THE recent drowning of five students and a teacher of Chung Ling High School in Penang when their boat capsized while training for the Dragon Boat race off the coast of the island brought to a head again our cavalier attitude towards basic safety rules and precautions.
Although we are always wise after each incident — fingers are pointing at the school for ignoring safety rules in allowing the practice for the regatta to take place in dangerous waters without making sure everyone wore safety jackets — there is a sense of deja vu in the aftermath of this tragic incident.
The Penang drowning is the latest in a disturbingly long list of preventable accidents which exacted a heavy price on those who threw caution to the wind when engaging in risky activities.
Safety rules and warnings are routinely ignored in Malaysia and often these rules are seen more of a nuisance than a precaution.
Most motorists would not bother to put on seat belts or motorcyclists wear safety helmets if not for the fear of being booked by the police.
For many, adhering to safety laws is seen as an inconvenience they have to put up with rather than a measure to prevent serious injuries or save their lives.
It was only when tragedy struck that we beat our breasts and wring our hands in grief over why these rules and warnings were not heeded.
Usually after some soul-searching that follows a tragedy, we would slip back into complacency and callousness as another tragedy waits to happen.
One of the reasons we take safety precautions so lightly is that it is a way of life in most parts of our country where safety equipment is not available.
Students crossing rivers in flimsy sampans without life jackets to go to school is still a common sight in rural areas.
Everyone knows it is just not right to allow students, especially those in primary school, to take such risks without any safety measures but there are none available in these schools. The Education Department should make it mandatory for students using river transport to go to school to wear life jackets.
However, providing safety equipment or having laws making it an offence not to wear them is no guarantee that they would be used or the laws adhered to.
For example, in the case of the Penang tragedy, the school did not seek approval from the Education Department to hold the regatta training in the sea although there is a standing order from the department for school authorities to do so when carrying out such activities.
Was it an oversight or ignorance of such a regulation? If not for the tragedy, nobody would even have lifted an eyebrow over the flouting of the regulation and the Chung Ling High School’s failure to follow the regulation is just the tip of the iceberg.
Stronger enforcement of safety laws must be enforced not only for outdoor activities but also in workplaces, where safety rules are often ignored.
However, laws and their enforcement is not the complete answer to this problem of flouting safety rules, ultimately the answer lies in changing the mindset and attitude of the people towards safety.
This would entail constant awareness campaigns and education on safety, especially in schools and workplaces. If we cannot ‘take the horse to the stream and make it drink the water’, the only option is to ‘persuade it to drink’.
It would a long uphill task because our society seems to have accepted accidents and tragedies are fated and not incidents we could have prevented if safety rules had been followed.
When will we ever learn?