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Sunday January 23, 2011

Honouring ordinary heroes

In the face of danger, one fights back or takes flight. But the brave soul puts others before self.

IMAGINE you are caught in a sinking ship in the middle of the South China Sea. Chaos breaks out as everyone grabs the limited life jackets at hand, or anything that can possibly float. In that life and death situation, the most common response would probably be to save your own life.

Not so for Krisnamoorthy Sandaran, the Klang-born lad who made headlines in 2007 when he saved 18 people, seven of them children, from the Seagull Express II that was heading for Pulau Tioman. The ill-fated ferry, overloaded with holiday-makers, caught fire and sank. Seven people died in the tragedy.

At that crucial moment, Krisnamoorthy, who turns 23 this year, didn’t stop to consider “fight or flight”, the instinctive response crucial for self-preservation. All he knew was that people around him were drowning and he had to save them.

He jumped into the deep waters and kept pulling out one person after another, and handing them to outreached hands on lifeboats.

The young man’s selfless act has won him many accolades, the most recent being the Gold Medal For Civilian Bravery (Asia) by the Foundation for Civilian Bravery in Sri Lanka.

Krisnamoorthy received his prize in Colombo at the 17th Annual National Civilian Bravery Awards Ceremony 2010, held at the Mihilaka Medura of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH). It was officiated by the High Commissioner of Malaysia to Sri Lanka, Datuk Rosli Ismail.

This annual event commemorates the ordinary person who risks his/her life to save others. Besides Krisnamoorthy, six others were awarded, including 17-year-old Wasana Sanjjeewa from Galle, who saved over 200 students by helping to evacuate them during a landslide, H. Anura, a disabled police constable who saved a woman from drowning, and B.H. Jayanthi Cruise, a farmer who saved a mother and her child from attack by a cow gone berserk.

Each of these winners received a medal, certificate and a small cash prize from the Sri Lanka Buddhist Temple, Kuala Lumpur. Although the material value may not be high, the award serves to recognise the oft-overlooked bravery of the man in the street.

“The world sits up when someone rich and famous does a kind or brave deed. But when ordinary or poor people do something commendable, no one seems to bother,” says Kasun Philip Chandraratne, founder and president of the Sri Lanka Foundation for Civilian Bravery.

A lawyer by profession, Chandraratne, 62, was first inspired to do something to honour the brave commoner two decades ago, when he chanced upon an article titled Don’t let my father die, in the March 1990 issue of Reader’s Digest.

»When ordinary or poor people do something commendable, no one seems to bother«KASUN CHANDRARATNE

This sentence – “‘All that stood between Kim Cooke and certain death was the daring bravery of his nine-year-old daughter” – captured his imagination, especially when the brave girl in the story was later selected as one of America’s 10 young heroes and received an award from Ronald Reagan, the-then president.

Fired up to have the same kind of recognition for fellow Sri Lankans who were behind spontaneous acts of bravery, Chandraratne wrote to the Heroes Association of the United States, which then connected him to the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

At his request, the latter provided him a full set of materials: a photo of the Carnegie medal, a sample of the certificate, its 75th anniversary report and the latest press release.

Armed with these, Chandraratne proceeded to study the legal enactments of associations in Sri Lanka and drafted a legislation titled the President’s Trust for Civilian Bravery. After mailing it to the president’s secretariat, he eagerly awaited a reply.

When it came, with an appointment to meet an officer nine days later, he was jubilant. However, the meeting was a big letdown: the government officers could not understand why he felt so strongly about civilian bravery because Sri Lanka was at the height of civil unrest then, and the value placed on human life was low.

Undaunted, Chandraratne wrote to the Ministry of Defence, with the same request for government sponsorship. Again the answer was no; he could not even find someone who understood his cause.

That was when he decided to set up a trust in 1993. Roping in five friends as members, he started searching for ordinary folks who had done extraordinary deeds, who would be given awards at an annual ceremony.

The first award was given posthumously to a ferryman who had worked at the seaside resort of Kaluatra. He saved five people when his ferry, the Ukwatta, capsized and sank. While attempting to save the sixth person, he encountered difficulties and drowned.

To date, about 300 people have been awarded medals for various acts of bravery. Three years ago, a group of awardees themselves came together to form the Sri Lankan Association for Civilian Bravery. Currently, the association has 125 members.

In 2009, Chandraratne’s efforts finally bore fruit when the Foundation for Civilian Bravery was established under his country’s Parliament Act No 4. Today, the non-profit foundation continues to receive recognition and endorsement from local and international associations, among them the Carnegie Hero Fund.

Having come so far, Chandraratne says it’s still a challenge getting sponsors who believe in the same cause.

Kasun Chandraratne (right) and S.M.J. Senarathne, former secretary of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Posts, Telecommunication and Information, lighting the customary lamp that symbolises the fire of bravery. Datuk Rosli Ismail is second from right.

The award ceremony I attended last year was held in a humble, sparsely-decorated wing of the imposing Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, with only a small banner announcing the event.

In stark contrast, large fanciful bunting surrounded the gardens and the main conference hall, where the prestigious 11th International Indian Film Awards ceremony was being held. There was tight security around the red carpet and a lavishly decorated zone where the Bollywood stars had converged to recognise the best in the industry.

Chandraratne attributes the lack of support to the wide disparity between the haves and have-nots.

“The rich and famous are uncomfortable when we place ordinary people on a pedestal and recognise them as heroes. It’s like a social revolution,” he explains.

The medals the foundation gives out are made of real gold, silver and precious stones. In a country where most people are struggling to make ends meet, do the medals end up being sold for cash?

Surprisingly, not as much as expected, says Chandraratne, who has authored a book titled Civilian Bravery – Road Map for world peace and life sustenance.

“It takes a civilised society to see the value of these medals beyond dollars and cents. The honour and pride of being awarded is priceless. No one would want to part with that.”

Which is more challenging – getting sponsors or looking for awardees?

“Neither. It’s meeting expectations that’s tough,” Chandratatne adds.

In the initial years, no one complained when the annual ceremonies were held on a small scale. In recent years, however, he feels increasingly pressured to hold them on a grander scale, at larger venues, and with more and better prizes.

Some of these problems are self-inflicted, he admits. As the not-for-profit foundation grows in stature, his ambitions grow in tandem, sometimes to his peril because of the lack of support in terms of finance and human resources.

But Chandraratne counts himself fortunate to get overseas volunteers to help out with website development, emceeing, publicity and event management. He also has moral support from established international organisations dedicated to civilian bravery, such as the Carnegie Hero Trust Fund Commission and Victoria Cross and George Cross Association.

Wasana Sanjjeewa from Galle is all smiles as he chats with his school principal, Nihal Gurusinghe. Wasana received the Student Award for Bravery for saving over 200 students from a landslide that destroyed part of his school.

“I learnt a lot from them. They always respond to my queries on how to improve the foundation and I turn to them every time I face a problem.”

For instance, he was cautioned about controversial cases of heroism, such as someone saving a rape victim. In this part of the world where it is hard to find witnesses to convict rapists and rape victims are often further victimised by society, giving an award to someone who has saved a rape victim may result in complicated reactions.

He was also advised not to give attractive cash prizes to awardees because it might open the gate to various abuses, such as faking a brave deed, in collaboration with an accompliced as the “victim”.

Where does he find potential awardees and how does he certify a genuine act of bravery?

“Finding them is easy,”Chandraratne says. Throughout the year, his team peruses news reports of brave deeds by civilians. He also places small advertisements asking for nominations, and sends letters to the government sectors, to be distributed to village officers, on the awards.

The verification process is slightly more tedious. A nominee is first notified by mail, together with the names of witnesses, district police officers and, if necessary, the priest of the local temple or church.

Those who fulfil the basic criteria then attend an interview. From there, shortlisted candidates will be reviewed by a retired Supreme Court judge and senior chartered accountant, President Counsel and a professor in sociology.

Finally, all the awardees sign a declaration that all the relevant information about them is true and, if found to be otherwise, their award may be revoked.

More men have been awarded, Chandraratne says, not because they are any braver than the fairer sex but because brave acts by women are seldom reported.

After meeting so many brave hearts, who has impressed him the most?

Chandraratne recounts an incident involving a Tamil labourer who saved two children from a burning house.

“His story was very touching. After running into the house, he wanted to turn back because the big flames terrified him. But he thought to himself, ‘Those could have been my children.’ So he dashed into the fire and brought the crying children out to safety.”

Have the awards made any difference in the lives of the recipients in the last 18 years?

“They feel happy about the recognition, although all we’ve done is to honour their bravery. I cannot claim that we have been able to change their lives ... that’s a tall order.”

However, he hopes this will change with the formation of the Sri Lankan Association for Civilian Bravery, which is aimed at helping awardees in their daily lives. Most of them have only simple requests, such as getting a decent job or medical assistance.

Chandraratne hopes that the foundation will be a catalyst in the making of an Asian and World Gold Medal for Civilian Bravery. But this requires funds, which he hopes will come in once people become more conscious about the value of human life.

“We are still in a state of infancy compared to century-old associations such as the Australian, Canadian and UK Royal Humane Societies. But we’ve got to start somewhere, no matter how small,” he adds.

Below are various international organisations dedicated to civilian bravery:

·The Royal Humane Society of UK, Carnegie Hero Fund Trust, United Kingdom

· The Royal Canadian Humane Association, Canada

·The Royal Humane Society of Australasia Inc, Royal Humane Society of New South Wales, Australia

·Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, the United States

·Carnegiestiftelsen Sweden, Sweden

·Godfrey Phillips National Bravery Awards, India

· Foundation for Civilian Bravery, Sri Lanka

The Star will be starting a series on Malaysian Heroes soon. If you know of someone who is a hero, please tell us. We are looking for ordinary Malaysians who are doing, or have done, something extraordinary in their everyday lives, like helping others in need or championing a cause for the greater good of society.

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