DAPs call for Public Inquiry into the tsunami catastrophe to learn all the right lessons from the calamity and to put in place a fair, compassionate, non-partisan and efficient post-disaster relief and recovery system
- on the urgent motion on the Asian tsunami catastrophe
by Lim Kit Siang
(Dewan Rakyat, Monday): I applaud the decision of the Speaker, Tan Sri Ramli Ngah Talib in approving an emergency debate on the December 26 tsunami catastrophe which killed 69 people in Malaysia and over 162,000 globally although the final toll could be in the region of 200,000, with half a million injured and five million made homeless, in an arc of destruction and death across nearly 4,000 miles in 12 countries and six time zones after a magnitude-9 undersea earthquake off Sumatra.
I would have preferred the Malaysian Parliament to be the first Parliament in the world, in keeping with our international responsibilities as Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to have a full debate on a proper motion on both the national and international dimensions and implications of the tsunami catastrophe, resulting in what would most likely be an unanimous resolution, instead of a one-hour debate under Standing Order 18, which would end without any formal resolution or vote.
Other Parliaments like the UK House of Commons have addressed the tsunami catastrophe but no Parliament has yet had a full debate on a proper motion, and this was why on New Year’s Eve on December 31, I had urgently faxed the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who had rightly cut short his Spanish holidays because of the tsunami catastrophe, proposing an extension of the current two-day special parliamentary sitting to have an urgent debate on the humanitarian disaster and the role that should be played by Malaysia as Chair of NAM and OIC to mobilize international opinion, resources and resolution for effective disaster-reduction systems.
Last Tuesday, at the opening of the Courtesy and Noble Values Campaign at Istana Budaya, I had spoken to the Prime Minister suggesting that the tsunami catastrophe was such a huge disaster nationally and internationally with far-reaching ramifications that he should himself move a motion on the subject at the special Parliament sitting today.
Several Cabinet Ministers whom I spoke to at the opening ceremony agreed that it would be most proper and timely for the Prime Minister to move such motion. It is most regrettable that the Cabinet the next day decided otherwise, although I welcome the importance given to the issue by the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who will reply on behalf of the government in this debate..
There was no Happy New Year when the calendar turned from 2004 to 2005, as it was a Haunting New Year, with Malaysia and many other countries cancelling New Year countdown celebrations.
The tsunami catastrophe is the worst natural disaster in the history of the country, and although Malaysia did not suffer the brunt of the calamity like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, this is no consolation when every human life lost could have been saved if an early warning system had been in place.
The devastation in human lives and suffering could have been largely averted if Malaysia and other south-east Asian countries had taken their discussions in 2003 and 2004 seriously about introducing an early warning system for tsunamis although they happen very rarely in the Indian Ocean.
I am not interested in any “blame game” and the country and the people should not indulge in any binge of “fault-finding”, but we must be rational and courageous enough to learn the lessons from our mistakes and weaknesses to ensure that avoidable and preventable human toll and sufferings will not be repeated in the future.
Seismic events like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions cannot be prevented from happening, but the most rudimentary monitoring, public warning systems and education could have saved many lives.
It has been reported in the international media that at a meeting of the United Nations’ Inter-Governmental Oceanographic Commission in June last year, specialists concluded that the “Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis” and should have a warning network. No action was agreed upon as officials in Malaysia, Thailand, India and other countries perceived tsunamis as “a Pacific problem” and had “never shown the initiative to do anything”.
On December 30, DAP MPs Chong Eng (Bukit Mertajam), Chow Kong Yeow (Tanjong) and Lim Hock Seng (Bagan) and I visited Ooi Boon Kim of Bukit Mertajam who lost six family members to the December 26 tsunami disaster at the Pasir Panjang beach near Pulau Betong, Penang.
He asked a heart-rending question which deserve a proper answer as this is a question that must still being asked by bereaved families, relatives and friends of the 69 tsunami fatalities in Penang, Kedah, Perlis and Perak, as well as by ordinary Malaysians - why the Federal, state and local government authorities had failed to issue any warning of danger although they have three to four hours of lead-time before the killer waves unleashed by the 9.0 magnitude Sumatra mega-earthquake hit the northern coasts of Malaysia.
The Prime Minister had directed all the relevant agencies in Penang and Kedah to immediately conduct a post-mortem on the tsunami that struck Malaysia in order to introduce a standard operating procedure in facing a similar disaster in the future.
This is a step in the right direction – a courageous move by the Prime Minister to puncture the denial syndrome which had befogged the handling of the tsunami disaster, regarding the killer tsunami waves as fated and “an act of God”.
However, a post-mortem by the relevant agencies in Penang and Kedah is not adequate to deal with the horrendous failure of our national warning system to deal with disasters. What is needed is a public inquiry to find the answers to the heart-rending cry of all tsunami victims like Ooi Boon Kim.
Ordinary Malaysians may not know that tsunamis are predictable after an earthquake, but there is no reason or excuse for those in Federal, state and local governments who are paid to look after the safety and welfare of Malaysians to be unaware of something which will be known to those who are well-informed on the subject.
Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra had 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 further 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, 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 69 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, particularly the handling of tsunami aid.
There have been an unprecedented outpouring of compassion and charity from Malaysians as well as people worldwide, but there have been lots of complaints whether about inadequacy of compensation, delays in payments or even discrimination in payments. These were borne out when when DAP MPs visited Pulau Betong in Penang, when DAP MP for Bukit Mertajam Chong Eng visited Kuala Terang and Bukit Maru in Langkawi and when together with DAP MP for Bukit Gajah, Fong Po Kuan, I visited Sungei Burung and Sungai Tiang in Perak.
These should be investigated by a public inquiry to ensure a fair, non-partisan, efficient, competent and compassionate post-disaster relief and recovery system.
On the international front, as simultaneous Chair of NAM and OIC, Malaysia should convene emergency meetings of NAM and OIC or an unprecedented joint NAM-OIC meeting on the December 26 tsunami catastrophe to broker meaningful ceasefires in Aceh, Sri Lanka and Somalia (the three civil wars in the 4,000-mile tsunami arc of destruction and death) as well as to set up an effective mechanism to ensure efficiency, accountability, transparency and integrity in the collection and disbursement of the $US8 - $US10 billion tsunami aid which have been committed globally by governments, international organisations and the peoples of the world.
There have been growing international concerns that corrupt officials in the affected countries will use the tsunami aid to line their own pockets and secondly, the adverse impact of ongoing civil wars, particularly Aceh and Sri Lanka, on the relief and reconstruction efforts.
Indonesians themselves, both NGOs and the media, have themselves raised these concerns. The Jakarta Post had called on the Indonesian government to prioritise the use of tsunami aid, both grants and debt relief, for the rebuilding of tsunami-stricken Aceh and North Sumatra province and not for use to help bolster the Indonesian national budget; and for establishment of an independent body tasked to transparently maintain a record of donations for Aceh and their disbursement, as well as to ensure that the funds reached the targeted recipients as Indonesia’s “reputation and credibility as a nation is at stake”.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made the fight against corruption a priority of his five-year term, but he never expected that he would be put to the test in so quick, international and critical a manner. This is an area where NAM and OIC can help Susilo to ensure accountability, transparency and integrity in the receipt, use and monitoring of billions of dollars of tsunami aid to make it a model operation where corruption, mismanagement and abuses of power are obviated by the fullest glare of international accountability and transparency, ensuring value-for-money and safety and quality standards in the reconstruction process.
* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman