Malaysia is still reeling from the impact of the worse monsoonal flooding in decades over December and early January. Five people have been killed and the number of people displaced has exceeded the previous record of 100,000 in the 2008 monsoonal season. Ordinary people responded quickly and generously to the floods and civil society groups and individuals pulled together relief campaigns while the government response was slow. Local environmentalists have warned that climate change will bring heavier monsoonal rains and that unregulated logging and other land clearing has laid the basis for more disastrous flooding and landslides.
The Socialist Party of Malaysia was one of the groups that rallied to support the flood victims. Green Left Weekly interviewed Sivarajan Arumugam one of the coordinators of the PSM's relief mission.
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With the east coast states of peninsular Malaysia reeling form the devastating effects of the worst monsoonal floods on record, the PSM embarked on a flood relief mission (Misi PSM Membantu Bencana Banjir). What is the objective of this mission, what help are you delivering and to who?
The worst affected states from our observation are Kelantan and Pahang. But the water was still high when we reached Pahang. In Kelantan, the flood had subsided. PSM's capacity in the relief work were limited. This is the first time PSM participating in such a mission.
Our aim is to support the groups in the affected area which PSM had been working with, so that help and supplies could reach the people. We visited Temerloh in Pahang and worked with the groups Buku Jalanan (BJT) and Angkatan Bahaman (AB). In Gua Musang (Kelantan), we visited Orang Asli (aboriginal) communities with Jaringan Orang Asal Kelantan. In Kota Bahru (Kelantan), we worked with Pertubuhan Royalti Kelantan ("R"). We also visited the Rohingya refugees in Terengganu state – although that state was not as badly affected by the flood.
How has the Malaysian government responded to the flood?
The government's effort has not been supported by proper coordination at ground. We heard complaints such as:
- Food at relief centres distributing mainly to the cronies of those who are managing these centres;
- Food aid being withheld for days because officials were waiting for VIPs from the ruling Barisan Nasional to arrive and be photographed distributing aid;
- Opposition parties being chased out of relief centres when they arrived to deliver aid;
- Search and rescue teams not being sent to save those who were trapped;
- Minority groups such as aborigines and refugees being ignored;
- No mechanism in place to tackle post-flood symptoms such as spread of disease and financial stress.
About five thousand houses were destroyed by the flood. That means about 25,000 have been made homeless. But until now, no plans have been announced to tackle the issue other than a vague statement by the prime minister that the government will rebuild the houses.
On our trip, we saw many places where families were staying in tents at the site of their former homes with only candles for lighting.
The government-controlled mass media also tried to paint a distorted picture by exaggerating the severity of the flood in Kelantan because that state is ruled by an opposition party.
The monsoon season bring yearly disasters so it is surprising the government was so poorly prepared to handle this worst flood in 40 years.
What are the causes of the record flooding this year?
As other places in the world, these recent floods are made worse by massive deforestation in Kelantan and Pahang. We heard from the locals that continuous heavy rain for only two days had caused the water levels to rise dramatically.
The state of Kelantan has been ruled by the Islamic opposition party for the past two decades. Even though this state is blessed with natural offshore petroleum, the ruling Barisan Nasional federal government has prevented oil royalties from being paid to the state government. A state that is rich in resources has been kept poor. This, in turn, has led the state government to look for other revenues, including from logging. Logging contracts given out to private companies has resulted in massive deforestation leading to the silting up of rivers which has led to overflow into towns and villages just after two days of rain.
What has been the response of the ordinary people to the flood?
So far the solidarity shown by Malaysians has been overwhelming, with many individuals organising relief missions themselves. Civil society has risen to the call to help the affected areas.
But the government has failed to coordinate and distribute it effectively. The government could have used its military boats and helicopters to deliver food items to remote and inaccessible areas which civilian relief missions do not have those resources to reach.
The government avoided declaring an emergency situation in flooded areas in order to avoid bad publicity and not to alarm the capitalist business class.
PSM delivering aid to an indigenous (Orang Asli/Asal) community in Gua Musang.