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Floods and politicking – which hits worse?

Howard Lee

You know the recent floods are mighty serious when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew weighs in on it.

On 22 July, Today quoted him as saying: “…whatever we do when we get extraordinary rains like we had recently, no amount of engineering can prevent flooding… Singaporeans expect everything to be perfect, which we try to do. But some things are beyond (that) – it’s is an act of God, unless you want to lose half the roads and have canals.”

We can only speculate if MM Lee is aware of the gravity of his statement. By publicly declaring that the floods are an act of God, Singapore's most senior statesman has effectively provided the blanket dismissal of any monetary claims to be made by citizens and businesses affected by the floods, which could have been leveled against insurance companies and even the Public Utilities Board. Those affected are now pretty much on their own, by MM Lee’s inconclusive definition, since there is still no clear indication of on the cause of all the flood incidents to date.

Indeed, the “act of God” statement was challenged immediately. Today carried three letters in its Voices section on 22 July, each with a different suggestion on possible solutions to the flooding. The nation seems more interested in solving the flood problem than MM himself, who have so far only managed this shrug of a shoulder.

As my old geography teacher would say, while flooding is a natural occurrence, it becomes a disaster only when it crosses the path of human development. In its history, humanity’s strife has been less about preventing natural disasters from occurring, but protecting lives and livelihood from these occurrences.

MM Lee’s warning about losing roads to canals (forget the irony that, not so long ago, for a brief period, part of Orchard Road became a canal) felt more like the same extreme-ends ultimatums that Singaporeans have been constantly fed with – bear with the floods, or walk to work everyday. Perhaps it is not something for a man in his position, but the statement hardly reflected any imagination for the technical feats we can possible deploy to save lives and livelihood.

In truth, it would cost us seriously as a nation to protect us from floods, but there is really no way to defer this cost. The floods are no longer affecting our residential areas, but our central business district. Our efficient, business-as-usual, 24/7 reputation is at stake, and the longer term effect it had on our economy needs to be factored in the sums.

For the moment, the floods seem to have ebbed, but with the odd weather patterns that are knocking at our doorstep, there can be no telling when we will have to face this again. It would be more sensible for us to see it as necessary expenditure. We are faced with the reality of three options - major drainage upgrading, a comprehensive compensation plan for present and future victims to ensure a swift return to normalcy, or suffer the long term blow to the economy.

Sadly, all that seems to be the last thing on the minds of our politicians. Today reported on 20 July that 11 Members of Parliament (although the official record seems to indicate seven) raised queries about the floods, to which the Environment Minister replied with a to-do list for PUB, capped with an endnote that PUB is not the only one responsible, but residents and businesses also need to play a part to ensure that they are warned about floods and are adequately prepared to respond.

Flooding started on 16 June, and these concerns are now raised in Parliament? We should also note that the first to face public outcry was the CEO of PUB – not the Environment Minister or the MPs of the affected areas. And if these MPs have been busy on the ground helping their residents or canvassing for disaster funds since then, the media must have been really respectful of their private endeavours, since there was no coverage on them. Just as the floods are ebbing, another flood of politicians and their comments enter the fray. And of course, MM Lee deals the finishing touch. Should we ask why?

For lack of a better word, it is politicking. Votes count, and showing concern for citizens earns brownie points, even if that concern is nothing more than hand-wringing from a safe tower. So does showing a solid action plan, never mind that the plan is not based on a clearly defined problem to solve. Indeed, ambiguity helps to diffuse attention and provides space for maneuvering should the situation repeat itself. And of course, managing expectations, for the benefit of similar situations in the future, is best done out of the heat of the crisis.

Could the need for an ambiguous problem be the reason for the retraction of earlier claims about debris causing the 16 June Orchard Road flood, and that no conclusions were drawn for more recent floods? You are entitled to have your own take on that.

So, as a national issue, the floods are bigger than we thought. For the population and particularly those affected, this is the time to muster another level of determination, for odd weather seems here to stay and, by the rhetoric thrown around, most significantly by MM Lee’s decree, we evidently should not depend on our politicians to provide assistance, must less shield us from it.

And as for our politicians, God bless them all. This is a time when Singaporeans, weaned off the forced diet of ambiguous answers and dramatic ultimatums, or perhaps just plain tired of popularity posturing, will question the sincerity of every action and word. Failure to realise that might not lead to failure at the polls (feel free to wonder why), but it will surely lead to a lowering of confidence, and by unfair default, a growing impatience with the government agencies tasked to deliver the related public service.