Real wisdom counts in a crisis

"TO KNOW that you know and to know that you don't know – that is the real wisdom" – Confucius

Thailand's key decision-makers showed real wisdom by acknowledging quickly that foreign help was needed to find and rescue 12 boys from the Wild Boars football team and their 37-year-old assistant coach Ekkapol "Ake" Chantawong who were trapped deep within the flooded Tham Luang cave in Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai province.

Speedy realisation that foreign assistance – and on a large scale – was essential was the first crucial factor that contributed to a near-triumphant outcome apart from one fatality.

According to the BBC, the main dive team comprised 13 foreigners and five members of the elite Thai Navy Seals while the supporting cast of divers included 50 foreigners and 40 Thais.

Showcasing close cooperation between the Thais – including 150 Navy Seals, 2,000 soldiers plus representatives from 100 government agencies – and a substantial number of foreigners, the three-day joint operation offers our political leaders an excellent case study of successful crisis management.

On June 23, after football practice, the 12 Wild Boars and Ake decided to explore the 10km long Tham Luang – Thailand's fourth largest cave system located beneath towering mountains bordering Myanmar – with the aid of cheap torches.

Although the boys were familiar with the cave, a flash flood forced them to venture deeper until they found a ledge above the flood waters about 4km from the entrance.

A second helpful factor was Vernon Unsworth. Described by Washington Post as a British insurance consultant and hobbyist spelunker, Unsworth had explored extensively and mapped the Tham Luang cave – considered by most spelunkers as one of the most challenging in the world.

An article in the New York Times noted Tham Luang cave has no GPS, Wi-Fi or mobile phone service within its caverns while the last known survey was conducted in the 1980s by a French caving society with many of its deepest recesses still unmapped.

Convinced the Thais were looking in the wrong place for the missing footballers and that more experienced caver-divers were needed, Unsworth wrote a letter to the outgoing Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn suggesting the Thais contact "ASAP" three British cave divers whom the Briton said were the best in the world.

A third crucial factor was the decisiveness and leadership of key Thai decision-makers, in particular, Governor Narongsak. His readiness to accept the advice of a foreigner and to act immediately on Unsworth's suggestion changed the course of the-then futile search for the Wild Boars and their coach.

On June 28, five days after the 13 disappeared inside the Tham Luang cave, the two Britons recommended by Unsworth, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen arrived in Mae Sai. On arrival, Stanton and Volanthen suggested asking Australian Richard Harris, an experienced caver and, more important, an anaesthetist to join the rescue effort.

Using Unsworth's maps, on July 2, Stanton and Volanthen found the 12 missing boys and their coach.

Narongsak was uniquely qualified to oversee the rescue operation and to act as spokesman. Four bachelor's degrees – in civil engineering, law, technology and public administration – helped him realise the complexity involved in the Tham Luang rescue operation and prevented him from raising unrealistic expectations.

"Finding the boys doesn't mean we've finished our mission. It is only a small battle we've won, but the war has not ended. The war ends when we win all three battles – the battle to search, rescue and send them home," Narongsak said.

In dealing with the horde of journalists, Narongsak balanced toughness against their intrusive behaviour. His briefings were clear while his use of a Line chat group helped dispel rumours, said The Nation article lauding his pivotal role.

Additionally, having obtained a Master's degree in survey engineering and geographic information from Ohio State University in 1998, Narongsak was fluent in English, a helpful attribute in handling the foreign media.

Assistant coach Ake's role was helpful. Trained for 12 years as a monk, he taught the Wild Boars to drink water from the overhead stalactites instead of the polluted ground water and to meditate.

Meditation helped to keep the boys calm for the nine days before they were found despite being in total darkness for much of the time.

Equally heart-warming were the number of Thais who volunteered to clean dirty toilets, gave free rides to workers, cooked daily meals and washed dirty clothes at the laundromat every night. When Thai authorities appealed for pumps to divert water from the cave, within three days more than 40 machines arrived – some from as far as 1,368km away.

If this country were to suffer the equivalent of the Tham Luang cave disaster, would Malaysian political leaders emulate their Thai counterparts and show similar real wisdom?

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com