Malaysian Floods: What the Malaysian Government Needs to Learn From Their Mistakes

By Sabrina Najib

In the final month of 2021, Malaysia experienced one of its worst monsoon seasons to date.

The floods in Malaysia began with heavy rainfall, which the Malaysian Meteorological Department had given prior warning to. There had also been early discussions about the rainfall in July when MP Nur Izzah raised concerns regarding the monsoon season in parliament. According to the National Disaster Management Agency, over 125,000 people have been affected by the flooding, with 50 pronounced dead and 2 still missing. If there were early warning signs, it begs the question of how and why the flooding impacted Malaysia to the extent it did.

The current Malaysian government has become increasingly unpopular in 2021. Malaysia experienced its worst wave of Covid-19 due to the Delta variant during the summer, and poor governance resulted in the formation of the Black Flag Movement which sought to condemn the government’s response to the pandemic. Protests took place and #kerajaangagal (failed government), #lawan (fight) and #benderahitam (black flag) were trending topics on social media which resulted in the then prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, stepping down.

Just as the Malaysian government began to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the successful vaccination rollout, they have now found themselves back at square one with their response to the recent monsoon season.

The story begins with poor urban planning. One of the areas hit worst by the flooding was Taman Sri Muda, which was originally designed as a flood retention area, however, the land was eventually sold for housing projects. Many Malaysians have questioned and demanded an investigation to take place on how the development projects within the area managed to receive approval in the first place, condemning the government for poor township planning.

A newspaper clipping from the New Straits Times in 1995, showing a photo of floods in Taman Sri Muda, Shah Alam, Selangor, in December that year. – Facebook pic, December 23, 2021.

As the water from the continuous rainfall began to rise, the government was placed under continuous heat as Malaysians expressed their anger for their lack of urgency. Whilst Malaysia was experiencing its worst monsoon season for decades, UMNO, one of the political parties in the ruling coalition, was reported to be hosting an event with cake-cutting and fireworks. Concerningly, an ‘emergency parliament meeting’ to address the situation is only set to convene on January 20th, a whole month after the rainfall began.

Until then, the government has evacuated victims and distributed resources to those affected. However, much of this aid has been condemned as being ‘performative’. For example, pictures and videos of Rina Harun, The Minister of Women, Family and Community Development,  helping clean up the damage have been released, however, she is seen wearing heels and washing pavements that appear to already be clean. Furthermore, resources have been photographed being distributed around Kuala Langat – another place that has been badly affected – in boxes with pictures of the local MP printed onto them. It couldn’t be more obvious that aid has been used as a government publicity stunt.

In addition to the performative aspect of the aid, the aid has also struggled to reach most of the community, with the RM1,000 (£175) distributed to households in need only being accessible to Malaysian citizens, which excludes foreign workers who account for 20% of the country’s labour force.

Currently, social media continues to serve as a platform to connect the community with information regarding the floods and how people can help, which helped give inspiration to the phrase ‘Rakyat Jaga Rakyat’ (the people help the people) which opposes the ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ (the family of Malaysia) slogan that the government has increasingly tried to promote. It does not help that the government had asked the Malaysian population for donations, which provides further evidence that the government was not adequately prepared for the disaster that they were warned about.

It is apparent that the Malaysian government has struggled to address the natural disaster and has seen a great fall in popularity in the last year, particularly with the unpopular political tactics used in their response to both the pandemic and the floods. Moving forward, the government must reflect on its current policies through assessing planning restrictions and the potential corruption that consumes this. They must also prioritise early warning signs which will enable them to plan effectively to meet the needs of everyone. Most importantly, the Malaysian government needs to rebuild the Malaysian community by playing a more pivotal role in future situations that arise rather than focusing on publicity stunts aimed to please the people. It is beyond question that the Malaysian community is strong, but increasingly, this is due to the shared resentment of the government, when in reality, everyone should be trying to battle a common enemy, whether that be the covid pandemic or climate change.

Thus, the current government has a long way to go if they wish to stand a chance in the next election and it begins with decisive, prompt actions as well as rebuilding trust. All eyes will be on the Malaysian government as we witness how they approach this year and learn from their mistakes from 2021.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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