A TERRIBLE fire occurred at a religious school in Kampung Datuk Keramat, Kuala Lumpur, at 5.15am last Thursday. The blaze killed 23 people — 21 students and two teachers. Six people were rescued, with three still in critical condition and warded in Hospital Kuala Lumpur. Fire and Rescue Department officials described the fire as unusually “raging” when they arrived at the scene.
In the first 24 hours after the tragedy, attention was focused on fire and safety issues. Initially, the fire was perceived as an “accident” that could have been prevented. Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Tan Sri Noh Omar said the school did not have a valid permit from the department although “it was in the process of applying for one”. He instructed the department to conduct checks on all religious schools in the country “to ensure that they abide by safety guidelines”.
The public who watched the news of the fire in the electronic media or read about it in the print or social media) could see the permanently-fixed window grille at the top floor of the building which had prevented its occupants from escaping. According to reports, the building had one fire exit only on the third floor (where the fire started).
However, in the second 24 hours after the tragedy, the public was made aware of the possibility that the fire was not an accident but arson.
This came about after police detained seven teenagers, aged between 11 and 18. Police believed the boys had (six of whom were found to be positive for ganja) set fire to the school “following a spat between them and the students”.
City police chief Datuk Amar Singh said the suspects had intended to burn down the building “in an act of revenge over a name-calling incident that took place a few days earlier”. He believed the suspects had taken drugs before they started the fire. Investigations revealed that the suspects had used two cooking gas cylinders and a hydrocarbon accelerant (petrol) to commit the offence. The suspects had taken the cylinders to the top floor to start the fire.
He said the case was being investigated under Sections 302 (for murder) and 435 (mischief by fire) under the Penal Code. Section 302 carries the mandatory death penalty, while Section 435 carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years and a fine.
What was not mentioned is that if these suspects are charged under Section 436 (mischief by fire to destroy a building used for education), the penalty upon conviction is higher — a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a fine.
Section Two of the Fire Services Act 1988 (Act 341) provides a detailed definition of the term “fire hazard” as including, inter alia:
ANY unlawful alteration to a building as may render escape from any part thereof in the event of fire “more difficult”;
ANY removal, or absence from any building of any fire-fighting equipment or fire-safety installation that is required by law to be provided in the building; and,
INADEQUATE means of escape from any part of the building to any place of safety in the event of a fire.
Under Section 8, if the Fire and Rescue Department director-general (D-G) is satisfied that a fire hazard exists in any premises, he “may serve” the owner or occupier a fire hazard abatement notice within a period stipulated in the notice. Failure to comply is an offence under Section 10, punishable with a fine not exceeding RM5,000 or prison term not exceeding three years, or both.
Section 33 of the act states that: “Where there is no fire certificate in force in respect of any designated premises, the owner of the premises shall be guilty of an offence.”
Under Section 35, if the D-G is satisfied, in regard to any premises, that the risk to persons or property in the case of fire is “so serious that, until steps have been taken to reduce them to a reasonable level, the use of the premises ought to be prohibited or restricted”, he may, by a complaint, apply to the court for a prohibitory order. Upon receipt of the complaint or application, the court shall serve the appropriate notice to the owner or occupier of the premises calling upon them to show cause why a prohibitory order should be made. If cause is not shown, the court can then issue the order. The penalty for contravening the order is a fine not exceeding RM10,000, or a prison term of not more than five years and/or both.
In the religious school fire tragedy, based on what has been said by several parties, it would appear that the school building had not been issued with a fire certificate. There are circumstances indicating that the existence of “fire hazard” in the building that would constitute a valid reason for the D-G to take steps under section 8 (issue a fire hazard abatement notice). If the notice is ignored and the fire certificate has not been issued, and the risk of fire is “serious”, he could (and should) have applied for and obtained a prohibitory order under Act 341.
In short, if the law had been fully enforced, the religious school should not have been allowed to operate until a fire certificate has been issued and the fire risk completely removed. Act 341, if fully enforced, is adequate to prevent an “accidental fire”, but it cannot protect a building from arson.
The writer formerly served the
Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for practice, the corporate sector and, then, the academia