By Dr Mahathir Mohamad
1. I have been sailing along the coast of Italy the last few days, staying on the island of Ischia.
2. The Italian coast is rocky but is green with shrubs and dotted with picturesque villas reaching from the beaches right up to the peaks.
3. Invisible from the sea, sturdy narrow tarred roads not only connect all the little coastal and hilltop towns but also all the villas and hotels. The roads make sharp hairpin bends as they ascend the steep hillsides at times projecting out from the cliffs. Italian drivers are as good as F1 drivers, negotiating these bend skilfully, passing the vehicles, including busses coming from the opposite direction with barely any space between them. Throughout several days of being driven along these narrow, sharply curved roads and steep cliffs I did not see a single accident.
4. When meeting an on-coming vehicle on a single-lane road, one would back to a broader part so as to let the other to pass. A wave of the hand and a smiling Italian thank you would greet the driver who had generously given way.
5. There’s a passion for roofless busses and colourful canvas-topped taxis. All the tourists are turned to a ripe brown “sawo matang” colour. Seems that their holidays are just about lying on inflated floating plastic mats and folding chairs in the sun. Nothing is free. The umbrellas, mattresses, folding chairs are all for rent.
6. You may wonder why I am talking about my holiday in financially-troubled Italy. It is that they seem to be able to build on the hillsides without spoiling the beauty or causing landslides. The reason is the rocky nature of the land and absence of torrential rain, although I was pelted with hailstones in one of the villages in Ischia. There are no 50-storey high rises to block the view of those behind.
7. A few of the villas are five storeys high, but they follow the slope of the hill, being stepped back as they rise. They appear to be stuck to the sloping side of the hill rather than standing on cut-ground. The upper storeys look out over the flat roofs of the storeys below. Often potted plants are placed on the roof.
8. Below and above them were the hill roads. In the taxi or bus you see the roofs of the houses below as you pass the frontage of the houses above.
9. Our hills are not rocky. We have a thick layer of topsoil with giant trees firmly anchored by their roots, stabilizing the slopes. The grounds at the base of the trees are covered by thick undergrowth which again grips the topsoil.
10. This coverage of trees, shrubs and undergrowths prevent the rain from hitting the ground directly and softening it. Without this cover the ground would be washed down the slope.
11. Despite all these I still believe we can build on the hillsides provided we avoid high rise structures. One or two storied houses built some distance from each other with the big and medium sized trees left standing would minimise the risk of the soil being eroded.
12. Where necessary concrete mini-piles should be driven into the ground to stabilize it. In Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand narrow and steep concrete roads have been built to connect the villas with other parts of the hotel. Only golf-carts are allowed on these connecting roads.
13. Extensive planting of shrubs cover the ground completely supplementing the natural undergrowth. Although the ground in Koh Samui is as soft as the ground in Malaysia, the villas of the hotel built on the slopes appear quite stable and sturdy, each with its own swimming pool.
14. Langkawi would benefit from carefully planned hillside development. Currently we get some 2.5 million tourists visiting Langkawi. We can handle more. But the developers must be a bit more imaginative and not try to maximise return for the land.
15. Tourism is the fastest way to grow the economy. The people in Langkawi are better off than those in mainland Kedah. When I served there as Medical Officer in 1956 their houses were of timber, bamboo, attap and even the bark of trees. Today they live in modern brick and mortar houses, with electricity, hot and cold running water and WC system. Langkawians have come a long way.
16. There are foreigners who retire to live in Langkawi. Retired Malaysians should do likewise and enjoy the tax-free status of the Islands, while enriching the island and the nation. They should build villas on the hillsides and Government should build two-lane roads like those in Italy. The development should enhance the beauty of these legendary islands.
17. Langkawi should become the second home not only of foreigners but also of Malaysians.