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A man sits on the bonnet of a car as he waits to be evacuated by a rescue team in Shah Alam, Selangor, on December 20 after Malaysia experienced some of its worst flooding in years. Photo: AFP

Malaysian PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s government under fire over slow response to worst floods in recent memory

  • At least 10 people have died and tens of thousands are displaced after the heaviest flooding in years hit Selangor, the country’s most industrialised region
  • Public anger mounted after coalition partners Bersatu and Umno continued with their annual meetings while volunteers stepped in to rescue affected people
The Malaysian government is facing public pressure over its initially languid response to the country’s worst floods in recent memory, with ordinary citizens and activists stepping in to provide aid as the number of people displaced by the disaster rose above 60,000.
Tens of thousands of people have been rescued by civilian volunteers as well as the army, police and other government agencies since the floods began on Friday.

Local media said at least 10 people have died, with eight reported missing.

The government described the flooding as “something beyond expectations” and a once-in-a-century occurrence. Officials said they are also watching out for a possible surge in Covid-19 cases in temporary shelters.

An aerial view shows a flooded area near the town of Linggi, Malaysia, on December 20. Photo: DPA

Manufacturing firms meanwhile are expecting major losses following damage to property and suspended operations as workers are stranded at home.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob over the weekend ordered the military and police to pour more resources into the rescue effort, which has hastened operations.

The government has also pledged an initial 100 million ringgit (US$23.6 million) for reconstruction efforts. In addition, the prime minister said each flood-hit household would receive 1,000 ringgit (US$236).

On social media, however, Ismail Sabri has endured heavy fire for being slow to take decisive action in what has become the biggest crisis he has faced since becoming prime minister in August.

Public anger has also centred around the decision by two of the biggest political parties in the ruling coalition to proceed with their annual meetings despite the disaster.

A man walks past cars damaged in flooding in Kuala Langat, 15km from Kuala Lumpur. Photo: EPA-EFE

One of the parties, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, ended its meeting in downtown Kuala Lumpur late on Saturday with fireworks – as water levels were dramatically rising in the commercial hub and surrounding Selangor, the country’s most industrialised region.

Ismail Sabri, leader of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), drew flak for holding his first press conference on the situation at 11pm on Saturday night, after the conclusion of his party’s annual meeting.

The 61-year-old prime minister and key lieutenants visited some of the worst-affected areas on Sunday.

But that too added to frustrations, with civilian volunteers and government critics lamenting that the politicians appeared to be using the flooding as a public relations exercise rather than seek to quickly deal with the situation. The ministers touring the disaster sites were accompanied by sizeable entourages and photographers.

Thousands displaced after floods in Malaysia

Charles Santiago, an opposition lawmaker for the seat of Klang in Selangor – one of the hardest hit areas – said in a radio interview on Monday that the federal government’s response until now had been “highly inadequate” and “weak”.

Characterising the disaster as the “worst flood in 50 years”, Santiago said authorities could have fared better by giving advance warning to residents, especially those in areas such as Klang – which are usually not severely affected by floods during the northeast monsoon.

“If you look at other countries, [there would be] a notice already out 48 or 56 hours before the rainfall, people are already told there is going to be a huge rain, be prepared, there will be floods, this is what you need to do,” Santiago told BFM’s Morning Brief.

“But nothing of that happened because I think the authorities did not anticipate a huge rainfall,” he said, adding that the disaster was a signal that the drainage system in the country’s main industrial heartland, the Klang Valley, needed to be upgraded.

Rescue officials evacuate people in a boat in Shah Alam, Selangor, on December 20. Photo: AFP

Malaysia is often hard hit by floods during the November-December period, and citizens in states such as Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang have experience dealing with the disasters.

That is not the case in the heavily populated Klang Valley – comprising Kuala Lumpur and some parts of Selangor – where the deadliest flooding was back in 1971, when at least 32 people were killed and 180,000 were displaced. In 2014, Peninsular Malaysia experienced its worst flooding in decades, with 118,000 people displaced.

The official response to the latest floods was a “disaster of epic proportions by those who were meant to lead”, said Farhan Akmal, a local photographer who was among the volunteers using kayaks to deliver aid and reach those stranded in their homes.

“I felt a mix of emotions – disappointment, hope, anger and fear – as I spent Sunday where I least expected to be,” Farhan told This Week in Asia.

Damaged cars and debris following the floods in Sg Lui village, Malaysia. Photo: DPA

On Sunday night, Farhan and others tried to use their kayaks to reach the neighbourhood of Taman Sri Muda in Selangor, but were unable to as the floodwater remained high.

“What disappointed us the most was the lack of coordination and efforts from the authorities,” said Farhan, adding that up until nearly midnight on Sunday only volunteers had been delivering aid to Taman Sri Muda. Among those rescued by Farhan and his group was a mother who had undergone a Caesarean operation just three days beforehand, and her infant.

The group also rescued a grandmother, her daughter and her two grandchildren who had clung onto the metallic structure of a bus stop overnight after being trapped there while attempting to reach higher ground.

Vehicles drive on road damaged by flooding in Kuala Langat, near Kuala Lumpur. Photo: EPA-EFE

Another civilian rescuer who spoke to This Week in Asia by telephone from Taman Sri Muda said he was deeply frustrated by the slow response of government agencies.

“What infuriated me was the slow response. The civil defence force only arrived this morning, three days after [the floods worsened] and are only now putting together the nuts and bolts of their boats while people are dying in the area,” he said.

Tim Anthony, a restaurateur who was coordinating a group of civilian rescuers on kayaks, said he was perplexed by the remarks from some officials.


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A senior official from the Selangor drainage agency had told him that some of the people in the waterlogged areas were “not asking to be rescued but just wanted food”.

That was at odds with what the volunteers were seeing on the ground, Anthony said, adding that the scenes “were like a Hollywood movie [with] people crying out asking for help but it was pitch dark so we could not see them”.

In a Facebook post on Monday afternoon, Ismail Sabri said authorities had used 41 boats and 16 lorries to rescue residents stranded in Taman Sri Muda. “I understand the people’s concerns for those still stranded and I must emphasise that rescue efforts are being intensified,” he said.