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Articles, Commentaries, South China Morning Post

What the Penang Floods Say about Malaysian Politics (and It’s Not Just about Climate Change)

By OOI KEE BENG, South China Morning Post, 16 November 2017.

EXTREME WEATHER hits most places on Earth every now and then, and recently more than ever. But when freak storms appear with an intensity stronger and more devastating than living memory can recall, it is wise to conclude that we should not take blue skies and cooling rainfalls for granted.

More obviously, governments should begin thinking very seriously about how the effects of dramatic climatic change can be mitigated at the most local level. If there is any lesson to be learned from the tropical storm that hit northern Malaysia, most notably the state of Penang, on the weekend of November 4-5, this is it.

Weather systems seem to have shifted, and the people of Penang, where the weather has almost always been mild, and where disasters are queer events that take place elsewhere, were totally surprised by an extremely heavy overnight downpour accompanied by high-velocity winds that brought down dozens of trees, and countless branches, onto fences, roads, houses and cars.

Seven people died.

Penang being Penang – a state defiantly run by the federal opposition since 2008, and which has for two mandate periods now been a poke in the eye of the powerful and long-standing central government – it has been difficult for many to consider the floods simply as a natural disaster. Instead, some schadenfreude was initially evident, and fingers were pointed at the state government. But to be fair, much of this was done before most people realised how bad the situation actually was.

It did not help that there had been some flash flooding and landslides a couple of months earlier on an unprecedented scale, though a scale now dwarfed by the November storm.
A construction site landslide that took 11 lives on October 21 had further shocked the people of Penang into demanding answers and action from the Pakatan Harapan government led by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. His government has set up a commission of inquiry into the latter incident.

Civil society groups had been demanding for years that the state and local governments exercise more control over hillside developments.

The political pressure had therefore been mounting on Lim before the storm hit on the night of November 4. Perhaps because of that, the chief minister was fast in responding to the latest crisis.

When natural disasters hit, especially in areas usually free of them, the apparatus of the state is generally found wanting. That appeared to be the case in Penang. The floods came fast and furious in the middle of the night, accompanied by winds howling like banshees, toppling trees and tearing off branches. Understandably, most services were paralysed. The extent of the crisis immobilised large parts of the island and the mainland.

Lim called for help from the military in the middle of the night, and very quickly put into place a recovery plan to lessen the anxiety of many who were still shocked at how much they had lost, and how suddenly.

Initial efforts taken by certain members of parliament and community leaders proved of limited use, however. Getting food and drink to the afflicted, for example, proved difficult because roads were still badly flooded and accessibility was hugely limited. But they persevered.

Steven Sim, Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam on the mainland side, which was perhaps the worst affected constituency, was one of those who moved quickly to bring help into flooded areas.

He said: “The damage was so broad that getting food, and getting enough trucks together to ferry the food into the worst affected regions, proved quite impossible at first. But the sense of solidarity was immense, and we soon had someone bringing in huge amounts of newly baked bread to the victims.

“Although the army did arrive with trucks and what not, they were not being given instructions by their commanders to get into the thick of things.”

What turned the tide, as it were, in bringing aid to the thousands afflicted by the waters that rose as high as 12 feet, was the quick response of the community. Aid soon came from across Malaysia, donated by generous Malaysians and brought in by concerned and compassionate individuals. Volunteers appeared from near and far, some coming up from Johor, the southernmost state on the peninsula. The speed at which debris was cleared away and houses and streets washed clean was astounding, a testimony to how Penangites and Malaysians rose to the occasion to help their fellow citizens.

However, it would not be Malaysia if the flood disaster were not politicised. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi considered the occasion a time of political opportunity, and thinking that the disaster had hurt the standing of the Penang government, said that the floods were “a sign from God that the state was ripe for the taking”.

The disaster also took place while the Malaysian parliament was in the middle of its debate over the federal budget. To a question from a Penang member of parliament on whether the federal government intended to use resources from its contingency fund to aid Penang’s flood victims, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Shahidan Kassim, said the opposition’s criticism of the budget proposal as a whole was a rejection of potential federal aid and the federal opposition was therefore not in support of aid to those victims.

Such quaint logic notwithstanding, in the aftermath of the aid efforts mounted by all and sundry, and after all the relief centres had been closed, it appears that the Penang state government despite certain clear weaknesses concerning its overall ability to act in a crisis, gained much sympathy for its overall compassionate handling of the situation. The tremendous solidarity shown by common folk and by volunteers of all colours and persuasions under their watch – notwithstanding some reports of dishonest individuals pretending to be victims in order to obtain donated items – is a credit to Malaysians in general, and is not something to be scoffed at.

The fact remains though that islands are the frontline victims of climate change, and for a small and hilly island like Penang, environmental management and developmental prudence will hopefully become an increasingly important consideration in the policymaking of the state government, as it has to be for all governments today.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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