THEY say there are just three kinds of responses when bad things happen. The first is to sit back, watch and feel helpless. The second would be to feel bad about it and ponder over the meaning of it all.
The third type is one that involves a very small but select group of people. These are the ones who realise that they can actually do something to make it better.
These are the true heroes, the ones who turn adversity into moments of their finest hour.
This week, I wish to showcase the achievement of the ordinary Malaysian hero – the humble, altruistic volunteer blessed with an intent to relieve another human’s suffering. I am talking about relief workers, first responders and emergency response teams.
Christmas and New Year have passed, yet the manifestation of Malaysian noblesse oblige remains strong and compelling. The severe flooding of vast areas of our country, bringing about untold suffering to thousands of people, had ignited the empathetic fire in our bellies.
Sometimes it takes tragedies to remind us to look beyond colour, caste or creed.
My first experience of disaster relief came on Dec 11, 1993. I lived close to the Highland Towers then. Upon first news that an entire apartment block had collapsed and trapped people, everyone simply rushed to the scene.
Many of us were simply overwhelmed by the scale of the carnage. None of us were doctors, engineers or fire and rescue personnel. Some people simply used their bare hands to dig out the mud and rubble. Others used spades to help flatten road surfaces for rescue vehicles.
That event was my Great Awakening. It was almost spiritual, a need so strong, it compelled us to simply drop everything and go there. To do what we can so that others may live.
I witnessed the same during the 2004 tsunami (December again) where Malaysians from all walks of life pooled their time, resources and even adrenalin to assist anyone and everyone.
For the third time in December, we were (in a morbid sense) fortunate to the see the finest among Malaysians truly united again. They sent team after team to the east coast, helping anyone and everyone whose hopes had been inundated by the weak and shallow response of our own government.
For once, unity was not about our superficial love of teh tarik or roti canai. It wasn’t about singing the praises of those cheesy 1Malaysia campaigns or wearing traditional attire and linking arms.
The unity this time was about our own mortality. The fact that rich or poor, Malay, Chinese, Indian or “lain-lain”, we still shed the same blood. The same fate can happen to anyone.
What we saw was a comprehensive disaster response. There were clear, people-led measures to contain its effects, restore order and most significantly, to reestablish community normalcy.
There were many relief agencies and organisations and one particular one that caught my eye is MIMPA or the Malaysian Integrated Medical Professionals Associations. Relatively new since its inception, the organisation which had initially focused on public health issues (e.g. to minimise vector-borne diseases) had since gained accolades for its disaster and contingency response strategies.
Not unlike the global outfit Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), MIMPA promises to deliver continuous humanitarian aid and relief work to all Malaysians, an expansion from its original work on endemic diseases.
The current president, Dr Dhesi Baha Raja, describes the rationale behind MIMPA: That everyone has the inherent right to medical care regardless of race, religion or political affiliation and most importantly, that these rights are not confined to national or state borders.
This commitment is clearly demonstrated in MIMPA’s work that ranged from Kota Baru to Kota Belud, boasting a reach that surpasses some well-funded agencies. Each effort started with tactical guidance within the immediate vicinity of the disaster site, followed by strategic measures to contain and alleviate the adverse outcomes.
So what makes efficiency and expediency a core feature of MIMPA’s work? Perhaps the simple fact that it remains independent of any political or religious leaning! This ensures that there are no tensions between state-provided services and volunteers, no conflict of interest and no issues concerning jurisdiction.
In essence, MIMPA complements the government’s efforts in the least intrusive manner and ensures that the mission objective remains the focus.
Secondly, the fact that MIMPA has managed to avoid the elitist tag associated with some organisations that define membership in terms of professional discipline alone. Although leadership of relief organisations will undoubtedly require medical personnel to determine the nature of the humanitarian emergency, there are also many non-medical volunteers.
Sufficient numbers of logisticians are equally important, as evident in the intense delivery of food, medicines and other essentials during the floods. Even civil engineers are able to serve actively, say to rig up temporary structures or bridges for rescuers.
MIMPA also relies heavily on cyber systems in addition to physical aid. The use of the latest cyber apps and elaborate mathematical models assist first responders to locate survivors quickly.
Accurate and expedient communication is the key to prevent unnecessary escalation of events from the point at which the immediate threat to human life subsides and recovery begins. The goal is to restore the affected areas back to self-sustenance for the affected communities themselves to bring attain normalcy in the soonest.
So what can Malaysians do to complement a people organisation like MIMPA, which as John F. Kennedy said, is truly “by the people and for the people”?
The answer is simply, to lend a helping hand. No effort is too big or too small, be it a sizeable amount of funding or simply to sacrifice a Sunday morning to pack boxes.
Because as the former president of Medicins Sans Frontiers said, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, “We are not sure if efforts can always save lives but we know that inaction can certainly kill”.
- The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.