OUTSPOKEN: It takes a natural disaster like the powerful earthquake that literally shook Mout Kinabalu on June 5, to give a real test on the leadership qualities of Malaysia's national and state leaders.
If Prime Minister Najib Razak truly believes in his own slogan of 1Malaysia and considers Sabah as a “fixed deposit” state, then he would have reacted very differently when the 5.9 magnitude earthquake occurred at 7.15am that day with its epicentre about 15km north of Ranau town.
As soon as he was told of the incident and briefed on the seriousness of the situation he, as head of the central government, should have dropped everything else immediately and paid full attention to the crisis and ensured that the government responded to the crisis promptly and appropriately.
In his capacity as chairman of the National Security Council, he should have realized the gravity and magnitude of the disaster by quickly declaring it as a national disaster zone, so that the full force of top level authority would come into play.
Once that was done, the state security committee headed by chief minister Musa Aman, who technically is responsible for the officials in charge at the crisis centre on the ground, would have the administrative power to execute all necessary search and rescue (SAR) operations without delay.
It was truly a case of grave crisis and emergency on a national scale, considering that lives of such a large number of Malaysian citizens as well as nationals from so many foreign countries were at risk that day.
It was a frightening thought; having 137 climbers, including young children, being stranded close to the top of the mountain that is cold and windy. They must also be in a state of shock and fear, having just experienced the powerful earthquake. There were also 30 or more Malaysian mountain guides with the climbers.
At times of emergency such as this, top concern must surely be to save lives.
If given the power from the top national leaders, officials at the crisis centre could have the ability to mobilise helicopters and other support services from the armed forces, police, private aviation companies and other organisations without question and within the first couple of hours.
A distinct advantage was that it occurred early in the morning, leaving the emergency units about 11 daylight hours to plan and execute their SAR operations. For, in the far east state of Sabah, it gets dark as early as 6.30pm.
From the national point of view, Mt Kinabalu, the centre of all attention that day, is the nation's icon tourism spot. Many promotional materials of Tourism Malaysia, including its TV commercials prominently feature the mountain.
This icon, reputed for having the tallest peak (at 4,095m above sea level) in Southeast Asia, is also a Unesco World Heritage Site and the 20th most prominent mountain in the world.
The disaster could not have struck at a worst time. It was during school holidays, one of the peak seasons for local and foreign climbers, including young pupils in their early teens, mostly having their first experience in mountain climbing.
Did Najib see the situation in these lights and act accordingly? Obviously not, for he went ahead with his travel plans for Saudi Arabia, which according to him, “involving meetings with members the Saudi royal family”.
Surely the Saudi royal family would be gracious enough to accept and excuse him for having to change travel plans due a state of emergency at home.
Another error in judgement was when Musa declared June 8 as “a day of mourning” for Sabah calling on the people to fly flags at half-mast in the state. The appropriate mark of remembrance for the four mountain guides and other Malaysians who died as a result of the quake is a national day of mourning.
It was a national affair, not state. Has Najib forgotten that citizens in Sabah are Malaysians, equal to those anywhere in the country? Whither the 1Malaysia concept?
By contrast, the Singapore government saw it fit to declare a national day of mourning for the two teachers and eight pupils from Tanjong Katong Primary School who died as a result of the earthquake. They did not say that the mourning was for that school alone, but for the whole nation.
Reflecting further on the dire consequences of disasters that Malaysians in Sabah have to bear resulting from the earthquake, somehow the words of a Czech television host on such disasters spring to mind.
“We cannot stop natural disasters but we can arm ourselves with knowledge: so many lives wouldn't have to be lost if there was enough disaster preparedness,” said Petra Nemcova, a victim of the Indian Ocean earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2004.
In many ways, the Malaysian Government was ill prepared for the Ranau earthquake; not having sufficient knowledge nor enough disaster preparedness to deal promptly and efficiently with the catastrophic situation.
It is often said that prevention is better than cure. True, but good advice such as this is not always followed. Regrets usually come after the fact.
A few days after the earthquake came the disclosure that the Minerals and Geoscience Department in Sabah had proposed to the federal government in 2013 to install an earthquake monitoring system that includes the installation of GPS monuments along fault lines in the vicinity of Mt Kinabalu.
The request for an allocation of RM7 million for implementation of the project was turned down.
Alexander Yan, former director of the department, told The Borneo Post on June 8 that had the proposal been given the nod, lives could have been saved from the earthquake that claimed 18 lives and caused injury to many climbers and guides.
Now the Malaysian Government has announced an allocation of RM10 million just for rehabilitation works on the mountain.
Other costs such as relief measures and the rebuilding of public and private infrastructures in and around Kudasang and Ranau that are damaged by the quake and the subsequent mudslides in the past week that caused further havoc would go way beyond that figure.
As seen in other cases of natural disasters elsewhere in the country, a happy and positive sign that emerged from the Ranau earthquake was the spontaneous response of many individuals, community groups, NGOs and service organisations, in showing unity, love and care through their various acts of charity.
This Malaysian bond shown in the last two weeks by the ordinary folks in time of need, pain, sorrow and suffering is most admirable.
Sarawakian Datuk Joseph Leong Sai Ho, who has been living in Sabah since 1966, has his eye on all things Borneo.