Healing our loss, rising above muddy waters

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Healing our loss: Migrant workers (who else?) coming to our rescue at Macalister Road, Penang

We cannot attribute floods and landslides to bad luck which we can do nothing about; such attribution would be a sheer denial of responsibility, writes Mary Chin.

If we could recover from the 2004 tsunami, we can recover from the 2017 floods in Penang. Even Pompeii rose from the rubble.

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 eg the demise of a pet. The healing process will take time.

There are aspects, however, that do not allow us the luxury of time. We need to understand solidarity at a deeper level. We need better coordination of emergency response and relief efforts. We need to recalibrate what kind of green is green. We need to be better custodians of the resources available to us. We need to own up to causes and effects.

Solidarity

Gotong-royong spirits are high. Our spirits are even higher than they were at the recent Sea Games, where we won 145 gold medals. Judging from the sheer number of volunteers and the amount of donations collected, the 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 credit to the overwhelming generosity, there is still space to examine our solidarity at deeper levels and finer granularity.

The floods did affect people from different social clusters, but those particularly vulnerable were the needy, the infirm and the stateless.

Within the same village, the social divide could 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 four legs to stay dry. Looking from the direction of the home which was swamped towards the home which was dry, what sort of sentiments were we brewing? Do we expect no strong feelings besides a complete surrender to nasib or fate?

On 5 November, I found my weevil-infested rice was no longer edible. I happened to have neither bread nor noodles. I walked out to Tesco – only 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 returned 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 could not 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. Penangites must press the state government, “Can non-voting families apply for the one-off RM700 aid under Penang Bangkit? Are migrant workers and refugees recognised as flood victims?”

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If various aid providers can coordinate with one another and be ten per cent 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 has receded. Using team work, they are able to form a human chain, passing pieces of spoilt furniture, from one pair of hands to the next, out of villages.

If various aid providers can be ten percent as efficient as Kembara Kitchen, our emergency response can match international standards. With a minimalistic philosophy, a single station is able to prepare thousands of nutritious food packets per day – with minimal setup and capital.

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 … the amount of aid. Worse, some who are needy may 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 to find someone to receive what we have to give – someone, anyone without whom we can’t complete the ‘transaction’. In this case, we feel we have done our part even if those receiving our aid have already received multiple handouts anyway, while some others receive absolutely nothing.

The mission is then so much simplified – just drive to the village and unload our trucks to whoever finds it convenient to be there to receive the aid. No need to see how deep the village is or where the penghulu is.

As with all disaster relief efforts, there is always a lesson to learn no matter how well the various services responded. Various aspects for improvement have already been identified.

Suffice to highlight just one aspect here: the sharing of photos showing elderly residents submerged in muddy waters up to chest level. Yes, the circulation of those photos did call to urgent public attention an urgent need for rescue. Next time, however, do blur the face before sharing. Respect those concerned. We can’t circulate photos this way without consent.

Superstition we can’t afford

We thought the 15 September floods were the worst in recent history. And then on 21 October, we were greeted with Penang’s ultimate korban: the Tanjong Bungah landslide killed at least 11 people. By 4-5 November, we discovered that the latest floods could in fact be worse. 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 was 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 might 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 might instantly resonate, “Really, that day ghosts masked our eyes (鬼遮眼).”

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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.

Decor vs preservation

Let us be clear about what kind of green is green.

The mini recreational patches in Pulau Tikus are as cute and captivating as the bus-stop comics on history and culture.

In ruins: Drawings on culture and history at a bus-stop

These uplift the ambience and contribute to the island’s charm – ideal for stress relief. Be clear, though, this is decoration, not preservation.

The cycling tracks on which the chief minister posed photogenically in his usual style do promote healthy living. They are great.

These, however, can never replace hill slopes transformed into flat land. Anyway, those cycling tracks have so far served mainly recreational and decor purposes. There is no sign of people switching off motor engines and instead cycling to work.

Recreational spaces tell us very little about how green we are. Violated hills, forests and seas do – loudly and unmistakeably.

Recall the Tanjung Bungah landslide just weeks earlier. Seeing that concave contour combined with that shade of blue (cladding) and that shade of mud brown, I tremble down my spine. Shapes become concave when their convex complements have 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 the end of their life spans anyway.

Now is timely to rethink what we define as basic needs and how material goods once optional have become necessities eg the Astro dish. What is so diminishing about not having a television? I never had 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 since living independently as an adult.

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A hefty manufacturing and environmental footprint lies behind all manufactured goods. The cost to the environment is already incurred 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 of giving 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 idly 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, mind you. It is 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 projects (eg on protein folding) tap the idle time of computers scattered geographically, sometimes across continents.

When we have too many possessions lying 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 sticks with us still. Now that we know it may flood again anytime on scales previously unimaginable, 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 water during floods.

Role modeling

In replacing lost goods, think about the role model the middle class displays to less affluent communities. 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 the wish lists of others. 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 missions to Indochina to try and set people on their way 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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Mary Chin

Dr Mary PW Chin, an Aliran member, is currently an independent scientist in Penang, having previously served in the UK and at CERN, a leading centre for scientific research. A medical, radiation and computational research physicist by profession, she spent her free time combing the poorest area of Canada street by street – a supposedly dangerous neighbourhood.

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