Ministerial Statement on Sabah Earthquake

Published Date: 13 July 2015 12:00 AM

News Parliamentary Replies

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Dr Lim Wee Kiak, Nee Soon GRC

Question

To ask the Minister for Education in view of the recent earthquake in Sabah (a) what are the objectives of sending students on challenging overseas learning programmes like mountain climbing; (b) what are the lessons learnt from this incident; and (c) whether the Ministry will review the overseas learning programmes for students.

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Lim Biow Chuan, Mountbatten SMC

Question

To ask the Minister for Education (a) whether the Ministry has reviewed the safety measures taken by schools for overseas expeditions; (b) whether there are any lessons to be learnt from the incident arising from the Sabah earthquake in light of the accounts given by survivors from the Sabah earthquake; and (c) whether the Ministry will consider a special award for heroism to deserving teachers, trainers or guides for their acts of bravery during the earthquake.

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong, Tampines GRC

Question

To ask the Minister for Education whether he will consider giving a posthumous national award such as the Medal of Valour to the late Mohammad Ghazi and the late Terrence Sebastian Loo in recognition of the teachers’ acts of bravery and selflessness in rescuing children during the Sabah earthquake in June 2015.

Response

Condolence and Appreciation

On 5 June, an earthquake struck suddenly at Mount Kinabalu. Seven students and two teachers from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS), plus one Singaporean instructor, who were on the mountain lost their lives. We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy. Once again, I want to express my deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who were lost. Besides our 10 Singaporeans, six Malaysians, including two Mountain Torq trainers who were with the students and staff of TKPS, also lost their lives and we extend our condolences to their families and friends too.

At the same time, we are glad that we were able to bring back 22 students and six teachers safely. We are grateful to the Sabah guides and Mountain Torq trainers who helped our teachers to evacuate our students from the mountain. We would also like to thank the Royal Malaysia Police, Malaysian Armed Forces, and various other Malaysian agencies, including the Sabah state authorities, for their support and assistance in the search, rescue and recovery efforts. Many agencies in Singapore worked with MOE to assist and support the affected students and families, as well as teachers and staff of the school. The community, including our SEA Games athletes, also rallied to offer their sympathy and support, and thousands visited TKPS to pay tribute to those who passed away. In an expression of our sympathies and condolences for the families who lost their loved ones, the Prime Minister declared 8 June to be a Day of National Remembrance, with State flags flown at half-mast and the observation of a minute of silence at all SEA Games venues. The outpouring of support from the whole nation brought much comfort to the families, students and teachers. I know that they, as well as my Ministry and I, deeply appreciate this support and sense of togetherness.

Outdoor Adventure Learning and Overseas Learning Journeys

Before I outline what happened, let me first set out the context of outdoor adventure learning. MOE and schools conduct a variety of outdoor adventure learning programmes. This way of learning is a proven and effective way to develop social and leadership skills in students. Students learn to lead, make decisions, and work together to tackle challenging tasks in an outdoor environment. In the process, they grow in confidence and resilience.

A large proportion of outdoor adventure learning takes place in Singapore, at adventure facilities run by MOE and Outward Bound Singapore. These purpose-designed facilities and programmes provide valuable learning opportunities and we will continue to enhance them.

Our schools and Institutes of Higher Learning also organise overseas learning journeys to bring students overseas for academic, cultural and adventure learning. These overseas experiences provide learning platforms that cannot be easily replicated in classrooms, or anywhere else in Singapore. For example, overseas adventure learning programmes, including mountain trekking, challenge students to adapt to new and unfamiliar environments, away from home comforts.

As these overseas adventure learning programmes have a high educational value, some schools use them to develop leadership qualities for selected groups of students, such as student leaders as well as those in uniformed groups and outdoor activity clubs.

TKPS places a strong emphasis on developing students’ leadership skills. It has designed an apex leadership programme called the “Omega Challenge” which comprises a three-day climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu. TKPS started the Omega Challenge in 2009 and this year marks the seventh run of the programme. 215 TKPS students have undergone this programme. Past participants, as well as their parents, have shared with the school how this programme has helped the students grow in confidence and maturity in ways that exceeded their expectations. For many of the students, the experience of having to overcome the physical and mental challenges to conquer Mount Kinabalu was a metaphor for learning to conquer themselves and future challenges in life. With its high educational value, the programme is very much sought after. Students vie for a place in the Omega Challenge and take pride in being selected. They are chosen based on qualities such as their emotional maturity, leadership skills and physical abilities.

Suitability for Primary School Students

Schools that organise overseas trips and outdoor adventure learning have to ensure that these activities are suitable for participating students. They have to adhere to the following principles set out by MOE:

  • First, the activities have to have clear educational goals.
  • Second, the activities are age-appropriate.
  • Third, the safety and well-being of students and staff are accorded top priority in the planning and execution of the activities.
  • Fourth, more physically challenging programmes are optional and are open only to students who meet certain requirements.
  • Fifth, there are adequate preparations, including risk assessment and management.

Ahead of this year’s trip to Mount Kinabalu, TKPS undertook the following preparations:

  • First, the school confirmed that the activities were age-appropriate. On the official Mount Kinabalu website, it is recommended that children who attempt the climb be at least 10 years old. The “Via Ferrata” activity that the students were going to carry out along the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, under the guidance of professional trainers, is also graded as suitable for children aged 10 and above. All the participating students from the school were aged 11 to 13.
  • Second, the school recognised that this programme may not be suitable for all students, and that parents’ comfort levels also differ. Hence the school ensured that consent was granted by the students’ parents and also briefed them on what the overseas portion of the programme would entail.
  • Third, the school conducted screening processes to select a small group of 29 student leaders who were assessed to be physically fit, as well as emotionally and mentally ready.
  • Fourth, the school conducted three months of rigorous physical training, like endurance runs and stair-climbing, to prepare them.
  • Fifth, the school went through a detailed risk assessment before embarking on the trip.
What Happened when the Earthquake Struck

I will now briefly touch on what happened on the morning of 5 June 2015. The earthquake that struck Mount Kinabalu that fateful morning was sudden and unexpected. It dislodged boulders and rocks near the top of the mountain and these came crashing down the mountain slope. This happened when the students and the adults who were accompanying them had just started on an activity along the “Via Ferrata”.

With your permission, Madam Speaker, may I display some slides on the LED screens.

To understand what happened, let me explain how the “Via Ferrata” activity was organised. This Via Ferrata activity required the participants to walk or climb along a route that ran along the slope of the mountain, using a system of harnesses connected to a metal cable to secure themselves and prevent any risk of a fall. There were three Via Ferrata routes and TKPS chose the simplest and shortest route; which spanned 280 metres, was suitable for 10-year-olds and required about an hour or slightly more to complete. You may have seen pictures of other parts of the Via Ferrata but these were not the parts that the students attempted.

Thirty-one TKPS participants, comprising 23 students and eight school staff, attempted the Via Ferrata activity. Another six students did not participate in this activity and were resting at a nearby hut. Those who participated were organised into five groups; each led by a trainer provided by the operator of the “Via Ferrata”, Mountain Torq. To ensure proper supervision and control, each group was sent out a few minutes apart to avoid bunching up. Each group had up to five students and three adults, making the adult-to-student ratio approximately 1 : 2.

At 7.15am when the earthquake struck, the first three groups had already started out on the Via Ferrata, while the last two groups were still at the start line waiting for their turn. From the accounts that we have gathered, the first three groups that were on the mountain slope were in the path of a very heavy rockfall. The last two groups that were at the starting point were less badly hit by the falling rocks and stones; perhaps because the rock-fall there was less heavy, or because there were some trees in that vicinity that offered some protection.

Some of the boulders dislodged by the earthquake were as large as a house or a car.

The casualties amongst the first three groups included both children and adults. Seven students and five adults, including two Mountain Torq trainers who were experienced and familiar with the terrain and safety procedures, lost their lives. For the other two groups that were waiting at the start point, they all survived, with the majority of them unhurt. Whether a participant perished or survived depended on where he or she happened to be at the time. It made no difference whether the participant was a child or adult, novice or experienced mountaineer.

When the earthquake struck, many of the TKPS students recounted that the teachers near them used their bodies to protect and shield them from harm. Once the initial tremors subsided the adults accompanying the students were able to quickly work together to give instructions for the students to evacuate. As far as possible, the students who were unhurt or only slightly injured were organised into groups to be led down the mountain. The evacuation was made more difficult because the paths had been damaged by the quake, and there were many aftershocks that morning. Some of the adults, including those who were themselves injured, stayed on to help the students who were more seriously injured or required greater assistance.

On the same day, the Singapore Government crisis team responded, first with an immediate Crisis Response Team from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that reached Kota Kinabalu by 8 pm, to help coordinate the needs of the Singaporeans in Kota Kinabalu affected by the earthquake.

By the end of the first day, my Ministry had already made plans for those family members who wanted to be in Kota Kinabalu to be flown up early the next morning. I conveyed this to the parents who were waiting at the school. We sent a multi-agency delegation, together with several counsellors and TKPS teachers, who flew together in a SAF C130 to directly support the family members. Concurrently, plans were put in place to fly home the students who were physically able to do so. By the next day after the quake, on 6 June afternoon, 19 TKPS students had returned to Singapore. Three students with more serious injuries remained in Kota Kinabalu to receive treatment. Two were evacuated back the next day and the third by 8 June.

Over in Kota Kinabalu, the MOE-led delegation supported the family members through this difficult period and worked to ensure that all the bodies that were recovered were flown back at the earliest possible moment so that last rites could be performed and the deceased laid to rest. A tribute site was set up at TKPS for the public to pay their tribute. In the days that followed, TKPS teachers and over 100 counsellors and psychologists rallied to support the participants and family members. We witnessed the courage and resilience of the affected students, teachers and their family members as they did their best to come to terms with what had happened.

In our review of this incident, it is clear that in the planning and execution of any overseas learning journey, our schools must continue to conduct risk assessments and take all the necessary safety measures and precautions. Nevertheless, natural disasters are impossible to predict or exclude entirely. Indeed, seismologists considered the probability of such a destructive earthquake happening in the area around Mount Kinabalu to be unknown. There was no prior warning. No matter how careful our schools may be in planning their overseas trips, events beyond our control and prediction may still occur, whether natural disasters or otherwise.

We are all deeply saddened that the sudden and unexpected earthquake claimed the lives of our students and some of the adults who were accompanying them. Their families, as well as their friends and colleagues, will need time to recover from this. We will therefore continue to give our utmost support to them, through counselling and other appropriate support measures.

At the same time, let us also honour the spirit which our students and teachers have shown in undertaking this trip, to stretch and challenge themselves to achieve their personal best. Several parents who lost children told me, we must continue to provide high quality learning experiences for our students, including such overseas adventure learning. I am deeply moved and inspired by their conviction and encouragement.

Continuing Overseas and Outdoor Learning Experiences for Students

Like many parents, MOE is convinced of the value of outdoor adventure learning, whether conducted in Singapore or overseas. We will continue to enhance the quality of such learning opportunities, while ensuring that schools emphasise safety when planning these trips and programmes. It is important that we provide effective learning platforms for our students to build their confidence, adaptability and resilience - qualities that will stand them in good stead in life.

MOE regularly looks for ways to enhance the quality of all our learning programmes, including outdoor adventure learning programmes. As part of this effort, MOE will form an Advisory Panel comprising local and international experts. This panel will provide MOE with additional inputs on enhancing the quality and safety of outdoor adventure learning programmes that are conducted locally and overseas.

MOE conducts annual audits of schools’ overseas learning journeys. In conducting these annual audits, we look for good practices that can be shared, and provide support and guidance in areas identified for improvement. In this year’s audit, MOE will look at how to improve contingency plans for events, such as natural disasters. We also note that the Malaysian government has indicated that in view of the recent unexpected earthquake, it will assess and monitor seismic movements in Sabah and review safety measures for all climbers. Until the safety of Mount Kinabalu is ascertained by the Malaysian authorities, no schools will be allowed to take students there.

Recognising Acts of Courage and Devotion

The incident on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu has also highlighted the courage and devotion of the school staff and instructors who accompanied the students, as well as the efforts by the Mountain Torq trainers and Sabah mountain guides who helped evacuate our students to safety. As I mentioned earlier, we have heard the accounts of selfless acts of the adults who accompanied the students to Mount Kinabalu. We also know that all the teachers who accompanied the students had trained with the students for many months, and devoted much of their time and energy to carefully plan for this trip. What they did at Mount Kinabalu was a continuation of their care and devotion to our students. Their selfless acts and devotion to duty have drawn tributes from many Singaporeans, and have given rise to calls for formal recognition, including calls from Members of this House.

We will honour the staff and instructors who accompanied our students to Mount Kinabalu in a manner that is befitting of their courage and sacrifice. The Government will announce further details at the appropriate time.

Sabah Earthquake Fund

In addition, MOE has also launched the Sabah Earthquake Fund to help rebuild the lives that were affected by this earthquake. The donations will be a tangible way to provide financial assistance to the dependents of the two Singaporean teachers and one instructor who had lost their lives. Part of the Fund will also be passed to the Mountain Torq trainers and Sabah guides, as some had lost their lives, and the rest have to worry about their livelihood in the aftermath of the damage caused by the earthquake. This is a meaningful way for us to show our care for those affected by the Sabah earthquake, to whom we are indebted.

In conclusion, once again I want to thank the Malaysian authorities and the people of Sabah for their assistance and friendship.

I also want to thank the many agencies and people in Singapore who spontaneously came forward to assist and support the affected students and families, as well as the teachers and staff of TKPS. As the bereaved mourned the loss of their loved ones, our nation mourned with them. The staff of my Ministry, and I, myself, have been very moved to see Singaporeans’ solidarity and generosity of support during this difficult time.

Let us take this time to remember the grace and thoughtfulness of the parents and families of those who left us. Let us cherish and honour the spirit of our students, teachers and instructors. Let us be inspired by their courage, tenacity and determination to challenge themselves, brave adversity, and achieve their best.

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