Thursday, July 01, 2004

Seeing the light in a blackout


This week, we have experienced a number of "power transfers" of various sorts.

First, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said he would hand over the responsibility of making Cabinet changes to his successor, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Then, the United States transferred control of Iraq to an Iraqi governing council, albeit one appointed by the Americans-led coalition.

However, perhaps the highlight of the week - at least so far - was the "transfer" of the power supply from our homes to "don't know where"!

For almost an hour on Tuesday night, several parts of Singapore were, as one radio listener described the situation, "thrown into the depths of darkness".

The power failure brought back memories of kampong days when blackouts occurred quite frequently.

In those days, most families would be prepared for such emergencies with a ready supply of candles, torches and batteries.

Plus, neighbours would come out to support one another during those trying times.

More affluent neighbours would switch on their battery-controlled radios and follow developments closely .

We had full confidence in the ability of the relevant authorities to manage the situation.

Unfortunately, last night's power failure revealed how insecure and ill-prepared some of us are today.

These days, we are so dependent on electricity that we seem like the bewildered souls seen in the disaster movies churned out by Hollywood every year.

In today's Singapore, there are people who rush to the neighbourhood shop to buy candles, batteries and torches each time there is a blackout.

And, instead of limiting their purchases so that supplies are available for everyone, some residents in my area have the tendency to buy all of the local store's stock for themselves.

Have we become selfish?

When the blackout occurred, a friend feared it was the result of a terrorist attack. Phone lines were jammed and most emergency services could not be reached.

After all, it was only two days ago that Defence Minister Rear-Admiral Teo Chee Hean encouraged Singaporeans to be alert and vigilant with his "durian-bomb" analogy.

At the time, he said: "How do you know every truck carrying durians is actually carrying durians? It's a big problem. The security agencies can prevent a major attack with high probability, (but) they may not be able to stop everything...

"It's important for Singaporeans to be alert and vigilant. So, if you see in the middle of the night in some workshop, people knocking away and building something behind closed doors and you think it's suspicious, call the police and let them check."

During the blackout, the feeling of helplessness was heightened when someone in my neighbourhood shouted "Majulah Singapura" in what sounded like a mocking tone.

Matters didn't improve when a police car appeared in the neighbourhood.

If the incident had occurred in the not-too-distant past, the officers would have taken the time to update bewildered residents about the situation.

In the Singapore of today, the officers drove past without an explanation.

Of course, it is only fair to point out that they may have been in a rush to deal with other problems that may or may not have been related to the blackout.

A few weeks ago my mother was puzzled when she noticed the growing stock of batteries in my home.

She was worried that they would spoil in storage. The blackout provided me with the perfect answer for her.

In the same way, Singaporeans should use the blackout as an opportunity to revisit the things they have taken for granted.

We should draw some lessons from this experience.

Everyone should begin by asking himself these questions:
o Am I prepared for an emergency?
o How confident am I in the ability of the authorities to handle the situation?

Likewise, the relevant authorities should learn from this incident by asking themselves:
o Could we have kept residents better informed about developments?
o How can we be more sensitive to those who rely on us for support during such emergencies?

Our answers to these questions will decide if we can stand up and shout proudly: Majulah Singapura!

Dharmendra Yadav