In disaster, the best (and worst) of us on display

November 12 — It cannot be easy to be Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng at this time.

Just weeks after 11 workers were killed in a landslide at a housing project in Tanjung Bungah, Penang was hit by perhaps the worst flood in 50 years.

With water rising past rooflines and power supply down in several areas, a solemn Lim requested help from the army in the wee hours of Sunday. By Monday, it was reported that seven people had died, while nearly 5,000 Penang folks were evacuated from various parts of the island and mainland.

As always, the disaster invited comparison with the worst flood to hit the country in recent times: the Kelantan floods in late 2014 that stretched into early 2015, killing more than 20 people and displacing over 200,000.
If anything, Malaysians seemed more ready to deal with Penang.

And the hardy folks in Penang decided to roll up their sleeves and get things done in order to help their neighbours. Others from the rest of the country were also ready to mobilise aid.

Past experiences have shown the public that citizen action can be much more effective; there is little need to just sit down and wait for help to come.

An excavator is used to evacuate flood victims in Bukit Mertajam November 5, 2017. — Pictures by Sayuti Zainuddin
An excavator is used to evacuate flood victims in Bukit Mertajam November 5, 2017. — Pictures by Sayuti Zainuddin

And it seems the authorities too have learned. The response this time around was undoubtedly swift. Deputy prime minister and home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was the first to respond, taking Lim’s emergency call, and visited him a day later with nary a partisan comment.

By Tuesday, almost all the top leaders had touched down to visit the devastated areas. And by Wednesday, Lim announced that things were starting to get back to normal in the state.

In trying times, when the country seems to be divided over racial and religious lines, the heartwarming stories from Penang should at least keep some of your faith in humanity intact.

As reported by Malay Mail Online, it was the ordinary people who stepped up to help: car salesmen, lorry drivers, medical staff.

A motley crew of multi-racial volunteers called Kembara Kitchen drove up from the Klang Valley to provide free meals for victims. They have been doing this for five years, joining in relief efforts all across the country when disaster strikes.

Volunteers from the Malaysian chapter of Buddhist Tzu-Chi Merit Society are a common sight in disaster areas, and this time they were clad in dark blue polos and white pants, helping distribute water and bread, and cleaning up. Their effectiveness got the thumbs up from locals.

When Manek Urai was ravaged during the Kelantan floods, I had witnessed the behemoth force that is Tzu-Chi. They ferried around 500 members, an additional two busloads of volunteers, along with 19 lorries and seven tractors for the massive clean-up.

Just dropping in to help was not enough, so they employed around 1,200 local villagers as well for the two-day operation. Free vegetarian meals were provided, with special instant rice that only needs to be soaked in water to be edible.

Safe to say, the move boosted morale all around.

But the disaster also brought out the worst in us. And it is these people that we have to be wary about.

Sapno Tukijo, a bilal or muezzin at a surau in Taman Free School in George Town, was criticised by some for allowing non-Muslims to take shelter in the house of worship. This came after a photo went viral, showing ethnic Chinese flood victims in the surau; women with their heads not covered, while one man appeared topless, usually a taboo.

But Sapno did the right thing. The victims had been wading in chest-high water, in whatever clothes they had on, trying hard to cross the water to seek shelter in a temple. Sapno had instead offered them shelter on the top floor of the surau.

But for those who saw flaws in Sapno’s action, this was not enough. Sunni Organisation Malaysia officer Zamihan Mat Zin claimed this should not be counted as “emergency”, and the non-Muslims should have been reminded of manners when entering the surau.

If all you care is how precious your religious purity is, when people are merely trying to avoid drowning to death, then you do have to question your faith.

And this was the same preacher who had accused the Chinese of being filthy, and prone to “not washing up after defecating and urinating.” The fact that a person like this was employed by federal Islamic body Jakim, and trusted to deradicalise imprisoned militants with the backing of Putrajaya, should really be questioned by the public.

There were also thoughtless comments that the flood in Penang was divine punishment for the Oktoberfest beer festival held last month. Imagine that, there are many things that contributed to such devastation — climate change, rampant urbanisation, weak flood mitigation — and yet some would still find it in their hearts to blame the victims.

Of course, it would not be as easy to take responsibility for our own actions. That it is humans themselves who have made their lives more miserable. It is always easier to shift the responsibility to invisible beings.

We have seen the best of ourselves, we have seen the worst. So which one is the true Malaysian?

It is easy to claim that all along, Malaysians have always been united, but then politics divided us. Maybe the truth is not as simple. Maybe we have always been divided, and it is only disasters that bring us together.

There is one way that we can continue this goodwill, this brotherhood long after the waters recede. One way to forget, and ignore dogmatic voices that keep telling us that some of us are much more special than others.

And that is to remember that we are all fellow humans. And to do good for the well-being of our brethren. For we share this world, and all we have is each other until our last breath.

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