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I, too, could have drowned

By YS Chan

THERE is much water in and around Malaysia. Our coastline is 4,675km, making it the 29th longest in the world.

Indonesia, with around 18,000 islands, has the second longest coastline in the world totalling 54,716km but only 922 islands are inhabited. The coastline for the Philippines is fifth longest, at 36,289km from its 7,100 islands.

It would be interesting to find out whether our neighbours have more cases of drowning in the sea than us.

A lot of drowning cases occurred inland, from mountain streams to river estuaries, in lakes and ponds, in drains and flood waters, in construction sites and swimming pools.

The average rainfall in our country is high, at 250cm a year, with Kuching the most at 413 cm, and Chuping in Perlis the lowest at 174cm.

Interestingly, the highest and lowest rainfalls recorded in a year were two towns in Sabah which are only 178km apart. In 2006, 569cm of rain felled on Sandakan, and only 115cm on Tawau in 1997.

That had been many incidences of people swept away be swirling flood waters, especially in the rural areas.

People in the urban areas are not spared. Those falling into a monsoon drain may not survive, even for the strongest swimmers, as they would be sucked into the water and stuck in crevices.

A mountain stream may appear to be placid but a natural dam built up by fallen tree branches upstream may suddenly burst, sending down tons of water and sweeping everything in its path.

Those in or beside the stream would hear a thunderous sound and just look up. By the time they see the rushing water, it would be too late for many to escape.

There were no public swimming pools in Klang in the 1960s and my school often organise excursions to Ulu Langat and Morib, the nearest sandy beach 47km away.

Thanks to a teacher who showed me how to swim in Morib, I learned it instantly because I was fearless. Before I learned how to swim, I often dipped myself in the murky swamp water in Pandamaran holding on to a boat rowed by a friend.

Had I slipped, I would be part of the statistics, which are about 700 deaths per year. Children have been advised to call for help and not try to save a drowning child.

But this is easier said than done. In Ulu Langat, a schoolmate did not realise the stream was deeper than he thought, panicked and struggled in the water.

I jumped in immediately to rescue, only to be pushed down by him so that he could climb out. I suffered no harm but learned to be careful in rescuing people.

I trained myself to hold my breath for a long time to swim underwater. For example, when I swam regularly at the age of 38, I could swim the length of a 50m swimming pool underwater before resurfacing.

I did the same in Port Klang in another one of my school’s outings. I did not own a pair of goggles and had to close my eyes. It was noisy under the sea, compared to a swimming pool.

When I resurfaced, I was shocked to find myself very far from where I had started. Only then did I realise the force of a sea current.

Since then, I no longer swim in the sea. Besides, gulping in some sea water can make me feel like throwing up.

Every year, drowning cases have been reported at popular beaches, most of them swept away by currents, which the public are unaware of.

While conducting training on safety and security, it is usual to find half of these adult participants could not swim.

Unlike in cold countries which require heated swimming pools in winter, Malaysia is a paradise for swimming. Our seas are relatively warm, unlike those that are so cold that people could die of hypothermia.

All school children should be taught how to swim. Education is meaningless if there is no personal development such as becoming a better person with universal values, and armed with communication and survival skills.

Like a moth to a flame, water is irresistible to children. It takes more than children and their parents to prevent drowning. I was lucky to survive.

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