(Photo by Tanjong Katong Primary School)

Mt Kinabalu quake – a time to grieve, and a time to judge

(Photo by Tanjong Katong Primary School)
(Photo by Tanjong Katong Primary School)

By Howard Lee

An old friend of mine once told me that he climbs mountains to find love.

I did not ask him specifically what he meant, but it was clearly not what we would normally have in mind. There is certainly something magical about reaching new grounds, defeating your fears, destroying your own limits, and find that through the journey and when you reached the peak, the beauty is a sight to behold.

I believe that was partly what Tanjong Katong Primary School wanted its students to experience, and what the students who made the trip this year had wanted for themselves. It is that bit of love that we sought, a connection with the ground that makes us remember our own mortality.

The earthquake at Mt Kinabalu on 5 June certainly brought that sense of mortality back into each of us. Many have perished in the immediate incident, and many more will continue to suffer the after-shocks.

By that, I do not mean the follow-up tremors. Parents have lost children, children have lost mothers or fathers, spouses have lost husbands and wives, friends have lost friends, students have lost teachers, teachers have lost students. The pain they carry might heal, but the scars will remain. There is nothing that can make us completely forget a loved one, and for that, they have our condolences.

They now need our support and encouragement to get through this difficult time, to reconcile with their loss, and hopefully to move on in whatever meaningful way they can.

Unfortunately, there would be those who prefer to start casting blame on anything we can think of. Did the school do the right thing by letting their students go on such a difficult trail? Should they have anticipated the earthquake? Why does the Ministry of Education allow schools to do this? What has the school done to adequately prepare students for the risk? Is a 12-year-old age limit too young for the Via Ferrata route? What were the teachers thinking?

It also does not help that the Malaysian authorities are now considering a review of the safety guidelines for climbers for Mt Kinabalu, including setting a minimum age of 15 and re-looking safety protocols for climbers. It sets the pace for the argument that there has been some serious oversight in letting 12 year-old students with little mountaineering experience undertake such an adventure.

But we need to realise that, painful as these hindsight analyses might be, the reality that stares us in the face is that what happened was an accident among the thousands of adventure trips that went safely up and down Mt Kinabalu. It is the belief that nothing can go wrong – beyond bruised knees, bad infections, muscle tears or broken bones – as long as we follow the rules, and take that little bit of risk, which makes such a trip meaningful for anyone taking it on.

No one could have foreseen an earthquake, although much more could have been done for a better rescue. There will also be a need to implement more safety measures in the instance of another earthquake. Clearly, there is a lot more to contemplate on, but now is probably not the time. The sooner we can help the families involved get past the blame, the sooner we can help them reconcile with their pain.

At the end of it, perhaps we need to realise that the students and teachers did not take on the challenge because they think it is perfectly safe, but because they know it is not.

We need to respect the victims of this tragedy, and the best way is to remember that they did what they did to find love. Nothing we say should ever take that away from them.