The day the government apologised

Hato scarred Macau in many ways. One of the most curious and unprecedented: the government accepted widespread criticism, acknowledged its mistakes, and even apologised

In an unprecedented act of public contrition to the people of Macau, the Chief Executive appeared in public 48 hours after the passage of Hato and apologised.

“These two days, we have faced an extremely difficult test together. Hato was the strongest typhoon in 53 years and has brought tremendous damage to Macau,” said Chui Sai On. “In facing this disaster, we admit that we have not done enough, there is room for improvement. Here I represent the MSAR Government in expressing our apologies to residents.”

In this intervention – which began with a minute of silence in memory of the victims – Chui Sai On still tried to say that the government had undertaken “proper preparations” but nobody wanted to hear. For two days the government was attacked by various media (mainly through social networks) and by numerous voices for issues as diverse as the late hoisting of the T10 signal (some 2 hours and 20 minutes after Hong Kong), huge problems with the operation of the emergency number, which proved unable to answer all calls, slow restoration of energy and water services, and poor communication with the public of Macau.

Chui insisted with this idea: “Hato was the strongest typhoon in 53 years and has brought tremendous damage to Macau” – but in the memory of many residents (and in the news that has since surfaced) were the floods resulting from the passage of typhoons Hagupit, Vicente and Koppu, between 2008 and 2012.

“Short term measures will soon be in place to ward off any ‘once in a decade storm’, while there will be mid to long term action to raise the height of the Inner Harbour embankment area to keep the city [safe] in a ‘once in a century storm’.”

Who said that? Lau Si Io, former Secretary for Transport and Public Works. In 2012.

Not surprising, then, that when the Working Paper on the Assessment of the Hato Typhoon Passage prepared by a group of experts from the National Commission for Disaster Reduction was published a month later, much criticism was levelled.

Among them: poor risk perception and psychological preparation, in situations of normality, where there is little preparation in terms of preventing and responding to catastrophes; weak foundations in the work of preventing typhoon damage and rising tide, among others; inadequacies in the system of prevention, reduction and response to emergencies to natural disasters; strong need to acquire essential disaster response capabilities such as human resources with technical and specialised expertise, equipment, monitoring and alarm services, support preparedness and rescue; or public attention to the prevention of the risks of natural disasters, with a need to strengthen the public willingness to co-operate in dealing with dangerous situations, whether in the search for shelter or the provision of aid.

This report was so unequivocal that apparently no further action was taken. But when MPs Au Kam San and Ng Kuok Cheong tried to have a hearing in the Legislative Assembly to determine responsibility they received only 5 votes in favour (22 against).

“The Macau Government’s response was very poor,” states political commentator Bill Chou. “The people whose homes were damaged during the typhoon could barely be offered shelter by the government. The Customs department and fire service were slow in dispatching rescue teams to save drowning people or escort people to safer shelters. The supply of fresh water was far from enough when the stoppage of power supply cut off tap water.

“The owners of the cars damaged on government property such as public car parks could not receive adequate compensation. The government also failed to hold enough officials accountable for the disaster and the mishandling of disaster relief. It was slow in introducing preventive measures to reduce the risk of flooding,” Mr. Chou told Macau Business.

“The Macau Government’s response was very poor” – Bill Chou

Another political commentator, Sonny Lo, asked from a future-centered perspective whether the government could turn the crisis into an opportunity: “the government relied upon the invitation of Mainland experts to assess the situation. Although its reports on the Hato Typhoon attack did combine some insights from the Mainland delegation of experts with their own assessment, the entire typhoon incident and the sluggish government response reflected complacency on the part of both the government and its people for many years. It is time for the government to be more proactive, to show real leadership, and to have crisis consciousness all the time.”

University of Macau professor Eilo Yu, in presenting a study on the Crisis Management in Macau and the implications of Typhoon Hato, stated that “the government appeared not to be explaining to people what had happened. They told me that they did not know what to do and that they were not receiving guidance at the co-ordination level.”


Polls point up disapproval

The most ‘similar’ to elections to choose the Chief Executive in Macau is the ‘Macau Annual Survey’ from the University of Hong Kong.

If we look at the indicators available through the Public Opinion Programme it turns out that Chui Sai On failed: the ‘Rating of Chief Executive Chui Sai On (2009-2017)’ showed the lowest values ever.

‘Hypothetical Voting on Chui Sai On as Chief Executive’ is even more unequivocal: more than 65 per cent of respondents said they would not vote for him.

“The low popularity rate is certainly related to the consequence of Hato. Chui failed to position himself as the leader in disaster relief, nor assure the public that the MSAR Government was able to restore order. The hardship of the public was dampened by the government’s long-time negligence of flood prevention and stable supply of electricity,” says Bill Chou.

“The government under Chui, perhaps in the minds of some citizens, was mediocre, relied upon annual subsidies to address the income gap, and did not show impressive performances in terms of crisis management, public administration and farsighted housing reforms. Hato was one of the reasons but not the only factor,” adds Sonny Lo.


Billions

On the 23rd August, the government will certainly not fail to take stock of what has been done for a year to compensate the victims of the tropical storm.

It will not be the definitive balance yet but Chui Sai On can advance a value very close to what will become the end.

In two areas compensation is taking longer to complete: damage to homes and vehicles (in the latter case, the law allowing a tax repayment scheme to purchase a new car or motorbike was approved only three months ago).

In other areas the answers were faster.

Three months after Hato, the Economic Bureau received some 21,000 applications to obtain support from the government for small and medium-sized enterprises, and around 17,000 had already been approved, worth MOP2 billion.

For its part, Macau Foundation granted more than MOP400 million in the first six months after the typhoon.

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