Drowned by the language of god

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Flood relief in Kelantan, December 2014: The poor bear the brunt of devastating floods caused by the wanton destruction of watershed areas due to state-sanctioned logging, poor planning and weak control of development. - Photograph: Hasnoor Hussain/Malaysian Insider

The reaction to the East Coast floods has shown us how dangerous it is to allow the public discourse to be drowned by those claiming to speak the language of god, says Nicholas Chan.

Flood relief in Kelantan, December 2014 - Photograph: Hasnoor Hussain/Malaysian Insider
Flood relief in Kelantan, December 2014 – Photograph: Hasnoor Hussain/Malaysian Insider

Malaysians did not end their year well for 2014. We were faced with one of the worst – if not, the worst – floods the nation has ever seen in modern history.

The catastrophic damage aside, Malaysians encountered another appalling thing: the type of language used to not only comprehend and dissect the disaster and its management, but also rationalise the flood (some of it ostensibly for political reasons).

The most heated debates took place between parties, the federal government included, which ironically claimed that Kelantan’s deforestation had contributed to the severity of the floods. The Kelantan state government initially denied this, downplaying the role of logging, and instead blamed heavy rainfalls. But the Kelantan government later admitted that it could be due to “illegal” logging and land clearing activities, still insisting on absolving the state of responsibility.

That is not the appalling part, actually. Weaved into the language of the political blame games and environmental conservation was the superfluous use of the language of god. In the context of this writing, god here is without the capital “G” to indicate non-specificity and non-referral to the Divine.

Coming top of the list is certainly the remark made by one participant at the Love the Prophet Night 2015 that replaced the annual New Year’s Eve Countdown at Dataran Merdeka. This person condemned those who viewed the floods “too logically and scientifically”, making the point of having an event that cost RM200,000 in times of national crisis more controversial than it was.

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Pas MP Nik Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz was also quick to seize the moment to claim that the floods were a sign of God’s wrath and urged the Kelantan government to continue pushing for hudud law.

No doubt, it is fair for everyone to make their comments heard under the inviolable doctrine of freedom of speech. But what worries me is the dearth of logic and science (to paraphrase the aforementioned preacher) in the discourse surrounding the great flood.

The public sphere is almost completely dominated by opinions from politicians and NGOs (which understandably have agendas of their own), with little presence of objective, evidence-based assessment of the disaster.

To date, the only laudable fair assessment of the situation came from the National Security Council (NSC). Its secretary explained why the flood was the worst in Malaysian history, citing water level data and identifying two credible reasons for the scale of the damage: adverse climate patterns and the exploitation of land and forest resources. The NSC chairman also stressed eloquently how this year’s flooding was different from the “red flood” in 1926: water levels rose more slowly in 1926 as there were more trees back then.

While thankfully the issue of deforestation has been brought up (evidence from Google Map made it hard to deny), no attempt (as far as I can see in from the media) has been made to contextualise the flooding in the wider issue of climate change. This, despite global experts pointing to an increased vulnerability to floods in Southeast Asia as a result of climate change. The United Kingdom Meteorological Office recently projected a 77 per cent increase in flood-prone land area in Southeast Asia by 2100 using current climate indicators.

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This is not to say that in Malaysia the impact of climate change is totally disregarded. But perhaps such knowledge is not democratised, even when warning signs are aplenty e.g. the increasingly serious annual flooding in the East Coast, including in areas not known to be so severely affected previously. Actually, abundant academic literature (even from our local universities) and meteorological assessments exists on the impact of climate change.

For instance, a study by the National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia (Nahrim) has projected a substantial increase in mean monthly rainfall in the east coast region, especially Kelantan, by 2050, while Selangor and Johor will see a drop in monthly rainfall. At a glance, it would appear that the East Coast floods and Selangor drought do fall in line with this projection. So have the effects of climate change hit us sooner than expected?

But all these questions are not out there to drive public debate and to influence policy decision-making. Climate change, despite already being felt in recent cataclysmic events, has not been tackled rationally and scientifically, if at all. The obsession about the biblical “end of days” instead shows that those donning the roles of climatologists, geologists, forestry experts, and hydrologists have not played their part as public intellectuals; instead they have largely kept their research findings only within their little circles.

That is why fatalistic attitudes still dog most Malaysians, including the victims of these disasters. Discourse about disaster prevention is still conveyed in medieval terms, thematically revolved around a wrathful god that needs drastic appeasing. The human agency is totally stripped off the equation, although it is clear that some aspects of climate change, like global warming, are a direct result of human actions.

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When a plane crash investigation is ludicrously directed towards whether we should sell alcohol on board aircraft or when the effort to look for a missing plane was headlined by a man carrying two coconuts, we one can see the poverty of knowledge in the country.

Often, when in-depth analysis of a situation is needed, we have to borrow reports from the foreign media. If that is the case, what is there to encourage our kids to enrol themselves in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) education when our society is seen to be shunning scientific knowledge?

At the very least, those who produce knowledge must also make them accessible. It is a grave danger to allow the public discourse to be drowned by those claiming to speak the language of god. Humility towards nature is good but to subscribe to a nonchalant, deferral attitude towards nature due to ignorance of the natural sciences is perilous. It will turn us into either exploiters of natural resources or indifferent individuals who couldn’t care less about such exploitation.

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