How a tragedy changed hillside development in Malaysia
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How a tragedy changed hillside development in Malaysia

YESTERDAY marked the 25th anniversary of a major tragedy in Malaysian history in which the Highland Towers condominium in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur collapsed, killing 48 residents.

Dubbed the nation’s worst housing tragedy, Block 1 of the three Highland Towers nestled on a green hillside in Ulu Klang – some 20 minutes drive away from the city centre – caved in from a massive landslide on the fateful afternoon of Dec 11, 1993.

Authorities later found that the tragedy struck the upscale condominium estate, occupied mostly by upper-middle-class families and expatriates, after 10 days of torrential rain that triggered the landslide.

Among those killed in the tragedy were the son of the then Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam and the former’s wife, along with 12 foreigners from the United Kingdom, Japan, India and Korea.

How the tragedy struck

Consisting of three similar 13-storey blocks, the project was built in phases between 1974 and 1982 on a steep hill that underwent a substantial amount of land clearance.

The three blocks were located near a creek at the top of the hillslope in Taman Hillview. In the construction phases, water from the creek was diverted into an existing pipe system.

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Annual wear and tear saw the pipe system become increasingly clogged, cause water to overflow and then the eventual soil erosion that destroyed the retaining Block 1’s car park. This led to the ultimate collapse of the building.

Several former residents on Monday recounted the events that transpired during the tragic event.

Dr Iain Gray, who lived in Block 3 was also one of the first people to arrive at the scene, according to The Star.

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Block 2 and 3 of the Highland Towers stand abandoned over two decades after the landslide tragedy. Source: Shutterstock

“When I arrived I was shocked to see Tower One on the ground. There was a lot of dust and people running.

“I ran in to check on my family and once I knew they were safe, I stayed on to help others,” he said.

Former Highland Towers Residents Committee secretary Chan Keng Fook protested plans by local authorities to redevelop the area, saying it appeared as though the government had ignored the lessons learned from the tragedy.

“It is important that we do not forget the events that happened here,” Chan was quoted as saying.

“There are still landslide tragedies happening to this day. And the cause is greed. They have not learned to respect nature,” he said.

Regulations and enforcement

After the tragedy, at least four landslides struck nearby areas including Bukit Antarabangsa, destroying bungalow houses and claiming more than a dozen lives.

The government in 2009 drew up a set of guidelines prohibiting development on slopes exceeding 35 degrees, and slopes between 15-35 degrees showing signs of soil instability, erosion or other vulnerabilities.

The regulations include the National Slope Master Plan 2009–2023 issued by the Public Works Department. Other legislative measures involved amendments to the Land Conservation Act 1960, Envi­ron­mental Quality Act 1974, Town and Country Planning Act 1976 and Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974.

In the years that followed the tragedy, the Highland Towers Residents Association took the matter to the High Court to seek compensation from the estate’s developer, engineer and architect.

The High Court found that water was the principal factor that caused the retaining wall of Block 1’s car park to fail and found the engineer, developer and architect liable for not taking into account crucial factors before building the apartment block as well as failing to implement proper drainage systems.

However, the case was referred to the Appeals court and later the Federal court which rejected the economic loss claim of the residents in 2006.

As the legal battle went on, developers, building professionals, local authorities, absentee landlords of properties began realising the important implications for building hillside structures.

With water being the principal cause of many slope failures, academicians pointed out that the design of the building should have taken into account the suitable surface and subsurface drainage of slopes.

With the Highland Towers tragedy in mind, authorities and developers began looking more closely at geological and topographical factors affecting hillside development.

The local authorities also made improvements to their standard operating procedures in implementing three-tiered geotechnical report systems which included a review of the report by independent consultants.

Wong Ee Lynn of the Malaysian Nature Society in October pointed out, however, that while regulations were sufficient, authorities were lackadaisical about enforcement, leading to other landslide tragedies like the incident in Bukit Kukus, Penang, which killed eight people recently.

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Wong pointed out that the Bukit Kukus tragedy involved an elevated road on a hill slope with a gradient reported to be 60-90 degrees.

Blaming a massive landslide on rainy weather is irresponsible,” Wong said.

“Clearly the tragedy was not caused by merely rain and gravity, but apathy, irresponsibility and a willingness to cut corners and create wiggle room where there should be none.”

A journal published in 2017 entitled “Landslide of Highland Towers 1993: a case study of Malaysia”, pointed to human error being the dominant factor in triggering the landslide while other potential causes include inadequate drainage, failure of rubble wall, and rail pile foundation.

“It is now being realised that reliability of the structure is not only technology-dependent but the quality of design, construction, and maintenance must meet the specifications.”

This study concluded that human reliability analysis must be performed in slope construction to reduce the chances of errors holistically.

“The findings also confirm that whether the safety factor of the slope is high or low, there is always a possibility of instability if the probability of failure due to human uncertainties is not tackled in a logical manner.”