Penang floods 2017

[Aliran published an edited version]

If we could recover from the 2004 Tsunami, we can recover from the 2017 floods in Penang. Even Pompeii rose from her rubbles.

There is no instant healing of our loss though. Emotional healing is a process. The loss due to the floods is as real as many other forms of losses e.g. the demise of a pet. The healing process will take time.

There are aspects, however, which we can’t afford to take time. We need to understand solidarity at a deeper level and in finer granularity. We need better coordination of emergency response and relief efforts. We need to recalibrate what green means green. We need to be better custodians of resources available to us. We need to own up to causes and effects.


Gotong-royong spirits are high. Our spirits are even higher than that at the recent SEA Games where we won 145 gold medals. By the sheer number of volunteers and amount of donations, solidarity has been overwhelming. Applause is echoed and re-echoed by various media. And, for once state and federal governments were in warm embrace (however brief that was).

While giving full credits to the overwhelming generosity, there is still space to examine our solidarity at deeper levels and finer granularity.

The flood did affect people from different social clusters, but those particularly vulnerable are the needy, the infirm and the stateless. Within the same village, social divide can be glaring. Some houses were flooded to chest level while the house next door stood dry on four legs, and the posh, brick house opposite didn’t even need 4 legs to stay dry. Looking from the direction of the home which is wet towards the home which is dry, what sort of sentiments are we brewing? Do we expect no strong feelings besides a complete surrender to nasib or fate?

On the 5th of November I found my weevil-infested rice was no longer edible. I happened to have neither bread nor noodles. I walked out to Tesco – just to find a jam-packed mall, trolleys and carts all taken, queues at payment counters overflowing. None of the three items I needed was available. Even Bread History’s shelves were empty. I came home and got the news that relief centres had trouble finding food and supplies from the shops. Hoarders who sapu the shelves were those who were dry (not flooded), mobile, fit, healthy and wealthy – those who ought to have seen the world enough to know that extreme weather typically cannot last many days no matter how gloomy it may seem.

Gaps in relief efforts

As generosity pours in, the challenge now is not in getting aid, but distributing aid — fairly.

If various aid providers can coordinate with each other and be ten percent as organised as Tzu Chi, we can do far better than what we are doing. Tzu Chi despatched various contingents systematically, in tandem and in parallel – some specialise in areas still flooded, some others specialise in areas where water had receded. Zooming into a single team, they are able to form a beeline passing pieces of spoilt furniture from one pair of hands to the next, out of villages.

If every group does its own charity without caring whom the other groups are helping, we are bound to have some receiving double, triple, quadruple, … aids. Worse still, some who are needy receive nothing. Is our focus on those needing help or on those offering help?

If we focus on those needing help, we would want to ensure that no needy person is missed out, and the only way to do that would be to coordinate with fellow aid givers.

On the other hand, if the focus is on those offering help, the mission is accomplished as soon as we manage find someone to receive what we have to give – someone, anyone without whom the we can’t complete the transaction. In this case, we feel we have done our part even if the persons receiving our aid have already received multiple handouts anyway, while some others receive absolutely nothing.

As with all disaster relief, there is always a lesson to learn no matter how well services responded. Various aspects for improvement have already been identified. Suffice to highlight just one point here. Sharing of photos showing elderly residents submerged in muddy waters up to chest level. Yes, circulation of those photos did call to urgent public attention that urgent need for rescue. Next time, however, do blur the face before sharing. Respect the persons. We can’t circulate photos this way without consent.

Superstition we can’t afford

We thought September 15th’s was the worst flood in recent history. And then on October 21st we were greeted with Penang’s ultimate korban where the Tanjong Bungah landslide killed at least 11 people. By November 4th we discovered that floods can in fact be worse than September 15th’s. We broke yet another record within 50 days.

The series of tragedies within such a short time makes us stop and think. We need to think right.

It may be convenient to attribute this to bad luck or mere climate change. Neither calls us to responsibility and action. ‘Elements beyond our control’, they say – but they got it wrong. Penang’s blueprint for development needs a prompt and radical recalibration. There is no excuse.

If we go for a blood test and later discover that our blood sample had been mistaken for another patient’s — if a mother delivers a baby and later discovers that her baby was mistakenly swapped with another baby born in the same maternity ward on the same day – the staff could conveniently regret that as a celaka day, “I feel so bad. I am so sorry. Don’t know what happened. That day only it happened. Never happened before.”. Chinese colleagues would instantly resonate, “Really, that day ghosts masked our eyes (鬼遮眼).”

The scene unfortunately isn’t fiction. Superstition infiltrates local lives in ways that are far from casual. Seeking to sue, would the patient accept this excuse of bad luck? No, because the negligence could have been prevented if the staff adhered to cross-checking protocols. The mistake was preventable. It is within the hospital staff’s control to get the blood sample and the baby right.

By the same token, we cannot attribute floods and landslides to bad luck which we can do nothing about. Such attribution would be a sheer denial of responsibility. While superstition is generally a personal right to belief, we cannot afford to be superstitious this particular way.

Deco versus conservation

Let us be clear about what green is green. The mini recreational patches in Pulau Tikus are as cute and captivating as the bus-stop comics on history and culture. These uplifts the ambience and contributes to the island’s charm – ideal for stress relief. Be clear, though, this is decoration, not conservation.

The cycling tracks our CM posed photogenically his usual style do promote healthy living. They are great. These, however, can never replace hill slopes transformed into flat lands.

Anyway, those cycling tracks have so far served mainly recreational and deco purposes. There is no sign of people switching off motor engines and cycle to commute (e.g. to work) instead.

Recreational spaces tell very little about how green we are. Violated hills, forests and seas do – loudly and unmistakably. Recall the Tanjong Bungah landslide just weeks earlier. Seeing that concave contour combined with that shade of blue (cladding) and that shade of mud brown, I feel trembles down my spine. Shapes become concave when its convex complement has been carved away and thrown out.

The human body bleeds when punctured by a pinprick. Witnessing the tiniest puncture on a child’s skin, parents wince. If hills, forests and seas bleed too when punctured, the bird’s eye view of Penang would then be red, red and red all over. We puncture the seas when we ‘reclaim’ land – a rather odd term about reclaiming something that was neither there nor ours in the first place.

Sustainable solutions

Look at the waste we are left with after the floods. Heaps and heaps of sofas, mattresses and all sorts. Disposal is no trivial matter. It is even more challenging than replacing spoiled stuff with new ones.

This time we are forced to discard. Even without the destructive floods, many of us do not use goods to their end of life anyway.

Now is timely to rethink what we define as basic needs, and how material goods once optional have become necessities e.g the ASTRO dish. What is so diminishing about not having a television? I never have one since living independently out of my parents’ home. Why is the bed frame a must-have for a fit and healthy sleeper? A friend of mine doesn’t even sleep on a mattress ever since living independently as an adult.

There is a hefty manufacturing and environmental footprint behind all manufactured goods. The cost to the environment is already spent and can never be recovered – whether we pay a cent or not (even if we won it as a prize), whether we recycle later (don’t even think we can give ourselves a pat on the back).

We have been living in excess. Resources are under-used. Multiple cars are left idle in the garage. Washing machines spend many hours sitting idle waiting for a load to wash and spin. We don’t wash 10 loads per day, do we? In modern Europe it is not unusual for washing machines to be communal for residents of a flat – those can be affluent communities, not student houses. It’s about principle, not money.

I once linked up (in a virtual pool) computers sitting on every colleague’s desk around the hospital. I set my number crunching to run whenever a computer was found idle. My number crunching would exit gracefully whenever the owner returned to use the computer. I wasn’t the only one doing that, many large-scale research e.g. on protein folding taps the idle time of computers scattered geographically, sometimes cross-continent.

When we have too many possessions sitting idle, we can make better use of them. Redundancy can be trimmed. Otherwise, the manufacturing footprint is not justified. (Past training as a civil servant in developed societies tells me that I must never do anything I cannot justify.)

As the water recedes, some of the mud is removed, some of the mud stick with us still. Now that we know it may flood again anytime in scales previously least imaginable, it is a good time to replace lost goods in sustainable ways. We can’t be replacing sofas, mattresses and carpets every now and again. The cost to the environment would be horrific no matter how generously donations pour in.

A bit of creativity and a little brainstorming help. Overhead storage racks like those we get in train cabins, and inflatable swimming pools (for kids), for instance, would help keep possessions above waters in times of floods.

Role modeling

In replacing lost goods, mind the role model the middle class is to communities less affluent. We set very bad examples if by our lifestyle we inspire others to yearn for the surplus we have. Indirectly but influentially we push completely unnecessary items on to others’ wish list. We shape their aspirations by their lifestyle.

We make others yearn to live as we do – which can be horribly disastrous. This is evident in many economic migrants who become victims of human trafficking. The problem is so grave that activists fighting human trafficking feel so helplessly desperate and desperately helpless. We go on mission to Indochina to try set people on their feet towards a sustainable livelihood; they still want to come. Those already in Malaysia express regret and earnestly beg their kinsmen not to come because it is worse here than there; they still come.

Role modeling by the middle class makes a great impact on how others refurnish their flooded homes and rebuild their lives.

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