GEORGE TOWN • Rescuers toiled to find victims buried under a 35m-high heap of soil after a landslide hit a construction site on Malaysia's Penang Island yesterday morning, and public anger mounted over the state government's failure to regulate hillslope developments.
Eleven construction workers are still missing after a cut slope on a hill adjacent to the Granito condominium site in Tanjung Bungah caved in just before 9am yesterday, sending tonnes of laterite earth crashing down on the basement section where they were working.
As at 8pm yesterday, three bodies had been retrieved from the debris - two Bangladeshi workers identified as Yunus and Hossain, and a Rohingya man known as Mamun, said national news agency Bernama.
Penang Fire and Rescue Department director Saadon Mokhtar had earlier warned that the search effort by some 160 personnel would be slow and arduous because of the unsteady slope and muddy soil.
"We believe some of the victims are buried deep underneath the muddy soil, as deep as 35m below the surface," he told reporters.
A canine unit of four dogs has also been deployed to detect any movements beneath the earth.
Most of those trapped are foreign workers from Indonesia and Bangladesh. A Malaysian site supervisor, identified by The Star as Yuan Kuok Wern, 27, is believed to have been buried as well. A stop-work order has been issued on the project.
Penang Island City Council Mayor Maimunah Mohd Sharif said: "We don't know what caused the landslide yet. But it cannot be due to wet weather. It has not been raining for days on the island."
Malaysian Indian Congress party treasurer-general S. Vell Paari said the council mayor's statement was alarming.
"Now this in itself is alarming, that if without rain a landslide can occur, how about the other buildings and high-rise condos in the vicinity? Are they safe?" he asked.
Residents and activists vented their anger at the Penang state government yesterday, claiming they have been protesting against burgeoning hillslope developments in the tourist and expatriate belt for years, but to no avail.
Chairman of the Tanjung Bungah Residents Association Meenakshi Raman demanded that the state government set up a royal commission of inquiry to investigate the cause of the landslide, reported the New Straits Times.
"We were called 'irrational' by the Penang government when we appealed for hillslope developments to stop. Who's irrational now?" she was quoted as saying.
At the site yesterday, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said: "I'm shocked by the tragedy. An investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted, a full state inquiry."
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak yesterday expressed his grief over the landslide via a message on his Twitter account: "Sad about the landslide in Tanjung Bungah. Hopefully, the search and rescue mission runs smoothly, let us pray together."
Meanwhile, vice-chairman of Gerakan Party in Penang Oh Tong Keong said Mr Teh Yee Cheu, the assemblyman for Tanjung Bungah from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), had previously objected to the condominium project.
"The state government ignored Teh's objections... He had said the project was dangerous and might threaten the safety of residents in the area. The local authorities approved the project despite his objections," he said.
Mr Oh said the state government, which is led by the DAP, must adhere to its own guidelines regarding hillside developments.
MAJOR LANDSLIDES IN MALAYSIA
Highland Towers (Dec 11, 1993)
The tragedy that killed 48 people drew attention to the dangers of developing tower blocks on slopes. Highland Towers comprised three 12-storey blocks in Ulu Klang, on the fringes of Kuala Lumpur.
Soil erosion from a nearby development and days of rain caused a landslide and one tower collapsed.
Keningau, Sabah (Dec 26, 1996)
Debris flow caused by tropical storm Gregg wiped out several villages in Keningau, Sabah, killing 302 people, the highest number of fatalities for a landslide in Malaysia.
Kampung Pasir (May 31, 2006)
A collapsed retaining wall unleashed a massive landslide in Kampung Pasir, Ulu Klang, that killed four people. Residents of 16 houses were evacuated and allowed back only two years later.
Bukit Antarabangsa (Dec 6, 2008)
The landslide claimed five lives and destroyed 14 bungalows in Bukit Antarabangsa in Ulu Klang. Thousands were evacuated.
Hulu Langat (May 22, 2011)
The Rumah Anak Yatim Hidayah orphanage in Semungkis, Hulu Langat, was hit by a landslide that buried 24 people. Eight others were rescued in a 13-hour operation.
SOURCES: BERNAMA, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
According to the propertyguru.com.my website, Granito@Permai is developed by BSG Property, which is part of Penang conglomerate Boon Siew Group.
SAFETY IN QUESTION
Now this in itself is alarming, that if without rain a landslide can occur, how about the other buildings and high rise condos in the vicinity? Are they safe?
MALAYSIAN INDIAN CONGRESS PARTY TREASURER-GENERAL S. VELL PAARI, reacting to mayor Maimunah Mohd Sharif's statement that the landslide was not caused by rain.
It comprises two 49-storey blocks of affordable housing, with apartment units priced between RM398,000 (S$128,000) and RM488,000 each.