Monday, 12 November 2018 – Floods have been Malaysia’s most frequent environmental disaster. Despite increasingly heavy public outlays by Malaysian authorities on flood management measures, inundations have increased in occurrence and severity in recent times. Against this background, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute invited Assistant Professor Fiona Clare Williamson (Singapore Management University) and Professor Chan Ngai Weng (Universiti Sains Malaysia) to present historical and contemporary perspectives on Malaysia’s flood problems.
From left to right: Assistant Professor Fiona Clare Williamson, Dr Geoffrey K. Pakiam and Professor Chan Ngai Weng (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Following introductory comments by Dr Geoffrey K. Pakiam, Fellow with the Malaysia Studies Programme, Dr Williamson drew the audience’s attention to the colonial period, especially the 1920s, a decade of strikingly severe flooding across much of British Malaya. While some perspectives have attributed the intensity of these floods to ‘natural’ causes such as unusually severe El Niño–Southern Oscillation climatic cycles, the historical record also points to multiple contributing human factors. Urban infrastructure build-up, poor implementation of water course diversions, widespread deforestation, plantation development, and river silting all exacerbated flood problems. Public funding shortages, official incompetence, and piecemeal flood management planning began to be addressed in the 1930s by empowering specialist drainage and irrigation authorities. However, prevailing politics favouring big businesses meant that small-scale Chinese agriculturalists were the main targets of regulatory measures, rather than big developers. More flooding occurred as a result, with sheet and gulley erosion becoming common features of upland slopes.
Dr Williamson during her presentation (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Building on Dr Williamson’s presentation, Prof. Chan pointed out how contemporary Malaysia still suffers from many of the same weaknesses in flood management that have marked it in the past, as well as new ones. Storm runoff rates have risen markedly in rural areas due to further deforestation and plantation development. Concretisation from rapid urban growth has had similar effects in Kuala Lumpur. Climate change has also worsened rainfall intensity, and amplified consequent losses from flood damage. The current Malaysian Flood Mitigation Policy and Strategy, much of it formulated after the 1971 Kuala Lumpur floods, is outdated, overly reactive, lacking in administrative focus, and neglects important potential contributions from the private sector, NGOs, and general members of the public. In general, flood management is now excessively dominated by top-down drainage engineering approaches, without addressing perennial concerns associated with political favouritism, public apathy, and community overreliance on state interventions.
Prof. Chan during his presentation (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
The seminar spanned ninety minutes, with research scholars, government officials, private sector professionals, students, and other members of the public in attendance. While fielding questions from the audience, Dr Williamson and Prof Chan discussed a number of further issues, including past and present private sector involvement in flood management, structural limitations to existing drainage techniques, the urgent need to revise old meteorological assumptions to prepare for even more intense rainfall episodes, and recognising that popular memories of previous floods fade rapidly with time, unless deliberately revisited.
Research scholars, government officials, private sector professionals, students, and other members of the public were in attendance (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)