Lessons from the Sabah tragedy

The heartbreaking news of Singaporeans who died on a school expedition to Mount Kinabalu has moved all citizens. They would join the parents and other family members of the victims in grieving over the loss of innocents who had a lifetime ahead of them. While those who returned alive are a source of consolation, although there have been injuries as well, what will hurt forever will be memories of the pupils of Tanjong Katong Primary School and the adults accompanying them who perished on the trip. The Day of National Remembrance observed for them yesterday testifies to the collective grief felt over a tragedy that was meant to be an enriching school trip abroad.

The tragedy should make the authorities and parents more aware of the risks involved in overseas trips. In this case, the cause of the deaths and injuries was a natural disaster that lay outside the calculus of probability. The Sabah earthquake had not been predicted since tremors of that magnitude are estimated to occur there only once in a century, and Malaysia does not lie on a tectonic plate boundary. What took place was a natural disaster that caught both locals and foreigners by surprise. Sadly, the school group paid the price for the fury with which the unexpected struck. Small though the comfort would be to the families of the victims, it is reassuring to know that careful planning and preparations had preceded the outing and that safety standards had been adhered to.

It is entirely understandable that the tragedy will raise questions about the rationale for school excursions where physical risk could be involved, especially for such young children. It is true that character-building in Singapore schoolchildren benefits from the outbound spirit which takes them temporarily out of the comfort zone of their country. Thus, it would be unwise to cancel all overseas expeditions in a knee-jerk response. However, since social and cultural exchanges, too, provide broader vistas, perhaps these might be more appropriate for primary school pupils. Nature-based expeditions could be reserved for older students from secondary schools, junior colleges, polytechnics and universities, whose reflexes could be expected to be sharper. Of course, older students and their parents must know of and understand even the minimal risks associated with an outing.

Meanwhile, a ray of sunshine has broken through the sorrow of the victims' families. Not only present and past members of the school but also strangers have come together to remember the fallen climbers. This solidarity shows that their loss is shared by the nation. Sad as these events are, they have united a nation in grief.