Sunday, June 7, 2015

What I have learned from the Sabah earthquake tragedy

It was supposed to be a celebratory weekend, with Singapore hosting the SEA Games. Then out of the blue, horrifying news emerged that a team of Tanjong Katong Primary kids with their teachers was trapped at Mount Kinabalu when an earthquake hit Sabah.

I felt heart sick at the news, especially when updates came in on the rising death toll. What a terrible, terrible tragedy. As it stands now, six students and one teacher have lost their lives. Tomorrow has also been declared a Day of National Remembrance in sympathy and support of the families who have lost their loved ones.

But even as condolences poured out for the victims and their families, there have been infuriating comments by netizens who are baying for MOE or the school's blood with righteous indignation, saying "they have to be accountable", also they need to "learn from this".

It made my blood boil. Why is it there are always folks who deem it necessary to open their mouths and say things that have no value to anyone whatsoever? This was an ACCIDENT. I capitalise it cos some people seem to have trouble understanding the meaning of the word. An appalling, tragic accident but an accident nonetheless. Accidents can happen anywhere, anytime. They are unforeseen.

This was not a case of negligence. Many have climbed the same route on Mount K before this group (yes, even kids) for years, without incident. It's considered challenging but not dangerous. An earthquake is something out of the ordinary. In the Borneo region, earthquakes aren't even that common. There was no reason to suspect that anything out of the ordinary would happen on this trip.

What disgusts me is that some people just have the need to blame others when something bad happens. Somebody must pay! (Worse still are those who use incidents as simply another opportunity to take pot shots at the gahmen). Newsflash: bad things do happen to good people. All the time. It often doesn't make sense and it doesn't mean it's necessarily somebody's fault. All that group did wrong was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I think MOE, especially Minister Heng Swee Keat, has handled the situation with sensitivity and promptness. Much appreciation and admiration also go to the Sabah mountain guides who risked their own lives to save others, unlike some allegations of the ineptness of the Malaysian government

Photo: Vee Jun Dumlao
Some people are saying the incident was preventable and why should 12 year olds have to go to Mount K. I can understand that people are more upset cos it's kids. There's something about young lives cut short that's especially tragic and heart-wrenching. But behind the sentiment that we shouldn't allow kids to go to Mount K is the belief that I find more and more prevalent among Singaporean parents these days -  that we should shield our kids from anything that has even the remotest possibility of danger.

If we follow this argument, there will be no end because what one person considers "potentially dangerous" can differ drastically from the next. Go South Korea can get Mers. Go Middle East got civil unrest. Fly over Ukraine can get shot down. Go to NZ, Japan or China can have earthquakes. Maybe that means we shouldn't go overseas. But wait, my kid can also get hurt at Outward Bound School! Go camping can get dehydrated because not used to the heat. Or get hurt by wild boar. Ok ok, maybe no need to teach 12-year-olds leadership skills? Just go to school and back (and maybe tuition centre). But leave the house also can get knocked down by crazy drunk driver! (And anyway go to school also quite inconvenient these days. Must go all the way to Mount Sinai leh. MOE so one kind.) Maybe just stay home is best. Home-school lor. Wait a minute, stay at home also can have danger. Can get scalded by hot water, cut by sharp knives, suffocated by leaky gas pipes, etc. How liddat??

Ok, I may be exaggerating but you get my drift. At what point do we stop treating our children like they are made of glass? If parents feel that every accident is a justifiable reason to force the authorities' hand, very soon, we will be stunting our children's life experiences by curbing their every movement. As a result, we will be bringing up individuals who are completely incapable of functioning in society, let alone be a contributing member. As I've said before, if our entire life's goal is to not let anything happen to our kids, well...nothing ever will. We can't protect our children from every single "what if".

Everyone has their own risk appetite. If you really feel uncomfortable about letting your child go on an expedition, by all means, don't give permission. That's your right. But please don't strongarm MOE into mandating that every other parent should toe the line that you set. Here, a mum of an ex-TKPS student speaks up on the value of the Mount K expedition.

Back to the topic at hand, which is the responses to the incident. In a crisis, the most valuable people are those who offer help, offer support and if not, at least offer prayers. Not the ones who point fingers and think they are so brilliant cos they speak with the benefit of hindsight. These contribute nothing and make a difficult situation worse. Furthermore, I suspect many of these empty vessels are those who in a crisis, would be the least likely to help others. The ones who talk the most tend to do the least.

How we choose to respond to any situation is up to us. If there's something I "learned" from this episode, it's that challenging times reveal true characters. I cannot even imagine the pain the parents of the lost ones must be going through. The least we can do is show our solidarity and grieve with them. May we show ourselves to have a gracious heart.


Zen Leow said...

Very well written article and all your points reflects how I feel as well about this tragedy as well as the foul mouth individuals that spoke nonsense. Sadly, my mum was one of those who made these sort of ridiculous comments and I had to tell her to stop.

John Kuah said...

I don't see why we should take such extreme positions on the matter. You're right to say this was an accident and thus, was unforeseen. I also agree that MOE and the broader government have handled the situation well. However, this does not mean we should then simply just give the programme our full support. There might still be learning points that can be acted on despite the laudable efforts of those involved.

As an active outdoor sports enthusiast myself, I still have qualms about sending children to Mt Kinabalu. I'm not saying we should shield them from all dangers or even halt such programmes completely. This would be too extreme and harmful to nurturing interest in the sports I love. But Mt Kinabalu is one of the highest peaks in Southeast Asia and due to the mere fact of its height and the terrain, there are higher risks than other shorter mountains. Just because primary school students are physically capable of climbing such a tall peak does not mean they have the full maturity to react in the event of an emergency (e.g. hypothermia might be an issue even without a natural disaster, due to the altitude). Having a large number of teachers and guides obviously reduces such risk since they can direct students on what to do (as in the current situation). But the maturity and experience of each individual climber is still an important factor that may be critical to survival in a life-threatening situation.

When I got my start in trekking at 15 yrs old, I did so on mountains a fraction of the height of Kinabalu (e.g. Mt Ophir) before working my way up gradually to higher summits. Through each progressive challenge I learned new lessons on how to handle myself in the outdoor environment. The TKPS kids would not have had the benefit of such a learning curve and exposure. Also, while I sympathise with the aims of TKPS' Omega Challenge, I question why there is a need to aim for the "highest" peak when there are so many challenging peaks around that lack similar risks. For example, Gunung Tahan on Peninsular Malaysia is reputed to be as physically strenuous as Kinabalu but without the problems posed by a high altitude.

There is no one to blame for this current disaster and we should support those affected, and those trying to help them. But we can still question whether the programme should be tweaked given the young age of its participants. Aiming for the highest peak might not be the right way to go in the future.

monlim said...

John: I agree the maturity of each individual needs to be considered for such expeditions. From what I understand, those kids were selected because of their leadership and physical abilities. We don't know if the kids had gone for other similar and less challenging courses.

In any case, the Mount K trail is listed as suitable for those age 10 and above so it's not like TKPS was sending underaged participants.

The said...

Spot on.

Both Walk the Torq Route and Low Peak Circuit are called Via Ferrata. The kids took the easier Walk the Torq Route (for those 10 years old above). The more challenging route is the Low Peak Circuit (only for those 17 years old and above).

Come on, it is a huge earthquake - blame this on leadership? So many school children died crossing the roads or cycling - should we also ban these activities?

roy said...

It was an accident. Pure simple. 7 yrs not an incident. Why? Cos all physical and mental preps done, risk assessment done, good to go. There is no sop or maturity level required for anyone in those circumstances. You have tonnes of rocks falling down, not an iota of maturity can save you. What I do want to concentrate on is the lives of those who gave up theirs to save others. Let's not cheapen their sacrifice by nitpicking on an accident that was more natural than negligent.

Unknown said...

Better go climb Bukit Timah Hills instead. Still dangerous coz the students can be bitten by mosquitoes. Lol

audtan78 said...

I am a mother of one P1 girl and I would not grant permission for her to go for this Mount K expedition or anything of similar nature or even when she is at P6. Basically the child has to pit his or her wits as well as physical abilities against the wilderness, mother nature and a certain degree of unknown out there at such a tender age. Expeditions I feel off such nature should be arranged for older teens or adults and only of course if they are willing to take the risks and challenges...

monlim said...

Audtan: Sure, that's your choice, as I've mentioned in the post. But we shouldn't insist that MOE impose that on other parents as others may not have the same reservation.

Anonymous said...

Singaporeans are too sheltered. When things happens, they find the need to blame something/someone. If anything happens in Singapore, they blame the government. If anything else happens elsewhere, they will still blame the government.

Illogical, unreasonable, pampered.

Anonymous said...

I think the parents may have an action in negligence.

1) The indemnity is unlikely to be legally enforceable.
According to Unfair Contract Terms Act (CHAPTER 396): "2.—(1) A person cannot by reference to any contract term or to a notice given to persons generally or to particular persons exclude or restrict his liability for death or personal injury resulting from negligence."

Here, the accident concerns 8 deaths and personal injury. There i do not think that the indemnity can cover the school.

2) For an action in negligence, you require: i) duty of care, ii) breach of duty of care, iii) causation, iv) remoteness.

2i) For a duty of care, a teacher and student relationship is a established relationship that give rise to a duty of care (Geyer v Downs [1977]).

2ii) For a breach of duty, it is arguable that the teachers has breached the duty of care. The standard of care required is "that of a reasonable teacher" (Bolam v Friern [1957]).

Here, it is arguable that a reasonable teacher will not have planned to bring primary school children to trek such a high hill, in view of their young age and the risks involved. 

Furthermore, There was one earthquake in the same EXACT LOCAL AREA of Sabah (Ranau) just one year ago in 2014 and also 2006 and 1995 ( (

2iii) For causation, the "But for" test is used (Barnett v Chelsea [1969]). "But for" the teacher's act of bringing the children to trek, would the accident have occurred? 

The answer is no. Thus, causation is established.

2iv) For remoteness, the type of injury needs to be foreseeable (Overseas Tankship v Morts [1961]).

Here, it is clear that a dangerous trekking trip may result in physical injury. Thus, damage is likely not too remote.

Questions to be answered: Who was the one that organised such a trip? Why organize such an inappropriate trip?

Yes. Noone is disputing that trekking can be educational, however one should weight it againt the risk that is apparant. Surely the high risk of death would outweigh all other concerns

Anonymous said...

Well said as usual. Believe it or not I always follow this blog because it's content always make some sense of issues at hand and of course the entertaining way of expression never fails to crack me up.
Father of 2 kids.

Gary said...

Two quotes from 2 articles:

Climbing Mount Kinabalu in Borneo for the first time

" Don’t underestimate Mt Kinabalu. Apparently only 60 percent of climbers make it to base camp, so it is a challenge. Take it seriously, especially if you’re not a fitness fanatic – this is no leisurely hike through pretty countryside. Gary in our group went to base camp of Mt Everest last year and reckons it was much easier in comparison. "

" The technical difficulty of the final summit stretch and the temperature at the top came as a surprise to most of the climbers on our trip, and few were prepared. The climb is not considered difficult in good conditions, but can rapidly become treacherous if the weather deteriorates. Mountain weather is notoriously volatile, as is tropical weather, and the two together pose a real threat to the safety of climbers and should never be underestimated. "

monlim said...

Wah, after an earthquake, suddenly so many armchair experts. As Mr Brown called them, simisai-ologists. They should then be arrested cos they all seem to know when the earthquake was gonna hit and didn't warn anyone. So bad.

There was no "high risk of death" and the Torq Route is established as safe for kids and beginners. They weren't doing the professional Low's Peak Circuit. But if you've already decided to blame someone, you will find all sorts of reasons to do so. No point arguing and re-arguing the facts.

Joe said...

The school trip is not made compulsory. Don't think parents actually gave their consent without any knowledge of the risks factors or signed it thinking that it's a field trip to the zoo...

It is a natural disaster and no one is to blame here. To point fingers at the school or MOE, they might as well point fingers at those who paid and even signed the consent form to go.

Unknown said...

Hi guys, it not an accident. It An natural disaster. An Earthquake! The place is very rare to have earthquake. No body shall be blame. The route they took is also mean for them and during the quake, the teacher also use their body to shield the kids. It a very good process of learning for going oversea. Even they don't go Mt KK, the school also go different country that we think it safe, but no body can predict anything can happen at anywhere or time, even in Singapore.
If next time my kids offer the chance to go oversea with the school or even Mt KK, and my kids are keen, I will be encourage them to join.

Anonymous said...

This tragic event may not be an accident (in layman's term)

An accident is a novus actus interveniens, which is referred to an act of nature in this case.

An intervening act must be sufficient to break the chain of causation between the defendant's breach of duty and the loss suffered. However, the defendant will be liable, where the intervening act is one that should have been foreseen (Lamb v Camden [1981]). In other words, a defendant is liable for "injury and damage which are the natural and probable result of the initial wrongful act (Knightley v Johns [1982]).

Here, the defendant have acted to bring the children to the mountain, which has last suffered a quake in 2014. Furthermore, it has a history of quakes in 2006 and 1995. In other words, it is a risky place. Given that the last quake occurred just 1 year ago, in 2014, it is difficult to argue that the quake is unforeseeable.

If you go to a risky place with a history of quakes, it is clearly foreseeable that you will encounter a quake.

Hence, for the purpose of a negligence action, i think that it will be difficult to argue that this event is an novus actus interveniens that the defendants are not liable.

monlim said...

Anon: I cannot tell you how much it annoys me when people try to use legalese to justify their point. Why do you think lawyers have such a bad rep? Flinging the word "risky" around doesn't make it true. This was the strongest quake to have hit Malaysia (the whole country) since 1976. I won't claim to be a geology expert unlike some people but if every country that lies on a faultline is considered a "risky" area, then we will never leave Singapore.

Anonymous said...

To Anon, You sound like those lawyers in the US who twist the law and use big words to intimidate and sue victims. You're not interested in the truth, only in proving how smart you are in circumventing the truth. It was a natural disaster. How about sympathizing with the victims instead?

Monica, thank you for a thoughtful and well-written article, as usual.


Steven King said...

Monlim: I cannot tell you how much it annoys me when people try to use legalese to justify their point. Why do you think lawyers have such a bad rep?

Response: Why should stating a legal position be frown upon? If a tort is inflicted on the victims, their families are entitled to justice and the due process of the law. Instead of attacking my arguments, you attacked the fact that legal principles was used. But why is legal justification and recourse bad? No reasons were given for your little faith in our legal system and dislike for lawyers. Going by your logic, should Singapore do away with its courts and allow Monlim to be the final adjudicator? Does it make good sense?

I would argue that legal recourse is good, because 1) the victims family are compensated, 2) the courts can conduct an inquiry into the matter and prevent future accidents, 3) the defendants are subjected to a fair trial.

Monlim: Flinging the word "risky" around doesn't make it true. This was the strongest quake to have hit Malaysia (the whole country) since 1976. I won't claim to be a geology expert unlike some people but if every country that lies on a faultline is considered a "risky" area, then we will never leave Singapore.

i) I accept that the last 2014 quake is not the strongest quake since 1973, but that does not make the mountain safe, as the 2014 quake is a 4.7 magnitude one. All you are saying is that the 2014 quake is not the "most dangerous quake".

Going by your logic, if Snake A's poison kills in 5 secs, while Snake B's poison kills in 20 secs, since B's poison is not the "most dangerous", hence it is safe to be bitten by it. Does this make good sense?

ii)It is untrue that every country lies on a faultline, thus Monlim will get a chance to leave Singapore. Even if this is true in a hypothetical case, it may not necessarily follow that you will not leave Singapore. At the very least, going to a risky place would simply entail that you take *additional precautions*.

It would be against the notion of justice to deny the victims family a remedy, if a tort of negligence can be established.

I am open to logical arguments if Monlim could make them, which are beyond mere assertions. Emotive arguments are of little use.

Steven King said...

Monlim: Flinging the word "risky" around doesn't make it true.

Steven King: From a legal point of view, it can only be considered an accident (layman's term), or Novus Actus Interveniens, if the event is not foreseeable from the defendant's act(Knightley v Johns [1982]).

For the benefit of a layman. Here are 2 examples.

Example 1: Teacher takes a student out for trekking, the place NEVER had a history of earthquakes, an earthquake occurs and the student dies. Here, the earthquake is not foreseeable, thus the earthquake is a NAI or accident (layman's term), the teacher's act is not morally blameworthy and he is not liable.

Reason: there is no way that the teacher can have avoided the accident.

Example 2: Teacher takes a student out for trekking, the place had a 4.7 earthquake 1 year ago. Furthermore, the place has a quake in 2006 and 1995. Here, the earthquake is clearly foreseeable as it has a long history of such events. Thus, encountering the earthquake is a foreseeable consequence of the act of bring the student to that place, this act is morally blameworthy and the defendant is liable.

Reason: since the event is foreseeable, the teacher is able to avert the danger by refraining from going that place.

In short, we can distinguish an accident and a non-accident based o the foreseeability of the event.

monlim said...

Sigh. Do you really not understand how risk assessment is measured? Very simply, a surgery that has a 99% chance of success is considered a very safe surgery. No surgeon will ever guarantee 100% success cos there's always a chance, no matter how small, something can go wrong. Just because a patient dies from that surgery doesn't mean that surgery was suddenly "risky". It just means he was very unlucky.

If you take the total number of people who have every climbed Mount K in its entire history, earthquakes and all, the number who have died because of an earthquake is probably so small it's negligible. In fact, there were other groups on Mount K that day who escaped because they didn't happen to be on the stretch with no cover. That group was extremely unlucky. I would say it's riskier to step out on roads in Singapore, considering the rate of traffic accidents.

The problem with your type of argument is you conveniently change the notion of "risk" after the fact and try to obfuscate the matter with legalese (which you don't even seem to understand the meaning of.) Legalese is not legal action. Legal action for justice is good. Your recommendation is completely unjust and taking people to task for something they didn't cause.

Since this is my blog, I set the rules. Perhaps you can find a more receptive forum to share your theories because any further comments by you will meet my delete button.

Pang SY said...

That's why I continue to follow this blog, because you have a way of cutting to the truth and explaining things clearly that help me organize my thots. I like your surgery analogy, it is very clear. Nobody can guarantee anything and to say that MOE is liable for this is accident is irresponsible. Lawyers like the one above give themselves a bad name because they only seek compensation, not justice. It is opportunistic to find ways to drown people in legal battles and turn their attention away from more important matters. Will that bring the children back?

If the lawyer is so smart to know where natural disasters will happen, he should go find out which schools are now planning overseas trips and warn them which ones are risky. So clever to talk in hindsight.

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents' worth:

Organising overseas expeditions is good for our kids, especially for kids who don't have the chance to go overseas, maybe because their parents don't have the financial ability or the time to do so. For me, the main advantage of sending students overseas is to broaden their horizons - Singapore is after all a very small and self-contained city.

However, I've always felt that sending primary school children on overseas trips is too premature. The advantages of overseas expeditions could be better reaped when the children are older, more mature, and more able to appreciate the intended teaching points of the trip.

I understand that this is something that is totally unforeseen, and that even if it had been secondary school children in that fateful place on that fateful day, there would likely have been casualties.

However, generally speaking, secondary school children, by the mere virtue of being older, would likely be more able to react to unexpected situations.

Speaking as an ex-teacher, I also feel that the stress placed on the teachers when they are chaperoning younger children is immense. When I was in the system, I was stressed even accompanying the children on a mere camping trip in Singapore, worrying about the various possible accidents/incidents that could happen, let alone a mountaineering trip in a foreign country! The younger the children, the greater the stress.

In this situation, the TKPS teachers behaved with great honour and heroism. And I salute them for it.

Why the blame on the school? Or the government?

Because as an ex-insider, I can sort of see how this expedition and overseas expeditions in general for primary school children came about. Because of ranking.

All principals, HODs and teachers have to be ranked annually.

If you are a teacher, planning lessons and teaching alone will not assure you a good ranking, no matter how well you do it. You need some extras to beef up your portfolio.

A principal's ranking depends on the school's activities, as well as the academic results.

Hence the so-called one-up-manship. Principals, HODs and teachers have to brainstorm to see what sort of activities they can carry out that will assure them a superior ranking and what we get is this: what was generally acceptable and good for secondary schools was brought lower into the primary schools. After all, it's never too early to start, right?

In this case, no.

Yes, overseas expeditions can be educational and enriching, but please only send the children on such trips when they are at least already in secondary school. The older the children, the better they are able to take care of themselves.

And Mon, you added the argument that the min. age limit for KK is 10. But note that now the Malaysian authorities are considering raising the limit to 15. I also read a comment elsewhere that Gunung Tahan, a lower peak in P. Malaysia and of similar challenging level as Mt Kinabalu, has an age limit of 13. This strikes me all as rather arbitrary. So just because the age limit given by some authority is 10, it doesn't mean that it's perfectly fine to send 12yos up the mountain.

Anonymous said...

Let me just add that I don't blame the school, the teachers nor the principal. I think they are merely victims of the ranking system.

monlim said...

Anon: I didn't talk abt whether overseas trips are good for kids on my post cos it's a different topic. Yes, you raise good points but I think it's a grey area. Thing is, age by itself is always arbitrary. My son at 12 was not as mature as my daughter at 10. So I don't think there should be any blanket rules to say primary school students aren't ready for overseas trips but the year they enter sec school, suddenly they are. As we know, some 18 year olds seem incapable of doing anything for themselves whereas you have some very able 12 year olds. So I agree that we should be selective about who can go for these trips but more on the maturity of the child and not just age. Incidentally, you may be surprised to know that I don't fully agree with overseas trips for students to far flung places for a different reason - it unnecessarily increased our carbon footprint. Regional is more than enough to gather new experiences.

Also agree overseas trips are stressful for teachers but as to whether the school's sole intention is KPIs, I cannot comment because I don't know and I don't want to speculate.

As for the raising of age limit for Mount K, I don't believe there was any reassessment of how challenging the course was. As mentioned, age is arbitrary anyway so the previous limit of 10 is more indicative of how difficult the route is. To me, it's purely a kneejerk reaction as they don't want to be held accountable should there be other fatalities of young kids in the future. It's the same thing that happens every time there is a death related to NS. Rules get relaxed because Mindef wants to be seen as doing something and taking extra precautions. I heard that now recruits are encouraged to take rests and they don't even have to make their own beds!

Didn't want to post said...

Example 3.
There are multiple occurrences of traffic accidents on the road in the past year. It is foreseeable that traffic accidents will happen again.
As such the morally correct thing to do by the Govt is to not allow people to go on the streets &/or to cease all vehicular movements.

Is my application of your example 2 correct Mr King?

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