Let armed forces be first line of defence during disasters, floods in Malaysia

It has been one week since Malaysia’s worst weekend on record.

The catastrophic floods that killed 47 and devastated the lives of thousands have been an eye-opener of sorts.

Top of the list is the inability and ineffectiveness of government agencies and machinery in mobilising rescue efforts and aid during a calamity.

The poor handling and coordination by both state, and Federal agencies in the last week, especially in Selangor, shows that the country is ill-prepared to handle large-scale disasters.

This is worrying.

The tragedy has since raised a number of disturbing questions, including whether standard disaster protocols had been adhered to.

It also showed that we have not learnt from the past.

A similar catastrophe occurred in 2014, when floods swept through Kelantan, Pahang, Johor, Perak, and Terengganu. Twenty-one lives were lost.

In Kelantan, those supposedly in charge of responding to the disaster, “disappeared”. The authorities later admitted that disaster protocols were not followed.

Last week, in Selangor, the Malaysian Armed Forces had, to a large extent, taken over the rescue and relief operations from the civilian authorities.

Armed Forces Chief, General Tan Sri Affendi Buang, was reported to have said: “If the water is rising, I’m not waiting for anyone”, when it emerged that the armed forces had moved in without the approval of the civilian authorities.

Along with the Fire and Rescue Department, Civil Defence Authority and Royal Malaysia Police, the armed forces went into some of the hardest-hit areas in the state.

The fact of the matter is, the armed forces and security agencies are the best-equipped – both in expertise, and assets – to move in fast and help. But in order to do so, the state and district disaster management committees must first come up with an action plan on how a disaster is to be handled.

When instructions from this committee are slow, the ripple effect cascades down to the agencies tasked with doing the job. Minutes will be compounded into hours, or even days, delaying aid to victims.

The finger has also been pointed at the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma). Even with an allocation of RM129 million last year, Nadma has no manpower of its own, and relies on the state and district disaster management committees.

If the latter is inefficient, then Nadma is absolutely sloth-like, in its reaction time.

While Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Amirudin Shari gave a detailed chronology on what had transpired on Saturday, it emerged that the military had entered flood-hit areas even before Amirudin reached out to Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein for help.

During last week’s disaster, not only were the armed forces – spearheaded by elements of the army – on the ground rescuing people, they also helped out with preparing food and delivering meals to those affected.

Unlike in a war, the armed forces are not supposed to be the first line of defence during a flood or a natural disaster.

The biggest question is, why weren’t the government agencies on the ground earlier? This includes the emergency response team from the Health Ministry.

No one expected aid to be mobilised within the first few hours of the three-day torrential downpour. But certainly, by the end of the first day – a Friday – the other government agencies should have had boots on the ground and boats in the water.

While this may sound absurd, those from non-security agencies can, during a disaster, choose not to go to the ground, for safety reasons. And this was exactly what had transpired.

Some government officers were also not 100 per cent committed to the service of others.

It is learnt that several relief workers had also been uncontactable by phone after “certain hours”. Some were involved in the operations only during “office hours”.

Yet, these were the very same people with “authority”. The same ones who had “stopped” and “warned” non-governmental organisations and volunteers from rendering aid to stranded and famished flood victims because they “had no authority” to do so.

Of course, going down to Ground Zero without the necessary gear, including life jackets, can be dangerous. But whose fault was this?

What about the lives of those who had risked their own safety? Even the army went into flood-hit areas with little or no regard for their own safety. Some NGOs went into harm’s way without life jackets. That speaks volumes of the mentality of the civilian authority.

A “whole of society” approach is needed when it comes to handling a disaster. If those in authority are too afraid to get their hands dirty and their feet wet, they should let someone else take over.

If you’re not going to be part of the solution, get out of the way.

Clearly, the situation was “not under control” as some had claimed.

The Malaysian Armed Forces had been working tirelessly, behind the scenes, for years. Despite knowing exactly what to do when the crunch hit, they were forced to stand down, while the civilian authorities dithered, vacillated, dawdled, hesitated, twiddled their collective thumbs, wavered, and buried their heads in the sand. As a result, 47 people died – 25 in Selangor alone.

Evidently, there are flaws in the system. Those who should know how to manage a crisis have finally been exposed. They are clearly out of their depth.

It’s time we remove the boot-licking culture, the endless bureaucracy and red tape, and leave the business of managing disasters to the real experts.

We owe that much to the 47.

Tagged with: