To understand the variation in community dynamics of tropical montane forests along gradients of soil fertility, death, recruitment and growth of trees (≥5 cm diameter) were monitored over 14 y (1997–2011) in nine plots placed in a matrix of three geological substrate types (Quaternary sediments, Tertiary sedimentary rocks and ultrabasic rocks) and three topographical units (ridge, middle and lower slopes) on Mount Kinabalu, Borneo. The plot area was 0.05 ha for ridge, 0.1 ha for middle slope and 0.2 ha (on ultrabasic rocks) and 1 ha (on the other substrates) for lower slope. Recruitment rates did not show a consistent pattern across geological substrates or topographies. Mortality rates were relatively high in almost all plots during the 1997–1999 period, including the El Niño drought, and in three plots on ultrabasic rocks during 2001–2005. Binomial logistic regression analyses showed that mortality during 1997–1999 increased with soil fertility (soluble phosphorus). Background mortality, excluding these periods, did not differ across geological substrates or topographies. The average growth rate during 1997–2011 was higher on more fertile soils and positively correlated with mortality during 1997–1999. We suggest that a high mortality rate during the drought period was related to high species diversity on more fertile soils, whereas a lower growth rate was related to stunted structures on poorer soils.