The Horizon office park on the outskirts of Malaysia’s biggest city has rows of commercial towers filled with white collar workers whose jobs range from accountants to engineers to lawyers.
One company in this urban business park, controlled by one of Malaysia’s wealthiest families, appears to have a connection to a deadly disaster in a countryside community about 50 kilometers away.
Thirty-one people were killed last December by an overnight landslide that swept over their tents at a campsite on Father’s Organic Farm in Batang Kali, a scenic rural town that often draws tourists from Kuala Lumpur.
More than nine months after the tragedy, families of the victims are still waiting for the government to release the findings from its investigation.
“The families deserve the full, comprehensive, unfiltered report which covers all aspects,” said Loh Teng Shui whose only child, 7-year-old Zech, was killed by the landslide. “The families want accountability and also we want steps to be taken to prevent these incidences from happening again.”
A review of government records by VOA reveals previously unreported details about who owns the property where the campers were staying, and further confirmation of details first reported by VOA in January that the farm and campsite were on land that was not zoned for development by the department of environment.
The documents do not give all the underlying reasons why dozens of people were killed but taken together this information is renewing unanswered questions about why a farm and campsite were able to operate in what experts say is a risky location.
Land records reviewed by VOA show the property where Father’s Organic Farm stood was owned at the time of the landslide by Malaysia Botanical Gardens Resort Sdn. Bhd., which had acquired the land in 2019 from a company linked to the Selangor state government.
Malaysia Botanical Gardens Resort’s headquarters is listed in the Horizon office park. It’s in the same building as Nirvana Asia Group a funeral service provider with branches across Malaysia that is led by Kong Yew Foong and his father Kong Hon Kong whose net worth Forbes recently listed at $860 million.
Records kept by the Companies Commission of Malaysia lists both Kongs as directors at Malaysia Botanical Gardens Resort. The Kongs turned down VOA’s request for an interview.
VOA has not been able to determine the nature of the relationship between Malaysia Botanical Gardens Resort and Father’s Organic Farm. The operators of Father’s Organic Farm have not responded to multiple requests from VOA for an interview.
Separately, VOA recently reviewed an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report commissioned by Malaysia Botanical Gardens Resort. Environmental experts say EIA reports are often required for large projects proposed for environmentally sensitive areas such as forests, mangrove swamps, the seashore, or steep slopes.
This EIA report shows that in 2013 the department of environment approved a proposal for a resort, but the site where Father’s Organic Farm was later opened was in a different area that was not approved for development in the report.
“The EIA makes it quite clear that the area for the farm and campsite was not to be developed and the implication is that it was not safe to be developed,” said Teckwyn Lim, a geographer and honorary associate professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, after reading the EIA report. He also noted that the campsite and farm were below a steep slope.
However, several days after the landslide last year, a member of the Selangor state executive council, Ng Sze Han, said Father’s Organic Farm did have a permit to operate as an organic farm. However, he said, at that time the state did not grant licenses specifically for camp sites. In the months that followed new registration requirements were passed.
What’s not clear is why a permit for Father’s Organic Farm was authorized.
Lim says it most likely would’ve been issued by the local municipal government for Hulu Selangor District. VOA has made multiple requests for interviews to Hulu Selangor Municipal Council president Mohd Hasry Nor Mohd but has not received a response.
Lim also pointed out that satellite photos show that by 2015 the site already had approximately a dozen buildings, a road network and planted areas. Lim acknowledges that based on the records he has seen, it’s not clear if Father’s Organic Farm was operating on this site when the 2015 satellite photos were taken, or if it was a different business on the location.
“They did not get permission (to develop the site) from the department of environment,” Lim said. “It’s also significant that development was on-going in 2015 when the land was still owned by a (state) government linked company. It strikes me as irresponsible because they knew the land was sensitive because of the EIA report so the government owes the public answers to a lot of questions,” Lim added.
So far officials have refused to discuss details of the investigation. However, Selangor state’s Menteri Besar, the equivalent of a chief minister, told local Malaysian media the government will release the findings this month.
Loh, whose son died in the landslide, says the families of the victims have already been waiting too long. “Why is this Father’s Organic Farm operating there? Who gave them the permit? Do they have any safety regulations to follow? Does the landowner know about this?” asked Loh, “We deserve answers.”