By Raman Letchumanan

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--As the ASEAN official in charge of drafting and implementing the 2005 ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), it distresses me to ask my own country this question 16 years later. 

For all its pretence and showmanship, I will justify here that the government does not have a comprehensive law on disaster management, but mismanages disaster and crisis situations using bureaucratic institutions and administrative policies.

That is why the government bungles every time in its response to each major disaster.

Otherwise how could anyone explain this? Our Keluarga Malaysia government with its bloated but excellent cabinet/advisors (scoring 90 percent) celebrated with pomp and glamour its 100 days of achievement/aspiration, yet within days leaves its own citizens in despair suffering from one of the worst floods in modern times. A national embarrassment right smack in the most developed and prosperous Klang Valley region of Malaysia.

All we have is a hotchpotch of civilian agencies coordinated by the bureaucratic National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma), headed by a special functions (read miscellaneous tasks) Minister, and purports to command the uniformed frontline responders such as the civil defence, bomba, police, and army. Worse still the SOPs, directives, policies and procedures are only administrative and not legally binding.

The complete breakdown of coordination, response and rescue even in highly urbanised Shah Alam speaks for itself. It was reported the victims had to fend for themselves for an excruciating 48 hours, uniformed personnel arrived a day later at best but were not prepared to move in immediately, and many were hungry and left searching for food. It is a total structural and systemic failure in disaster management.

The prime minister himself acknowledged it, ordering the transfer of command from Nadma to the National Security Council in the midst of the disaster. No agency is taking responsibility or accountability for the debacle, and there is a public spat among decision makers about who is actually in charge of disaster management.

The Covid-19 pandemic policy flip-flops and a multitude of confusing and contradictory SOPs are indeed a reflection of our disaster management framework, if ever there was one.  

Therefore, is it any surprise if I reveal here that Malaysia is the only country in ASEAN that does not have a dedicated disaster management law?

Brunei (Emergency Regulations Act), Cambodia (Disaster Management Law), Indonesia (Disaster Management Law), Laos (Red Cross Law),  Myanmar (Natural Disaster Management Act), Philippines (Disaster Risk and Management Act), Singapore (Civil Defence Act), Thailand (Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Act), and Viet Nam (Law on Natural Disaster Prevention and Control) all have dedicated and comprehensive laws on disaster management.

But Malaysia relies on its colonial 1951 Civil Defence Force Act, which is primarily for the establishment of the civil defence force (basically for rescue work), but is woefully inadequate to meet the ever increasing multi-faceted challenges of disaster management requiring multiple actors.  

AADMER – a landmark agreement

When AADMER was adopted by ASEAN in 2005, it was hailed as the most comprehensive legal instrument on disaster management in the world. The agreement essentially transcribed the policy prescriptions of the 2005 Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA) into a regional legal instrument. Soon after the devastating Dec 2004 tsunami, the world community met at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Jan 2005 to chart a new comprehensive framework for disaster risk reduction which resulted in the HFA.

One should read the AADMER to better understand what a comprehensive national law on disaster management should contain. Disaster management is a yearlong mutually reinforcing process covering four key areas: (i) Disaster Risk Identification, Assessment and Monitoring (ii) Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, (iii) Disaster Preparedness, (iv) Emergency Response, and (v) Rehabilitation.

Since its adoption, several SOPs were developed and annexed as part of the agreement. Annual field exercises simulating various complex disasters were conducted involving countries within and outside the region, relief agencies and civil society to ensure preparedness at all times for any disaster. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management provides operational support 24/7 to member states in disaster relief and assistance.

The agreement itself places obligations on member states to incorporate the relevant functions in their national disaster management laws to ensure uniformity and effectiveness. I would say all the other member states have incorporated that in their national laws and subsidiary legislations as mentioned above.

To illustrate the necessity for a legal framework, let me cite two examples. On emergency response (Art. 10), one key aspect is civil-military coordination. In any emergency response, it is the civilian agencies which will be the first responders, but the military will automatically take command once a disaster has reached a critical level. 
The SOPs will contain the trigger points and the command structure. If this is legislated as law, then the involvement of the military or other security apparatus need to wait for Nadma, the PM or the relevant minister to issue the command. 
The army and police are trained precisely to handle disaster and crisis situations and are resourced with ample human skills and assets which could have been deployed within hours before the floods start to escalate.

The Standby Arrangements (Art. 9) requires member states to earmark assets and capabilities that can be readily deployed during a disaster. These would include equipment like boats, rescue operations personnel, medical services, food and basic necessities etc. In terms of food supplies, there is ample available within the vicinity, but all businesses were shuttered down, resulting in looting. 
Through a legal framework, the government could make pre-arrangements for shops to supply food and basic necessities for a reasonable compensation. Time is of essence. The government should not be handing out food packages and relief aid at a ceremony days after the disaster. 
It is stomach wrenching that people can go hungry for days, simply because of poor planning and preparedness. Each time the government announces millions in aid, one wonders how much reaches the people and on time.

In short, the government can easily use the AADMER to establish its national law on disaster management. Ministers and government officials have been involved in ASEAN disaster management initiatives and activities, and yet they don’t see the need to emulate it nationally.

As a model agreement then, I had been invited to share ASEAN experiences in UN meetings, with member states, and countries outside the region. Notably, India invited me to speak at a national consultation on their draft law on disaster management, organised by the Indian armed forces in New Delhi and attended by all key stakeholders across the country.

Prevention, Prevention, Prevention

Prevention (Art. 10) is the best remedy to prevent disasters. In this case, it would relate to environmental and forestry laws. Forest prevents climate change as carbon sinks, and prevents floods as a natural sponge and reservoir.

Yet, lately we have seen massive destruction of forests in the country. In Selangor itself, I have written about the Kuala Langat North Forest (KLNF) reserve flip-flop; to justify court injunction when it was made known that the forest has been excised to a one-ringgit company; and when the government relented, to designate it as a national park under the National Parks Act to offer permanent protection. I have also called out an attempt to tamper with the draft Shah Alam Local Plan 2035 to convert a large natural green lung in Section U9 into mixed development.

Just imagine, if the state government had gone ahead with its plan to convert about 1000 ha of the KLNR low lying peatland swamp into concrete jungle. That will be another Taman Sri Muda in the making. The developer would have harvested his profit, but the people will suffer, and billions of taxpayers' money will be spent on mitigation efforts for perpetuity.  

A national consultation on disaster management

The greatest threat to the country, however, is not the natural or induced disasters, but the politicians from both sides. Already the politicians are bickering to gain political mileage out of the sufferings of the people, but not offering any permanent solution. 
The prime minister is in denial mode, justifying the late response, claiming floods of this scale were not anticipated, and promising millions of taxpayers' money to deflect scrutiny of the government’s weakness. Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader is calling for a RCI, when it is patently clear to everybody where the fault lies, and what lessons can be learnt.

Disasters cause the most damage to any nation. It is essential to have a comprehensive national legal framework to manage disasters.

Recently, much time was wasted in Parliament debating penalty amendments to the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342). But section 24 of the Act already provides a jail term of up to 5 years, and a fine (unlimited, but rightly left to the discretion of the court). Section 25 provides for the DG Health to offer compound up to RM1,000 for compoundable offences, meaning minor offences.

In fact, the worst offence committed so far is by the government itself in organising the Aspirasi Keluarga Malaysia event, intentionally bringing in a huge crowd. The officials responsible should have been charged under Section 24 to face jail term/fine, but were only fined RM1000 in total under Section 25. 
Yet the same government wants to amend the Act to impose heavier compounds on the ordinary rakyat. This unnecessary, double-standard, rule-by-law, draconian amendment should be ditched straight away, rather than to further consider it in the March Parliament session.

In its place, would the government and opposition collaborate under their MOU to pass a Disaster Management Law at that sitting of the Parliament? As I said, the national bill can be easily drafted based on the AADMER which Malaysia adopted to be applicable in the country.

The government should also organise national and state wide consultation with the people, civil society, and businesses to take ownership of the disaster management bill. As the victims and first responders, they know best how to manage a disaster. We need to reverse this paradigm of people and civil society being the first responders to disasters and the government last after the disaster.          

In politicians speak, which the voting public would welcome, an assurance that disasters can be effectively managed in the future, or a draconian infectious diseases law.

The government has lost 90 percent of its goodwill, what more the prime minister in charge shying away from seizing the opportunity on 20 Dec, the last day of Dewan Raykat, to assure the public that matters are under control.

Finally, I sincerely hope the prime minister would not appoint another minister, envoy or advisor to further compound the disaster management mess we are already in.

*Dr Raman Letchumanan, PhD, was director, Environment/Conservation, Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (1993-2000), Head, Environment/Haze/Disaster Management, Asean Secretariat, Jakarta (2000-2014), Senior Fellow, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (2014-2016).*