The day the earth moved

Lost souls: The site for a project to build affordable apartments turned deadly when a landslide buried 11 workers including site supervisor Yuan Kuok Wern, 27, whose body was among the last to be recovered.

The blame game over the tragic Penang landslide started even before the first body was recovered while a polemic debate about the tragedy is still rippling through social media. 

THE last two bodies were recovered on Monday morning, two days after the hillside in Tanjung Bungah came down on a group of workers who were, ironically, trying to stabilise the ground.

It happened in the blink of an eye. Those at the scene said they heard a deep rumble and, within seconds, 11 souls lay deep under the orange earth.

Work on the project to build 980 units of highrise apartments has come to a grinding halt and it is unclear when and if it will start again.

People have been talking of closure now that the bodies have been recovered although the real closure will only come when people know why and how it happened and who is to be blamed.

But the thing is that the blame game had begun even before the first body was found.

Chow: Police report lodged against consultants of project.
Chow: Police report lodged against consultants of project. 

The NGOs and opposition parties are blaming the state government. The Department of Environment (DOE) seems to have washed its hands, saying that it had rejected the project in 2015.

The state government is pointing fingers at the construction company for what it calls “work site negligence”.

A police report has also been lodged by the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and state exco member Chow Kon Yeow has urged the police to investigate if there was negligence in the management of the work site.

Tanjung Bungah residents who have long been critical of high-density development along this scenic coastal belt of the island want a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the landslide deaths.

The Penang government, on the other hand, plans to set up a state level inquiry to carry out a full and independent investigation into the cause of the incident.

Accusations and counter-accusations have been flying back and forth while social media has been throbbing with debate and discussion on the issue.

A hot political potato has landed in the lap of the state government, and it has quickly moved to take ownership of the narrative, to stress that it is a case of professional negligence and to urge the public not to jump to conclusions until the impending inquiry is completed.

“Every Tom, Dick and Harry is jumping in to accuse. A tragedy happened, it was not an act of God. We want to set the record straight that it is human error and professional negligence, so we laid out all the technical compliances for the project.

“The project is not on hill land and more than 20 departments were consulted. Another accusation is about corruption. We have nothing to hide, a report has been lodged (by MBPP), let the police investigate,” said a Penang DAP politician.

Meenakshi: ‘Politicians should be ‘wakil rakyat’ and not ‘wakil pemaju’.
Meenakshi: ‘Politicians should be ‘wakil rakyat’ and not ‘wakil pemaju’.   

The question on everyone’s lips is why the project went through despite the objection of DOE.

The inquiry has to be soon because the issue is already being tried in the court of public opinion, particularly via the Internet.

The high number of fatalities makes it one of the most critical tragedies to have struck Penang in recent times. Drone pictures show that the construction is ringed by almost cliff-like hillsides while an active quarry is located further up in the hills.

Had something like this happened five or six years ago, Penangites would have held their tongue because they would have wanted to give the DAP-led government a chance to learn on the job. But it has been nine years, people are less patient and some of them have become critical of state policies and the attitude of state leaders.

There is also the complicated backdrop. There has been growing public concern over hill-clearing and the boom of highrise projects on the island.

Have things moved too fast? Environmentalists have always talked about the sensitive ecosystem of Penang island. Many Penangites believe that the occurrence of floods in places that did not used to flood is caused by over-development.

The middleclass Tanjung Bungah community has been vocal about development and infrastructure projects affecting the local environment.

Some people think they are selfish and suffer from the “not-in-my-backyard” syndrome. Well, when the middleclass suffer they do not do it in silence and the Tanjung Bungah group carry some political weight.

Penang has always harboured a hardcore reserve of DAP supporters but it was only when middleclass folk like those in Tanjung Bungah swung to the other side in 2008 that the state government fell.

Teh: An outcast in DAP because of his views on development.
Teh: An outcast in DAP because of his views on development. 

There is pressure on the state government to relook its development priorities and the residents have co-opted Meenakshi Raman, an activist-lawyer with a lioness reputation, to speak on their behalf.

She had strong words for the powers-that-be: “We need our wakil rakyat to listen to the people, not wakil pemaju who listen to the developers. If they are not representing us, then just get out.”

There is a sense of siege among those in the state government. They find the criticism unfair and Deputy Chief Minister Dr P. Ramasamy said that if the NGOs wish to challenge the government, they should form a political party and contest the general election.

He pointed out that there are other bigger hill land projects taking place in Barisan Nasional-held states which are not highlighted. It was not the best type of response given the public disquiet.

Parallels have been drawn to earlier environmental issues that ended the careers of Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu and Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon.

In 1990, a group of NGOs known as the Penang Forum launched a campaign against a theme park project in Penang Hill and it caused Chong Eu to lose in his Padang Kota seat. The same NGOs galvanised public support against an over ambitious project by a perceived crony of the then Prime Minister and it contributed to the fall of Dr Koh’s administration in 2008.

The Penang Forum went all quiet and docile after 2008 because they supported the new government but they have emerged from hibernation.

But this is a new battleground. Back then, Chong Eu was at ebb tide while Dr Koh had overstayed. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, on the other hand, is still up there among the Chinese even if he is no longer at the peak of his popularity.

Their audience has also changed. Penangites, who complained about the slow development pace under Dr Koh, like the pro-development policies of Guan Eng. The idea of Penang being like Hong Kong and having an undersea tunnel actually appeals to some of them.

The Tanjung Bungah landslide is one of those wake-up call moments going by the mood on social media. There has been utter silence on the part of other DAP leaders including Lim Kit Siang who always has something to say about everything.

They should use this as an opportunity to take stock of the shifting landscape.

The Chief Minister’s Facebook page has more than 400,000 followers and 99% of the comments during the early years were of the “syabas and support” category. The page has become rather governmental over the years and there have been fewer likes and comments.

But the past week has seen a surge in comments on the state government’s explanation of the landslide. Some defended and supported him, others urged for a thorough inquiry, but the bulk was extremely critical.

It must have stunned DAP leaders to learn that so many people out there do not buy the arguments offered and had accused the state government of spinning and twisting the facts. There was so much rancour and cynicism.

There were also calls for the government to take responsibility instead of “playing tai chi”. The netizens were also not impressed by DAP leaders who are still blaming the previous government when things go wrong.

As one netizen put it: “We would rather vote for monkeys than BN but that doesn’t mean we want buffoons running the state government.”

Tanjung Bungah assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu has emerged as the most consistent voice of all. Teh, whose independent views have made him an outcast in DAP, knew that some thought he was crazy when he raised such issues.

But he has been proven right, he has shown compassion for the victims and even apologised for what happened. It is clear he will go on speaking up for what he thinks is right.

The politics of development has always been an issue for Penang leaders. Penang’s history has shown that it is a double-edged sword. It can push them up and it can also bring them down.

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Politics , Penang landslide , quarry , DAP


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