Strict Enforcement Needed On Fire Safety

Last update: 15/09/2017

A commentary by Azman Ujang

KUALA LUMPUR -- Another tragedy at an Islamic residential school and the usual blame game is going on with plenty of finger pointing as to why or how it happened.

And, as usual too, another special investigation committee will be formed to probe the tragedy in which 21 young boys and two wardens perished in an early morning fire here yesterday.

It was the country's biggest fire catastrophe since 27 students were burnt to death almost exactly 28 years ago at another religious residential school in Yan, Kedah.

There have been so many repeat fires at similar premises over the years that it does not make any sense that the school authorities seem not bothered at all in as far as taking prevention measures are concerned.

Since 2011 alone, at least 31 such incidents and tragedies have occurred and even these are not enough to jolt the school authorities and, equally importantly, the Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) to think out of the box to fix the problem as a matter of priority.

It's the lives of so many kids being placed in their care by parents that we are talking about here and with the mushrooming of such schools throughout the country, things can very well get worse before they get better.

We certainly don't need to spend time and money to conduct another exhaustive investigation because it's not rocket science.

All that the Bomba needs to do is to carry the same kind of strict enforcement on fire safety on Tahfiz school residential premises as it does on other premises according to its laws and regulations.

Why not?

In other words, there shouldn't be double standards in enforcement because it's human lives we are talking about here.

In fact, such premises, many of which are reportedly not registered or are run by individual religious scholars, should come under even stricter enforcement given the fact that they have so many boarding students.

There are enough number of people who don't take seriously the findings of investigations into tragedies in the country, unfortunately.

The most classic example was the 1989 fire disaster at the Yan religious school mentioned earlier where the government took all the trouble, and at great expense too, to set up even a Royal Commission of Inquiry, the first time such a high-level body was instituted for a fire in the nation.

But what happened since then? No lessons were ever learnt.

The Berita Harian newspaper reported today that most of the RCI findings were not implemented.

The reams of paper used to print the report are just gathering dust.

This is also happening in the case of other forms of tragedies like the many helicopter or express bus crashes which, similarly, have resulted in a big loss of lives over the years.

Many of the findings were not even made public for the people to made aware in order to prevent or, at the very least, minimise similar tragedies.

Moving forward, everyone concerned or tasked with such heavy responsibilities, such as running residential schools, should not take the easy way out by throwing caution to the wind and be seen to be serious only when another tragedy strikes.

Yesterday's fire was certainly a tragedy that was waiting to happen.

It was reported that most of the victims who were burned to death could not escape the blaze because of the iron-grilled door that was locked from the outside.

The windows were also grilled and, one might ask, whatever for? Surely enough deadly fires have happened for those running these schools to use their common sense.

There's a lot of wisdom in the order by the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, yesterday for the Bomba to identify high fire-risk religious and other schools in the state.

"All building by-laws must be strictly complied with and the authorities must take action to close down any premises that don't meet full safety standards," the sultan said.

There are no two ways about it.

Some members of the WhatsApp groups that I belong to even suggested that there could have been criminal negligence in the case of yesterday s fire.

Perhaps the authorities might want to look into this.


(Datuk Seri Azman Ujang is the Chairman of BERNAMA.)