Volunteers bolster Malaysia flood response as prime minister admits lapses in official rescue effort

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Civilian volunteers have come out in force to bolster the response to deadly flooding which has displaced tens of thousands of people in Malaysia, amid criticism of official rescue efforts.

At least 17 people have been reported dead so far after torrential rainfall brought some of the country’s worst flooding in decades, which the national disaster management agency said on Tuesday has driven more than 63,000 people from their homes across eight different states.

Efforts by the army, hard-pressed emergency services and civilian volunteers have seen more than 30,000 people evacuated and placed in temporary accommodation in the wealthy and populous state of Selangor alone since the heavy rains first struck on Friday, according to local reports and officials.

But with reports of people trapped in floodwater for multiple days, opposition MPs criticised the federal response as “highly inadequate”, while the phrase kerajaan pembunuh, roughly translating to “killer government”, began to trend on social media.

One “infuriated” civilian rescuer told the South China Morning Post: “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.”

Speaking to state broadcaster Bernama TV on Tuesday, prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who had been visiting relief efforts on the ground, said: “I don't deny [the weaknesses] and will improve in the future.”

Despite the pockets of discontent at the coordination of the federal response, community groups and individuals have been praised for their efforts – with some civilians using kayaks, boats and trucks to bring people to safety or deliver food and essentials, and others using social media to offer their homes as temporary accommodation.

Among them was Adib Harith, a 31-year-old blockchain entrepreneur, who said that after seeing reports of the floods he decided to buy kayaks and lifejackets and, aided by “random people I met on Twitter who had the same intention to help others”, headed to the scene.

“Together, we successfully transported about 200 stranded people,” Mr Harith told The Star newspaper, adding: “There are times when you cannot do anything. People wanted to get out of their houses but without proper equipment, we were unable to bring them out.”

Separately, Ong Kian Ming, an MP with the opposition Democratic Action Party, also described using his kayak to rescue people trapped in a major township which he said had been submerged in six to eight feet of water.

“Because I am an experienced kayaker ... I was able to bring my kayak solo into Taman Sri Muda,” he wrote on Facebook, adding: “I made about 15 trips over a 4-hour period ... where I rescued about 40 people”, including women, children and elderly citizens.

And in Petaling Jaya, a city in the Greater Kuala Lumpur area, a call from the Sikh organisation Gurdwara Sahib for help with distributing food to those affected by the floods garnered a vast response.

Footage published on social media showed a large network of volunteers cooking, packaging and venturing out into the floodwaters by boat to deliver the gurdwara’s vegetarian and halal meals to those in need across the populous Klang Valley area.

Volunteers at the gurdwara were also reported to be packing and distributing donations of basic necessities like sanitary pads, clothes and blankets.

“Malaysians from all walks of life – Malay, Chinese, Indian – everyone packing, cooking, loading and distributing food,” the organisation’s vice president Jasbir Kaur told Channel News Asia, which reported that 30,000 food parcels in total had been handed out in the past three days.

“There is equality here. Everyone is working in harmony and it is beautiful to see after such a difficult time,” she added.

Selangor’s sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah was also among those to praise the community response, reportedly saying in a statement on Sunday: “I was moved to see the spirit of cooperation shown by community members and support groups who are helping each other.”

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 people have reportedly signed up to an initiative to assist flood victims organised by the Youth and Sports Ministry, following a recruitment drive on Monday – with nearly 1,000 volunteers Selangor, and hundreds in the states of Perak, Johor and Kedah, among others.

Various political groups were also reported to have joined in the response, with the Malaysian Chinese Association party claiming to have mobilised volunteers nationwide to help people clean up homes damaged by the floods, as well as hand out food relief.

“After the floods recede, cleaning and repairing will be our main task in providing assistance,” a spokesperson said.

But uncertainty remained over when the flooding would fully subside. While the rains had largely eased by Monday, Malaysia’s Meteorological Department said the country could see more floods in the coming days, as a tropical depression moved towards four northern states.

“This situation can cause continuous rainfall and strong winds in the northern states ... that could lead to flooding in low-level areas,” the department said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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