Of floods and reasons and humanity.

Malaysia has just suffered some awful floods down in the south of the Malay Peninsula, caused by a massive rainfall combined with storm surge up the rivers. The funny thing is that Singapore doesn’t seemed to have suffered. (For you geographically challenged other-side-of-the-worlders, Singapore hangs off the bottom of the Peninsula, hooked on by a couple of bridges, and yes, it is another country).

When I was working down in the mangroves of the south back in the nineties, we came across a couple of things that raised our environmentalist eyebrows. Both were as a result of projects by the state government.

One was a large road being driven across a mangrove area in order to connect, ultimately, the east of the state to the state capital by a more direct route. The road was raised above the water level, like a bund or levee. We approached it by a small boat up a small river and suddenly there was the road ahead of us – and there were no culverts underneath to allow the passage of water.

That’s right. The engineers had cut the river in two with a road. Upstream there were more mangroves, now cut off from the tide and doomed to die – and villages, now doomed at a guess to flooding.

The second project we saw was a failed attempt to farm a coastal area. Mangroves had been cleared and the land parcelled out to grow coconuts or pineapples. A bund had been built to keep the sea out. And it was breached during a storm, flooding the whole area and devastating the farms, which were then abandoned. Mile upon mile of wasteland, desert in the tropics.

I guess those flooded Malaysians are suffering the effects of past government policy which encouraged development without a thought for environmental cost. Now, of course, they are having to rethink, and I believe they are replanting mangroves in parta of Malaysia. It would have been cheaper to listen to us.

When NGOs complained in the 1990s about the development of rivers right up to the water’s edge in spite of an old colonial law that stated that riverbanks were sacrosanct for, I think, 50 yards on either side (I could be wrong about the actual figure), the government of the time said airily that that was not really what the law said. It was just advice.

Advice they were apparently happy to ignore.

Well, a lot of Malaysians have suffered this holiday season. I wonder why.

There’s a photograph here, which is actually from a previous flood this time last year, but which I think sums up a lot. It shows a man saving his cat. This is an elderly man in the process, one guesses, of losing all his worldly wealth – which may not have been much to begin with. Yes, he’s a Muslim Malaysian, in the midst of personal suffering, but I wonder if he is any different from anyone of heart anywhere else. In this coming year, if you feel tempted to make a sweeping statement about another group of people, think of this picture.


Of floods and reasons and humanity. — 5 Comments

  1. True. But yanno, that very same man seen rescuing his beloved cat might also be a man who’s fine with a woman being stoned to death for being raped — excuse me, for committing adultery because after all, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?

    The point is we don’t know everything about people. We do need to take them on a case by case basis. We do need to have all the facts.

  2. IMHO, the problem with Malaysian society is that all the focus is on ‘hard’ development of infrastructure, technology, etcetera and precious little on the soft societal & mental bits like ethics. We’re so busy trying to grow up physically that we forgot to keep up mentally. We even have a policy where 60% of the students in school should be in the science&tech stream. But it’s the arts side that strengthens the mental core.

  3. We’re all a mixture of cruelty, indifference and compassion, aren’t we, and the proportions depend on our conditioning in every sense of the word – nature and nurture both. And it can vary in each of us according to what’s going on in our lives. I know when I’m ill or depressed or under pressure I don’t necessarily find it easy to open my heart to the suffering of others, be they drowning cats or stoned women.

    If only we all found it easy all the time the world would be a much better place – but we don’t. That’s why it’s important, I think, to lobby for legislation based on compassion rather than economic rationalism, wherever we live in the world.

    And, of course, to save all the drowning cats and stoned women we can, day by day:-)At least metaphorically…

    Glenda, I hope those antibiotics are doing the job and you’re nearly better now!

  4. You are right, Karen – we don’t know anyone truly. But this is the way I look at it…

    I was sitting in a traffic jam in the tropical heat. The car aircon gave up the fight because we weren’t moving enough. And yet a number of cars kept driving past in the breakdown lane, then pushing in somewhere ahead and making sure that the rest of us patient drivers were slowed down still further.

    So I am cursing inconsiderate Malaysian *&%$# drivers, etc, etc. And then I started thinking. There were four lanes of very slow-moving traffic, everyone driving patiently, not honking or swapping lanes or anything. Just being decent, considerate drivers. And one lane where every so often a inconsiderate idiot made things worse. In other words, there were far more pleasant drivers than the other kind. So what right had I to berate Malaysian drivers as being ill-bred or poorly-taught? Most of them weren’t! They were just like me.

    And now I try to apply that to all situations. One can look at, say, Iraq and convince oneself that they are blowing one another up and therefore they deserve the mess they are in, or one can think to oneself that most Iraquis are just like you and me, trying to live decent lives and send their kids to school or find a job or buy veggies for their families. They are, in effect, victims, people living in terror and wanting only peace and stability and friendship between all factions.

    And so I prefer to think that the man in the picture is a decent human being, a loving husband and father, trying to save his cat instead of his TV…just like you or me – until someone proves otherwise. I know far more people like that than I know people who condone stoning, believe me. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever met anyone at all who condoned stoning. And I once lived in an Arab nation and I have lived here in a non-Arab but Muslim nation most of my adult life…

    I prefer to think of my glass as 98% full instead of think about the 2% empty bit. It is just unfortunate that the human condition is such that the 2% now has the technological means to make life miserable for the other 98%.

  5. Yes, it’s the one troublemaker who gets noticed, rather than the twenty ordinary folk going quietly about their lives.

    Then again, seems like if you scratch the surface of your average ordinary person you find a conglomeration of racial and social antipathy and religious bigotry which is simply inherited en bloc rather than arrived at by conscious decision.

    And nothing any government does surprises me.

    Sorry, must be getting tired and cynical again.

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