by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun on 30 April 2015.

Over the weekend, I travelled to Kuala Krai in Kelantan, which was one of the worst hit areas as a result of the floods last December. Five months later, many families are still left in limbo as to their future.

Kuala Krai, a two-hour drive from Kota Bharu, is the scene of a town recuperating after the devastation just a few months earlier. The outer walls of the pasar besar (big market) were freshly painted a bright yellow, and had just opened a week before we visited. This means that for almost five months, locals would have had to buy their goods from small kedai runcit or travel some distance to larger towns to get major supplies.

One of the families we met at Kampung Embon shared how the only official help they received since the floods hit was a one-off payment of RM500. Apart from this, no other aid was forthcoming from either state or federal government, or NGOs, for the simple reason their village was slightly off the main road. Bulk supply of water was not systematically distributed to all households. In fact, it was individual support from Kuala Lumpur that helped in terms of providing food and basic supplies during the initial crisis period.

Wanting to hear about experiences of those living across the river, we crossed the Kelantan River in small five-seater boats and trekked up the slope in search of Pakcik Ibrahim. Kampung Keluat is a village of more than a hundred people, accessible only to the mainland of Kuala Krai by boat. There has been a vague promise of a bridge, but to no avail. Schoolchildren and those in need of medical care need to take boats to reach the nearest school or hospital; the only other alternative is to travel two hours to get to the other closest town by land, Tanah Merah.

Several houses by the riverside were literally swept away by the currents, especially vulnerable since they were on the riverbanks where the earth had completely fallen in. The waters rise particularly quickly here given its proximity to the river’s confluence.

The aftermath is still in plain sight – brick balconies, remnants of what was once a flight of steps, large concrete debris; makeshift toilets that used to be kandang kerbau (cows’ sheds); a dangerously precarious kampung house by the ledge being supported by a mere rambutan tree trunk. Makcik Fatimah had saved up and bought a television set just three weeks before the floods came, only to have it destroyed, along with her entire kitchen that was swept away.

It is NGOs that have come to help rebuild some of their homes, but even then these are just very basic plywood boxes and any extensions or additional roofing would need to be built on their own. Here there is no need for disgruntled disputes as to sources of funding – two organisations separately contribute to temporary housing, Muslim Care and “NGO orang putih” (foreign NGOs).

But perhaps the most interesting is that the 100-odd villagers ran inwards to seek refuge in a Hindu kuil in the middle of an adjacent rubber estate, which was on more elevated ground. They stayed there for a full three days and three nights without food, and with only rainwater to drink (after which it was safe enough to venture out by boat to look for food). As Muslims, it didn’t seem to matter to them that the shelter keeping them safe was essentially a place of worship of another religion altogether. Entering the kuil and sleeping there whilst the waters receded surely did not shake their akidah (faith).

This is the attitude Malaysians could take when interacting with a different faith from one’s own. Behaving like selfish children in demanding another place of worship’s religious symbol to be removed is not only an infringement of Article 11 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion and the freedom to practise that religion, but is also a display of insecurity in one’s own faith.

The trip was part of our IDEAS National Unity Youth Fellowship programme, during which we bring the 21 bright young Fellows to visit different states in Malaysia, speaking to local leaders and communities to find out challenges and concerns. Although conversations with the villagers in Kuala Krai hardly broached the subject of national unity, this trip reflected on what was truly important.

It is obviously socio-economic welfare that is of primary concern to those affected by the floods. Getting their lives and homes back in order, better access to schools and hospitals, and having jobs and stable incomes were things I heard from those on the ground most often during the trip (and not once about the importance of implementing hudud law).

And where faith is concerned, places of worship should not only be treated with mutual respect; their diversity ought to be celebrated as part and parcel of what informs Malaysia’s multiple identities. The villagers of Kampung Keluat sought shelter in another’s place of worship because they had no choice. For the rest of us, we have the choice of finding out about other faiths of our own free will, and in so doing learn from other religious teachings or values that would in fact eventually strengthen, and not weaken one’s belief system.

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Tricia Yeoh is the Chief Operating Officer of IDEAS

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