The government performance in managing the recent crisis caused by Typhoon Hato has revealed some major problems of governance in Macau. All the textbooks on managing crises, especially where they involve large numbers of people, tell us that poor preparation and communications quickly lead to breakdowns in operational responses; confusion, fear and anger among the people affected by the crisis; perceptions that crisis leadership is inept, at best, and criminally negligent at worst; and long, dragged out, and excessively costly, resolution of the resulting problems. In Macau, with the recent typhoon we seem to have experienced all of these poor crisis management issues, and more.
The first, and most obvious, rule of crisis management is to be prepared and anticipate what problems might occur. Typhoons have been happening in this region forever, and climate change is unsettling weather patterns so they are only going to get worse. Civil infrastructure is often designed for the “100-year worst case”, and Typhoon Hato is the worst one in the last 50 years so it is well within the worst case scenario which should guide Macau planning.
The fact that windows have been blown out of relatively new buildings all over town indicates that the building design codes are either inadequate or not properly enforced. Either oversight is totally unacceptable – we pay the civil servants involved well, and should demand competent performance.
The older parts of Macau have been flooding after heavy storms for many, many years. Clearly, the storm water systems are inadequate and this is a well known and long standing problem that should have been rectified years ago. Cost is not the issue – the government never spends its annual budget, and the manpower and expertise to do the work is readily available in the region. Similarly, issues of electricity supply failures are also well known and could have been resolved by spending money. The electricity company seems to make good profits, perhaps at the local community’s expense because they have not been adequately investing in supply infrastructure. And the same goes for the water company.
The second rule of crisis management is good communications and leadership by people who have been well trained and prepared. Government communications seem to have been largely non-existent during the recent typhoon. There seem to be no spokespeople, training or preparation. Also, the only working communications channels seem to have been social media, with all their problems of false rumours and panic. The crisis response by the local cable TV company seems to have been to simply shut down operations and abandon ship. By contrast, the local TV station tried to keep people informed, and full marks to them. The government website and social media presence seems to have been largely non-existent. On this point, it is totally unacceptable in a place with so many tourists and expatriate workers, to not provide information in English (the international language) as well as Chinese.
The third rule of crisis management is notification and monitoring systems. Most of this seems to have come from the general public posting photos and other information on social media. And members of the public initiating and coordinating clean-up efforts. The only other group to have made a significant and coordinated effort has been the PLA – and they deserve great thanks. Why has government leadership and coordination been largely non-existent – again, this is totally unacceptable. Are government jobs just sinecures, or do we really expect competence from our civil servants?
We must do better at handling public crises in the future in Macau, and the way forward is relatively clear. It is well past time for improvements to begin.