Sacking of Thai chief meteorologist a reminder of the need for a public inquiry in   Malaysia to   overcome our denial syndrome to learn all the right lessons from the tsunami disaster, in particular    the breakdown of the national disaster warning system


Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Parliament, Wednesday): Yesterday, Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra fired the Thai chief meteorologist, Suparerk Tansriratanawong and opened an investigation into why his department failed to issue a tsunami warning which might have saved thousands of lives. 

The sacking of the Thai chief meteorologist is a reminder of the need for a public inquiry in  to overcome our denial syndrome to learn all the right lessons from the tsunami disaster, in particular  the breakdown of the national disaster warning system, probing into aspects such as why the government had failed to sound any warning of danger although it had some four  hours of lead-time before the  killer waves unleashed by the 9.0-magnitude Sumatra mega-earthquake hit the Malaysian coasts, and  whether the 68 lives lost could have been averted or reduced to single-digit figure with a more informed, alert and resourceful system in place. 

I am not suggesting that we should follow Thaksin’s example and fire the  Malaysian Meteorological Services (MMS) director-general or the MMS seismology director, but the government should not shirk from its unpleasant duty to conduct a searching inquiry into the horrendous failure of the national disaster warning system, the failures in the authorities’ handling of the disaster such as  radio and television failing to give Malaysians real-time information forcing them to depend on CNN and BBC to get news about what was happening in Penang and the northern coasts of Peninsular Malaysia, and the aftermath of the tsunami disaster. 

Three episodes in the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe reinforce the case for a comprehensive public inquiry in Malaysia, viz: 

  1. Seven years ago, former Thai top meteorologist, Samith Dhamasaroj, had warned government officials that a tidal wave could hit the southern Thai resorts around the tourist town of Phuket and made two recommendations: that alarm sirens be installed in hotels and that resort buildings should not be sited within 300 yards of the beaches.  Everyone laughed at him for his prediction, and the Thai government ignored his advice and moved him to another post.  Dhamasaroj said this week that he was sure a tsunami was coming as soon as he heard about the massive Dec 26  earthquake off  Sumatra island that measured magnitude 9.0 – the world’s biggest in 40 years – and described his desperate but futile attempts  on that fateful day to generate an alert which might have saved thousands of lives in Thailand.  He is now charged with setting up an early warning disaster system in Thailand.
  1. A Dutch couple at the deadly Khao Lak beach north of Phuket who survived the tsunami catastrophe because they had 30 seconds to run for their lives as they lived in California, where tsunamis are not unknown, and so were familiar with the telltale signs of impending tidal surges.  As this couple subsequently said, if a warning system had been in place to warn bathers just 15 minutes before the tsunami wall of water battered the beaches, most lives could have been saved.
  1. The remarkable story of survival of the island of Simeulue, not far from the epicenter of the 9.0-magnitude Sumatra mega-earthquake. Although Aceh and the rest of the western coast of North Sumatra were laid to devastation and  waste as if subject to a nuclear holocaust, with the final death toll expected to exceed 100,000,  the majority of the island’s 70,000 people had survived the double whammy of earthquake and tsunamis.  This is because a tsunami in 1907 when the island suffered thousands of deaths led to the islanders’ folklore that as soon as  they feel a quake they must run to high land, which spared them the decimation suffered by other areas near the earthquake epicentre

On December 26, the Sumatra earthquake and ensuing tsunamis were “acts of God” for Sumatra, where the killer tsunamis set in within minutes  but they cannot be described as “acts of God” for  neighbouring countries which have more than one hour of lead time before the arrival of the killer waves, even less so for the northern coasts of Peninsular Malaysia, which had some four hours of lead-time, which made the colossal death toll most tragic as were mostly avoidable.

This itself should warrant the establishment of a public inquiry, not for any nitpicking to pin or apportion blame, but for the Malaysian government and people to learn all the right lessons from the tsunamis catastrophe.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman