Many of us chose to stay home on Wednesday, watching the five-yearly investiture of the 14th King to catch a glimpse of the sumptuous but scandalously costly new Palace.
Most of us refused to do serious work, content to relax and be lazy for the rest of the day and some even went to the beaches for a picnic and swim with the family. Just after the sun began to drop and people started to prepare for the evening ahead, some parts of the country experienced frightening tremors.
Those who were in high-rise buildings trying to clear their office in-tray received a shock. Earthquake! Even those traveling on highways stopped abruptly as the ground trembled and shook. Panic took hold.
Twitterjaya and the deafening silence from Putrajaya
Malaysia’s active cyberspace was immediately a hive of activity and did much to disseminate information of a massive earthquake in Aceh, Indonesia. When reports and tweets emerged sharing experiences of having felt the tremor, there was a sense of collective relief as Malaysians realized that the quake was not here but in faraway Indonesia. No doubt, it may be a serious one that could even trigger a tsunami, it was still faraway and 'only tremors' here.
It should be pointed out that among the civic-minded who used Twitter and Facebook to share information were Pakatan Rakyat politicians. Prime Minister Najib Razak, for some strange reason, has until now not uttered a single word.
Then an alert from the Malaysian Meteorological department reported by theNew Straits Times on its website that if a tsunami did indeed occur, it may strike Penang at 9pm and Port Dickson at 2am. It was panic stations again for the residents in these two locations, while their relatives overseas and the rest of the nation watched with deep concern and bated breath.
Based on the speed of the wave traveling at 800km/hr and the location of the epicenter and the surrounding shores, the detailed forecast was that the tsunami would hit to the minute in Thailand by 8.45 pm, Penang 9.20 pm, then Kedah, Langkawi, Perak and all up to Port Dickson by 2.00 am. Even Singapore would not be spared, with the tsunami due to reach by 7.51 am.
The usual apathy and patchwork actions
In the mean time, Malaysia's Fire Department deployed fire engines and brigade all over Kuala Lumpur and to other affected areas, while the national TV network RTM was still preoccupied with the main event - the King's investiture. The Umno-controled TV3 did break some news but only reported some general information about the Aceh earthquake, advising people to stay at home.
The Penang Police Headquarters purportedly announced that the Penang Bridge would be closed while the ferry service was to be stopped soon. It was TV3 that then reported the Penang Bridge had stayed open, but the ferry service had been stopped.
Whether it is the right thing to do to close the bridge or to stop the ferry service is a great question, and needs to be dealt with by a national disaster committee. Before we get into that, let's recap and deal with the confusion caused by the fumbling federal government organs.
RTM remained strangely silent but later spilled it out in its main news at 8.0pm. However, it chained together the events and the various actions taken by the authorities without any coherence, thereby causing greater confusion.
No one, including many in the agencies themselves, knew what was going on or who was doing what - from the time of the Meteorological Department's alert to the Police to the fire department or the other local authorities. It should be remembered that in emergencies and natural disasters, people turn to television as their leading source of information - not just news and entertainment.
Complete absence of leadership in a time of crisis
Very glaringly, no one from the Cabinet said a word, or called on the public to stay calm. Suddenly, the nation was on auto-pilot as Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government ducked the issue.
What if the Aceh quake had not occurred in a side-slip zone and a killer tsunami like the one in 2004 was generated? Did the Cabinet know that such a catastrophic wave would not occur? Did they have some special foresight or tsunami crystal ball?
No, in all likelihood their bellies were probably still too full of the good food eaten at the Palace buffet, and they decided not to get involved. Is this is leadership?
"Luckily this earthquake happened in a slide-slip zone,” Malaysian Meteorological Department's geophysics and tsunami division director Saw Bun Liong said in a late evening briefing to call off the alert.
According to Saw, a slide-slip zone is an area where the plates are sliding past each other – resulting in less water displacement. Thus, a wave of the 2004 tsunami-scale could not be generated. The alert issued by the Malaysian Meteorological Department was rescinded about four hours after the threat was deemed to have passed.
Then the traditional blame game
Then in the style typical of the BN government, the blame game began. Those who were alert and tried to issue information to help as many people as possible were blamed for spreading "panic" by those who sat on their backsides and did absolutely nothing.
Above all, the question that needs to be answered, what happened to the National Disaster Center on that fateful day? Were they all on leave and the new Palace too? Who is the person in charge in Malaysia to coordinate actions, information flow, rescues, warnings, and to make decisions whether to evacuate?
The fact is, on that day Malaysia was caught in its underpants, so to speak. There was no central command to tell the people what was happening and what to do. It is of no wonder that many people were unnecessarily traumatized.
Decisions must be made either by the authorities or by individuals themselves whether or not to evacuate from high-rise homes. For example, hospital managers too need to decide whether to shift their patients to safety or not.
But nothing. The same old apathy and the only thing that was important to the authorities was how to cover themselves from blame. And their response for that - blame other people first!
Do we have any National Disaster Plan at all?
Information must always be given truthfully.
If a tsunami is coming, the people have a right to warned. By all means, insert cautions that the predictions may not always come true. But to the best of the authorities' belief and based on the advice of experts, in this case the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, the people should be informed of what had been forecast and told to prepare for such an eventuality.
If the worst had happened, then the right steps have been taken and no one should be blamed. If it turned out to be a false alarm, which it did, then all of us should give thanks to God.
Those who faltered during that moment of crisis should not use it as an occasion to rush and blame others when they themselves had failed to measure up to their duty.
Wake up - Malaysia will not be spared from the ring of fire
On April 11, a powerful 8.6 magnitude earthquake and a series of strong aftershocks had struck off Aceh, Indonesia sending people scurrying from buildings and their homes. A tsunami was generated but only a small one due to a 'side-slip zone' effect. This tsunami bypassed Malaysia but did hit parts of Thailand.
The Aceh earthquake had occurred in this Ring of Fire between two tectonic plates. Plates are like giant rafts of the earth's surface which often slide next to, collide with, and are forced underneath other plates. Around the Ring of Fire, the Pacific Plate is colliding with and sliding underneath other plates. This process is known as subduction and the volcanically and seismically active area nearby is known as a subduction zone.
Malaysia is so close to the Pacific Ring of Fire that one day the cascading effect will surely hit us hard .The volcanic activities affecting Malaysia is from the east end of Sabah, curved through to the southern shore of Borneo, Java Island and Sumatra and break at the north west end of Sumatra, before it continues to the east coast of the India sub-continent.
Questions that need to be asked and answered
Let's ask the hard questions. Is Malaysia prepared for a real earthquake? Are our buildings safe enough? Who should be in charge? Is there a current de-facto minister of disaster management? Or does it go under Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, in which case maybe Malaysians should be doubly worried!
It is worth noting Sri Lanka, which was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami, has its own minister in charge of disaster management, Mr Mahinda Amaraweera.
What are the criteria for when evacuations should be made? Why not have campaigns on tremors and evacuation awareness for the public?
Do we have to wait for the Petronas Twin Towers to collapse before the Umno-BN government takes action? Will that not be too late?