KUALA LUMPUR: With its floor-to-ceiling cobwebs and silent surroundings, the two remaining buildings of Highland Towers looked like an ideal hideout for shady characters.
Block 2 and 3 of Highland Towers have sat in neglect for more than 25 years, a quiet quarter amid Kuala Lumpur’s bustling highways and glittering skyscrapers.
Inside, the intricate electrical wiring and sanitary piping, as well as fragments of decorative tile flooring were the remaining signs of apartment units once inhabited by families.
At the same time, cigarette butts, drink bottles and needles with syringes were among the debris left behind by those who snuck in at night. Graffiti could be seen on almost every pillar.
Despite the apartments' prime location on a picturesque hill overlooking the city’s skyline, including the famous Menara KL and Petronas twin towers, they have been left untouched largely because of their dark history.
The other block of Highland Towers - Block 1 - had collapsed on December 11, 1993 following a major landslide, killing 48 residents in what was one of Malaysia’s most tragic disasters.
Residents in Block 2 and 3 have left the area for fear of their safety.
However, the two buildings have yet to be demolished by authorities, prompting concerns over safety from nearby residents at Taman Sri Ukay and Taman Hillview. It is also time to finally tear down the buildings so that those affected can get closure, said those interviewed.
CHASED BY DRUG USERS WITH SYRINGES
Mr Izwan Mikhail, who lives in a semi-detached house at Taman Sri Ukay, told CNA that the two towers have become a gathering place for drug addicts because of their secluded location.
“I saw two men climbing out of the gated (Highlands Tower) area one night, and they were clearly high. They were not walking properly and screaming gibberish,” said the businessman.
“I approached them and they pulled out syringes from their pockets and chased me. I ran into my house, locked the door and called the police,” he recounted.
He told CNA that when he made a police report, the officer informed him that there had been various reports of drug addicts roaming the area.
“The towers have become a nest for Mat Pet (drug addicts), and I don’t feel safe here anymore,” added the 50-year-old, who lives there with his wife and two children.
In 2016, police shot dead three suspected robbers near Block 3 of Highland Towers in a night raid. Three others managed to escape.
Acting on a tip-off that the group was planning a heist in Ampang, officers stormed their hideout on the first floor of Block 3. They attempted to escape to the nearby forest, where several suspects attacked officers with weapons.
HIDEOUT FOR SHADY CHARACTERS
Mdm Shahidah Abdul Hisham, a resident living on Taman Hillview, shared with CNA her belief that despite what happened in 2016, shady characters might still be using the buildings as hideouts.
“After what happened three years ago, I have installed a security alarm system and CCTV cameras. They have been a few times where masked people from the Towers vicinity were captured on tape climbing into my house,” she said.
The boutique owner, who has lived with her family in the bungalow home for eight years, added that the masked men would scurry when the alarm sounded.
“One of my neighbours installed barb wire all around her fence to deter them from climbing in. Whoever is in charge needs to demolish the towers as soon as possible,” she added.
Former secretary of the Highland Towers Residents Committee, Chan Keng Fook, told CNA that crime has became a pervasive problem in the area since the police and rescue officers left the vicinity following the end of rescue operations.
“There was a lot of looting,” said the former Block 2 resident.
“Even the metal railings of the balcony have all been stripped and sold as scrap. Drain covers have been removed, so you’ve got to be careful when you are walking in that area,” said Mr Chan.
As secretary, Mr Chan’s task was to help residents move on from the incident by extending logistical help during the aftermath of the tragedy. He made frequent visits to the area, and during one occasion, helped police apprehend a suspected looter.
“We cannot do anything. It’s really up to the authorities to ensure that security is in place. But for the past 25 years, this has been going on,” he added.
CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES A "DESECRATION" TO THOSE WHO DIED
Mr Chan stressed that criminal activities in the Highland Towers area was a “big desecration to the memory of the 48 people who lost their lives”.
“But it’s really the authorities that have to take the necessary action,” he added.
Last March, Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin reportedly said the two towers would be demolished by June this year.
Ms Zuraida, who is also Member of Parliament for the area, Ampang, said that the Highland Towers Re-Development Committee had prepared a report of a study on the structure of the condominium and will decide on the agency to carry out the demolition works, whether the Public Works Department (PWD) or Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ).
Earlier this month, it was reported that the demolition has been further delayed due to legal issues.
MPAJ president Abdul Hamid Hussain was quoted as saying that the Highland Towers Redevelopment Committee was still negotiating compensation issues “with several owners of the remaining units”.
Former resident for Block 1, Mr Zhariff Afandi, who survived the tragedy because he was visiting a neighbour’s house at Block 2, told CNA that the persistent delay in giving each resident fair compensation was hindering closure to the whole issue.
He saw the tower fall from his neighbour’s balcony, and his two siblings who were in the unit at the time, narrowly escaped death when they ran down the stairs as the rubble collapsed behind them.
Mr Zhariff, who was 12 at the time of the tragedy, was living in a rented unit. His family had paid for the down payment to eventually purchase the apartment, but the purchase fell through because of the tragedy.
“As a previous tenant there, I would like to see closure among my neighbours and friends. It would be nice and right for that to happen,” said Mr Zhariff, who is a motivational speaker, and Malaysia’s representative at The United Nations Children's Fund.
“So whatever process is happening right now, the hope is that it is fast-tracked and not dragged on for any longer, obviously. And for the place itself to stop lingering on that memory,” he said.
AREA SHOULD BE TURNED INTO MEMORIAL PARK: FORMER RESIDENTS
In March, Ms Zuraida reportedly said that the landowners of the Highland Towers area have proposed that a recreational park and 50 bungalow lots be built in place of the two abandoned towers.
Dr Iain Gray, a former Block 3 resident and professional architect, lauded the government’s plans to build a park. However, he suggested that the area could possibly be turned into a memorial park, to remember the 48 people who perished.
“There have been delays (in demolishing the buildings), yes. People can be upset by delays, but if in the end things are done right, if they do a memorial park (and) they make something beautiful out of the tragedy, it’s a good thing,” said Dr Gray,
“We cannot bring back the lives of the loved ones, the hurt and the suffering that was felt, but what we can do perhaps is to give a memorial to those who perished so that they won’t be forgotten,” he added.
Dr Gray also lauded the government’s proposal to build low-rise bungalows, particularly given the high number of landslides that have occurred in the area even after the Highland Towers tragedy.
“Don’t mess with nature. You mess with nature, it comes back and bites you... The hillside is fragile because of its geological composition,” added Dr Gray.
Mr Chan echoed Dr Gray’s sentiments and reiterated that the important thing is to remember the lessons learnt.
“We have to make sure this is in the Malaysian mindset so that in the future, other such tragic events do not occur. That is paramount in my mind,” he added.