Too many drowning deaths

THE most traumatic news recently has been the death by drowning of seven children swept away by swift currents in Sungai Selangor near Bukit Beruntung exactly a week ago just as the school holidays began.

Watching the emotional scenes on television of the bodies wrapped in plastic being brought ashore by the search and rescue party, and the grieving parents and loved ones was just too much for anyone to bear.

In many ways, it was like watching the replay of movies on satellite TV except that these scenes were for real and not made in Hollywood.

How many times have we seen and read about such tragic incidents but the tragedy of it all is that they keep recurring.

There have been too many drownings especially of children. In fact, far too many and yet no lessons seemed to be learnt about the dangers of allowing children to play unsupervised near rivers, lakes, waterfalls and other water bodies.

In the latest tragedy, this group of eight boys aged between nine and 12 had gone fishing and only one came back alive, sparking yet another round of finger-pointing and blaming parents for lack of supervision.

Fishing? Why did they go fishing and lots of other questions related to safety come to mind.

According to statistics, 700 Malaysians drown every year.

And findings by the Perak Clinic Research Centre showed that 500 children drowned or were involved in near-drowning incidents yearly.

Its director, Datuk Dr Amar Singh could not hide his frustration with the state of affairs of children needlessly losing their lives due to public apathy over what could well be the major cause of child deaths in Malaysia.

"It is a tragedy caused by all of us and we as a society are responsible for failing these children," he told a newspaper.

It is alarming that at least 100 children have drowned so far this year.

Amar Singh was blunt when he said: "Let's not fail the 400 more children who are going to drown this year," with a quarter of 2017 gone.

"Let every parent speak to their children about this important cause of death and the key message of getting help and not jumping in. In many cases, the children had drowned after they tried to save another."

Prominent social activist Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye told me that over the past years he has been pushing hard for the formation of the Water Activity Safety Council (WASC) to coordinate activities, campaigns and training related to water safety by relevant agencies and non-governmental organisations to reduce negligence and accidents at water bodies.

WASC, which comes under the Ministry of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government, was finally set up in May last year but has yet to adopt an action plan on effective ways to address the rising incidents of drowning.

Common sense tells us that learning how to swim is essential for children but the sad thing is that in Malaysia, no one seems to bother about this.

Let's just hope that the WASC won't drag its feet any longer in implementing its action plan of promoting water safety awareness in a holistic and comprehensive manner.

Malaysia's foremost sports administrator Datuk Sieh Kok Chi sent me an emotional note in reaction to the latest drowning tragedy last Friday.

Sieh, who stepped down in 2015 after being Olympic Council of Malaysia secretary-general for 23 years, said over the years he had written letters to a number of ministers of youth and sports on the need to teach swimming to schoolchildren so that they can at least save themselves.

"Unfortunately, they are all very busy and as such they have no time to think over this matter let alone consider my proposal," he said. "Frankly, I have given up hope because the powers that be do not seem to be interested or bothered or concerned over this life and death issue."

Sieh said the Education Ministry and Youth and Sports Ministry should have a policy to teach every pupil to swim and achieve the policy target of introducing swimming to at least one school each year in each district.

He thinks the responsibility of teaching children to swim and be able to save themselves should not be on the parents only, adding that the government has the responsibility to provide the basic facilities.

There should be a policy target of building 25m swimming pools for a cluster of schools because without swimming pools, the children will not be able to learn to swim and more drownings will occur.

Another of his suggestions is for the Life Saving Association to be formed to teach children to swim – while saving lives is very important but being able to swim comes one step before saving lives.

"It is because the children cannot swim that we require life savers. So why not save lives by teaching them to swim," Sieh said.

On my part as chairman of Bernama, I have told our news radio and television channels as well as journalists dealing with the print and social media to create greater awareness especially among parents and teachers to drive home the fear factor message on drowning.