“CAN you give me a hand by unloading those stacks of old newspapers from the back of the van while I attend to some urgent matters at home? It will not take long, and if other customers turn up, just tell them to come back later,” requested the middle-aged man soon after I arrived at his recycling centre in Jalan Gangsa, Kedah.
He looked visibly relieved when I happily agreed to help as both his assistants had failed to turn up for work that day.
“Their homes near Pendang had been engulfed by rising floodwaters due to heavy rainfall over the past week,” he said, before riding off on his trusty Honda C70 motorcycle.
This place, which is just a few kilometres from Alor Star city centre, has been my regular haunt for over a decade, and my frequent visits have helped cement a close friendship with the recycling centre owner and his aides.
With their help, I have secured the possession of important historical documents and other printed materials, which would otherwise have been destined for the shredding machine.
Motivated by the thought of past triumphs, I made haste and began rummaging through the things. The items brought out during the first half hour, however, were disappointing.
Although my friend considered newspapers from the 1990s as old, they are not from an era worthwhile for me to collect.
Then, just as I was about to resign myself to fate, the last few stacks that were hidden from sight came into full view. Hoping against hope of finding something better, I “lunged” forward to take a better look.
Lo and behold, they turned out to be near pristine copies of The Straits Times spanning two decades beginning from the late 1950s!
MAJOR FLOODS IN THE PAST
Within minutes, several issues from November 1959 caught my attention. They told of devastating floods that wreaked havoc in the monsoon-lashed east coast, causing ferry services, roads and airports to close indefinitely.
Most badly affected were villages in Kelantan and Terengganu, where basic necessities quickly became short in supply.
The reports on events that took place more than six decades ago said that villagers from Tasek, Burok and Chelong in Besut area had to be evacuated when floodwaters rose beyond 2.1m.
Soon after, the Besut flood relief committee swung into action by distributing rice, sugar and other provisions to the affected families.
At the same time, rice and flour were despatched by boat to Kampung Naga Ibu and Kuala Jambu at the Thai-Malayan border about 30m from Tumpat after a distress call was sent out for supplies.
In Terengganu, rice and milk were also rushed to Kampung Pulau Rusa, an isolated village nearly 50km from the state capital, where some two dozen families with young children were facing food shortages.
Making matters worse, the severe inundation and the resulting swift currents had cut the Kuala Terengganu-Kota Baru trunk road in several places and swept away key wooden bridges.
With the Telaga Batin airstrip (now Sultan Mahmud Airport) under 0.6m of fast rising water, air services to the eastern seaboard were cancelled for nearly a week, and both states had to go without newspapers throughout that duration.
Delving deeper into the huge cache of printed material with gusto, it quickly became obvious that floods had been an annual occurrence in this country during the last two months of the year.
While the effect was usually relatively tame, the massive inundation that began during the last few days of 1966 was particularly severe and affected many other states, apart from Kelantan and Terengganu.
The disaster was made more painful for the public as the period coincided with Christmas celebrations and Ramadan.
Conditions deteriorated so rapidly and the devastation was so bad that the world stood up and took notice.
The prime minister of India at that time, Indira Gandhi, cabled a message to her Malaysian counterpart, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, voicing concern and sympathy on Jan 8, 1967.
Her communique, which was conveyed by Indian High Commissioner Mustafa Kamil Kidwal, who happened to be spending the weekend with Tunku Abdul Rahman at his home in Alor Star, read: “We have heard with distress the news of the disastrous floods that have hit large parts of Malaysia. On behalf of the government of India, I send you and the affected people our heartfelt sympathy.”
While the situation in the flood stricken states in Peninsular Malaysia began to improve gradually towards the middle of January 1967, Tunku Abdul Rahman took to the airwaves and urged Malaysians from all walks of life to contribute generously to the National Disaster Relief Fund, which had snowballed to more than RM300,000.
During the same telephone interview with Radio Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman pledged that the federal government would do its best to assist to flood victims and said that he would visit the affected areas soon.
He voiced regret that thousands of victims had to endure hardship during the fast approaching Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
He assured Malaysians that his deputy, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, was in constant contact to supplying him with the latest reports on the situation deep into the wee hours each day.
As Tunku Abdul Rahman and his cabinet ministers laboured tirelessly to mitigate the effects of the flood, servicemen from the Malay Regiment, Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy also chipped in.
The RMAF fleet comprising helicopters, Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneer transport planes and Handley Page Dart Herald turboprop aircraft were stationed in the affected states for general relief work.
The RAF, on its part, sent two Beverley transport aircraft to Kota Baru with two amphibious vehicles to bolster the efforts of two other similar aircraft from the 34th Squadron, which had been flying round-the-clock missions between Kuala Lumpur and Dong, one of the worst hit regions in Kedah.
At the same time, four Whirlwind helicopters from the 103rd Squadron carried nearly 25 tonnes of rations to flood-affected villages, including those in Perlis.
The Royal Navy’s 22,000-tonne HMS Bulwark was sent to the waters off Terengganu.
There, eight of its heavy-lifting twin-engine helicopters were engaged in transporting rice to villages cut off by floodwaters. The commando ship was equipped with 20 Wessex helicopters, each capable of lifting 15 men or their equivalent weight in supplies.
While marveling at the well-organised and concerted effort from all segments of the civil service during the 1967 floods, I learnt from a feature article in one of the later issues that flood relief efforts were not as systematic in the distant past, four decades earlier to be exact.
KUALA LUMPUR UNDERWATER
That interesting article focused on the Great Flood of 1926 as a classic case in point.
According to the report, the colonial officials in Kuala Lumpur had no idea of the destruction the remaining days of that year would bring when festive celebrations drew to a close on Christmas night 1926.
Over the next 2½ days, rain fell on the city unceasingly. By the third day, the press gave expression of fear that with parts of the town already inundated, rising river levels would trigger a serious disaster.
The prognosis proved true within a day as by then, the government offices in Jalan Raja were under a metre of water and people had to commute to work in sampan, rickshaws and bullock carts.
Floodwaters subsided a little by the morning of Dec 30, 1926, but the brief reprieve proved to be a false dawn as levels began rising again by noon that same day.
The padang (field), which was dry that morning, was once again underwater and the flood was rapidly rising from all sides.
The record-breaking inundation saw 1.8m-deep waters in many parts of the city, and that made communications difficult.
All rail services passing north out of Kuala Lumpur were suspended, affecting mail, passengers and freight.
The Kwong Siew Wooi Koon Association came to the rescue of sixty stranded passengers, who were traveling third-class from Singapore to Ipoh, and lacking funds for overnight accommodation and sustenance.
In terms of providing assistance, the colonial government at that time was caught flat-footed as it was preoccupied with advancing development policies.
Although the heavy rainfall within a short period was clearly a major causal factor, it was beyond doubt that a combination of localised factors like land transformation, neglect of water courses and poor hydraulic governance exacerbated the effects.
Due to the lack of preparedness, most of the relief efforts had to be provided by well-meaning individuals and private associations.
In Port Swettenham (today Port Klang), civic-conscious boat owners voluntarily placed their vessels and crew at the government’s disposal until the harbour master could detail government launches to start distributing aid.
In less than six hours after a distress call was received, six private launches were transported west by rail to support the relief effort.
Apart from Kuala Lumpur, the Great Flood of 1926 entailed severe inundations that affected large proportions of rural peninsula north of Kuala Lumpur, including Selangor, Perak, Pahang and Kelantan.
The situation was devastating in Kelantan’s Kuala Reman, where it was reported that the raging floodwaters there held such strength that jungle trees brought down were stripped of all branches and bark, leaving bare trunks, while human remains were reduced to nearly bare skeletons with the flesh removed by severe abrasion.
The sight at the rubber estates were ghastly — bear, deer and tiger carcasses strewn all over the place.
At the same time, the private railway that linked the plantations to mines in Sungai Lembing, Pahang. was partially washed away, and trains had to be dug out of the mud after the water subsided.
While setting aside the precious newspapers that will go a long way in boosting knowledge of our nation’s history, it crossed my mind that floods could touch all aspects of life, regardless of when and where they happened.
The ecological, social, and political ramifications are extensive and have far reaching effects. Apart from affecting the livelihood of those affected, severe inundation have the power to cause shifts in focus on the local industry.
Prior to the mid-1920s, rattan was such an important domestic building material that the colonial forest department began taking steps to expand the supply chain of this customary trade and give it a more commercial flavour.
The Great Flood of 1926, however, destroyed all rattan stockpiles and, with competition from other natural building materials, especially tropical hard wood, the British ceased making significant investments in that industry. Instead, focus was given to the more sustainable jelutong and meranti products.
Returning thoughts to the present day, it is admittedly true that despite all the costly mitigation schemes enacted over the years to reduce the effect of flooding, they do not always prove to be effective.
Compared with yesteryears, the problem is even more pressing for today’s administrators due to the effects of climate change and rapidly rising sea levels.
However, all is not lost as we should take heart by looking at how past governments dealt with this type of disaster.
By assessing the strengths and weaknesses of strategies employed back then, it is possible to learn from past errors and turn them into successes for the future.