gut feeling that something was seriously wrong,” recalled the 79-year-old former deputy prime minister.

“When I arrived on-scene, all I saw was this rubble. My first question was: where was my son?

“Nobody could tell me that he was alive. All they said was that they were searching. The only good news was that my granddaughter, Marisa, was safe.”

Carlos’ and Rosina’s remains were discovered days after the Dec 11 disaster that claimed 48 lives.

“No words can describe how I felt then. I remember my ex-secretary telling me: ‘I don’t want you to see their bodies.’” And Musa knew better than to argue.

Despite his sorrow, Musa found the strength to move on.

A family photo of Tun Musa and his wife Toh Puan Zulaikha (centre), grandson Kaelan (far left), son Hanif and granddaughter Marisa (far right) who is now in Britain.

“I must confess that when the tragedy happened, one of the things I knew for certain – inside I felt this anger – was that it was the result of wishy-washy work, of people not being responsible. I also thought there must have been elements of corruption and neglect.”

“The sad thing is that in the last 20 years, things don’t seem to have changed. There have been so many similar tragedies and sure enough we get everybody making the same expressions of regret, anger and promises to prevent recurrences.

“It’s all talk and nothing seems to have been done especially in the form of laws, regulations and, most importantly, enforcement,” he said.

“After the incident, we all sat together and talked about Marisa’s future. Initially, my wife and I considered that it was best for her to be with us. But since I was getting on in years and always busy, we decided it would be good if Marisa was adopted and cared for by my daughter Rosana, who was a newlywed at that time,” Musa said.

Rosana is Musa’s youngest daughter from his first marriage.

A filepic 20 years ago when Block One of the Highland Towers collapsed.
A filepic 20 years ago when Block One of the Highland Towers collapsed.

“Rosana took it upon herself to provide her with education and care as if she’s one of her own. She had two children of her own and brought up all three without prejudice.”

Marisa is now 20 and a second-year psychology student at a university in Sheffield, Britain.

However, it was not until a few years ago that she learned the truth about her real parents.

“On the first day of every Hari Raya, it is our practice to visit the cemetery where my son and daughter-in-law are buried. As time went on, we started telling her that they were her father and mother. She listened when we explained and she seems to have taken it well enough.

“Now she fully understands the situation,” said Musa, who is also chairman of the World Islamic Eco­nomic Forum Foundation and chairman of UmLand Bhd.

Twenty years on, the father still finds it difficult to look back on the events.

REMINDER OF TRAGEDY: Overtaken by dense undergrowth, the two remaining blocks are a stark reminder of the horror that took place 20 years ago when Block One collapsed.
REMINDER OF TRAGEDY: Overtaken by dense undergrowth, the two remaining blocks are a stark reminder of the horror that took place 20 years ago when Block One collapsed.

“I remember being invited over to Carlos’ apartment for lunch a week before the incident. It was strange, but I recall seeing this bulldozer in the distance by the hills. I didn’t think much of it then but it left an impression. Looking back, it could’ve been symbolic: a warning that something was going to happen.”

Sadly, that was also the last time Musa saw his son.

He regretted that he did not spend any quality time with his elder children because he was too deep into politics then.

“Now that my son has died, and I’ve got another son and a granddaughter, along with my other two grandchildren, I try to make time for them. I thank God for the second chance.”

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