SABAH QUAKE

Love and grace as a nation grieves

ST ILLUSTRATION : ADAM LEE

While heart-breaking, the Mount Kinabalu tragedy also brought Singaporeans together

Last week, we mourned and we celebrated as a nation.

We cheered the efforts and victories of our nation's SEA Games athletes even as we wept for the 10 Singaporeans who died in the earthquake on Mount Kinabalu, and for their families.

Life and death came together as they have a way of doing, for how we die speaks of how we have lived.

The seven Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) pupils, two teachers and one adventure guide who died on the slopes of Malaysia's highest mountain came to life in the stories their families and friends told about them.

"Passionate about teaching." "Most fun PE teacher and liveliest English teacher." "You never gave up on me." Those were among the tributes to physical education teacher and father-of-three Mohammad Ghazi Mohamed, 35.

"She gave us 12 full and wonderful years, and she did everything she wanted to do in those 12 years," Mr Jaidipsinh Jhala, 48, said of his daughter Sonia, who played netball, water-skied and worked hard to be selected for the Kinabalu trip because she wanted to do rock climbing.

Arnaav Chabria, 11, said of his friend Navdeep Singh Jaryal Raj Kumar, 13: "He was always trying to make people laugh, and motivating them when they were feeling down. I'll miss the joy that he brought to people the most."

Yes, the joy of the seven young mountaineers shone through, as did their sense of adventure, kindness and courage. Their families too were gracious in their grief, thanking teachers, counsellors, the Singapore Armed Forces and the whole nation for sharing their sorrow.

Mr James Ho, father of Rachel Ho, 12, praised the teachers who sacrificed their lives trying to shield the children from falling rocks.

As I watched events unfold, I was awestruck by the grace drawn out by this tragedy and by how far Singapore has come in the last decade when it comes to risk-taking.

Some 17 years ago, in 1998, Mr David Lim led Singapore's first expedition to Mount Everest. Only two of the eight climbers on the team made it to the top; Mr Lim was not one of them. Still, in those days, he and his team mates were the exception that proved the rule - the rule that most Singaporeans were kiasi ("scared to die" in Hok-kien) and preferred to play it safe.

Fast-forward to 2004. That year, Singapore hosted a 58km adventure race that required participants to abseil down Benjamin Sheares Bridge, kayak across MacRitchie Reservoir and mountain-bike through Bukit Timah nature reserve.

The Canadian race director complained that he had to secure more than 10 permits from government agencies, and that, compared to other places such as Hong Kong,

Vietnam and Malaysia, which had also played host to the event, the process in Singapore was the most difficult because of the red tape involved.

The civil servants, of course, defended their caution, saying they had to put safety and security first. Back then, that was the Singapore way - don't take unnecessary risk.

That attitude was exemplified by a 1996 decision to erect fences around all quarry pools on the island after two teenagers drowned in one. Such decisions enjoyed public support and those fences stayed up for years.

Those were examples I cited in a column written back in October 2004, headlined "Stop swaddling those risk-takers".

Since then, parents and educators like those in TKPS have gone further than I ever imagined to embrace adventure and the risks that go with giving young people a chance to step outside their comfort zone, stretch themselves and learn important life lessons. I applaud their efforts and daring.

Alumni of TKPS and their parents have thrown their support behind the school's Mount Kinabalu programme for pupil and sport leaders, now in its seventh year.

Former participant Pung Feng Kai, 13, now at Raffles Institution, said: "After climbing Mount Kinabalu, it made me realise that I was able to overcome challenges... I never thought I would be able to climb that mountain."

Others spoke of learning to persevere, lead and work as a team.

Housewife Janice Lim, whose two children went on the programme, said: "You learn more from the experience of doing a difficult task than just reading about it."

On such challenging trips, there is no way to eliminate risk altogether. What organisers can do is to ensure participants are well prepared for the exertions involved, and for emergencies and difficult-to-predict events.

At the same time, risk tolerance varies from person to person. While some parents embrace the chance for their children to undergo a transformative learning experience, others baulk at the possibility of physical harm.

Parents have every right to turn down such trips for their children, but schools should not be banned from running them. After all, there is also an opportunity cost to not learning life skills when one is young.

The world itself is unpredictable, as Education Minister Heng Swee Keat emphasised in a moving speech on the human spirit when he addressed ITE graduates last Friday.

"We are all part of something bigger than us, something unpredictable and uncontrollable, a world ruled by volatile forces of nature that change without warning," he said, adding that "we can only do our best to make our time on this Earth count".

But the human spirit is also strong, he said, as are the bonds it forges - of friendship, love, respect and care for one another. The recent tragedy taught him that "no force on Earth can break" the bond between people who truly care for one another.

There is a poem by e.e. cummings that speaks of love as a paradox. In it, the American poet describes love as "the voice under all silences, the hope that has no opposite in fear, the strength so strong mere force is feebleness".

It is this love born of the human spirit that helps make the unbearable bearable.

lydia@sph.com.sg