Helping Asean Friends in Need

loading Haiyan Relief Project.

What does regional disaster collaboration management entail? Penang Monthly explores this important issue, and Malaysia’s role in aiding neighbouring countries in trouble.

Over the years, Malaysia seems to have become more vulnerable to natural disasters, perhaps as a result of climate change. Extreme weather events have become common, as seen in the 2014 monsoon flooding that affected half a million people and cost the country RM2.85bil worth of damage to public infrastructure.[1] Additionally, Malaysia is located in one of the most natural disaster prone regions in the world. A total of 177,398 people were killed in 553 natural disasters recorded in Asean countries between 2005 and 2015.[2]

Natural disasters are multi-dimensional, and human activity is often interwoven with natural hazards, with the UN even defining a disaster as a “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society.” [3] The odds of a large-scale natural disaster occurring are quite low, but when it does, it brings a raft of cascading consequences to the public, impacting social, economic and political processes. [4]

There is growing awareness that collaboration across national borders can help in the various disaster management stages, such as preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.[5] When a disaster strikes, a designated public agency – usually a national disaster management organisation (NDMO) – is responsible for acting immediately to support affected communities. In the case of Malaysia, the National Security Council (MKN) was the designated NDMO, until the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) was established in 2015.

Asean member states are largely inspired by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The seven targets and four priorities for action enshrined in the framework aim to reduce disaster risk through collaboration between government agencies and their collaborative partners.[6] Yet in practice, collaboration is not always effective, and does not necessarily lead to expected outcomes. [7]

In disaster situations, inter-organisational and inter-disciplinary collaboration among diverse organisations is uncommon, be it within a country or beyond borders. Collaboration exists in the form of cooperation, coordination and partnerships, but existing structures, applications and levels of integration are not always conducive to this.[8] Furthermore, disaster management practitioners and key decision-makers from public agencies find collaboration difficult to develop and maintain.[9]

While NDMOs are officially mandated to handle matters related to disaster management, they may not necessarily possess all the resources required for a particular emergency. When disaster strikes, the response capability often exceeds the management capacity of most public agencies and single corporations.[10] Even a resource-rich developed country may be incapacitated in the face of a large-scale natural disaster. For instance, the failure in emergency response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in August 2005 was a result of uncoordinated planning, bureaucratic breakdown and disintegrated cooperation at all levels of government, as well as with its collaborative partners.[11]

Reaching a Consensus

A team of public health officers, public health engineers and villagers carry pipes to reinstall a water piping system after a massive flood in the Kuala Krai District, Kelantan in 2014.

In a 2016 crisis leadership programme at the University of Canterbury, attended by emerging leaders of Asean disaster management, participants observed that emergency managers, NGOs, regional organisations and private sector organisations were among the humanitarian assistance actors during disaster response operations.

Collaboration in the form of coordination and cooperation does take place in emergency responses. But responses to Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in the Philippines in 2013, the Sinabung volcano eruption in Indonesia in 2013 and the mega-flooding in Myanmar in 2015 shared some common operational challenges. There was a lack of common situational awareness and urgent assessment of the information needed for decision making and resource mobilisation, besides the problem of conflicting missions among actors and bureaucratic administrations.

Yet almost all participants at the leadership programme concurred on the need for inter-organisational collaboration in the various phases of disaster management. Drawing from their experiences, participants highlighted that private sector organisations are welcome to collaborate with the government in the prevention and mitigation phases, and NGOs are needed to support the work of public agencies during the phases of response and recovery.

Collaborative arrangements among different organisations can complement each other, particularly in situations that require timesensitive problem solving. In practice, organisation and inter-organisational collaborations have to tangle with different structures, systems and processes, and with the particular strengths and weaknesses of each partner. An integrated multi disciplinary and inter-organisational collaborative emergency management arrangement that addresses the multi-faceted challenges of disaster risk management is yet to be produced.

Preparing for Disaster

Aftermath of the Mount Sinabung volcano eruption in 2014.

The massive monsoon flooding in Kelantan and other east coast states between 2014 and 2015 saw Malaysia taking bold measures to strengthen the national integrated collaborative disaster management.

Nadma[12] has become the dedicated national coordinating agency overseeing all issues related to natural disaster management.[13] Nadma was placed under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Department (JPM), and has an expanding network consisting of the Special Malaysia Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (SMART), Malaysia Civil Defence Force (APM) and People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela), among others.

In order to have common operational awareness and unified response in disaster, APM – previously under the supervision of the Ministry of Home Affairs – was placed under JPM in July 2015.[14] Preparing the country for natural disaster threats – particularly caused by flooding and infrequent earthquakes – the Nadma team has conducted simulation exercises across the country to allow diverse agencies to familiarise themselves with coherent operating procedures, command and control, and to test the integrated communication systems.

The government also forged closer ties with the UN World Food Programme in joint-training and simulation exercises on emergency logistics arrangement. This collaboration is not only aimed at making Nadma a more efficient and effective disaster responder, but also at making Malaysia a role model for regional emergency logistics in terms of systems and procedures.

Malaysia’s Role in Disaster Management

As an active member in the Asean regional mechanism on disaster management, Malaysia is now the de facto regional hub for emergency logistics and supplies. The Disaster Emergency Logistic System of Asean (Delsa) relief depot was established in Subang and is managed by the UN Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD).[15]

Several initiatives are testament to Malaysia’s commitment towards advancing regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Malaysia has been the co-chair of the Asean Committee on Disaster Management (ACDM) Working Group on Preparedness and Response since 2012.

And after chairing Asean in 2015, Malaysia contributed to the strengthening of regional disaster response operations by organising the Asean Regional Forum Disaster Relief Exercise (ARF DiREx).[16] This large-scale biennial exercise, which was held in Kedah Perlis in 2015 with support from co-chair China, tested the effective implementation of the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (Aadmer) as the common platform for disaster management in the region.

From an Asean perspective, when a disaster-affected member state accepts assistance from other member states, it is not necessarily driven by a lack of material, technical or financial resources, but rather in resonance with the spirit of Aadmer and Asean solidarity.

In addition, information-sharing among Asean NDMOs through the web-based Emergency Operations Centre (WebEOC) administered by the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) has facilitated all Asean countries to have common situational awareness when a neighbour is tackling the consequences of a disaster.


Legitimacy and mandated agreements alone cannot assure the continuity and advancement of an inter-organisational collaboration, particularly in times of emergencies. In general, a collaborative arrangement is influenced and shaped by the forms, processes, memberships, and common and individual goals of the stakeholders. The uncertainty in the development of collaboration and its unknown outcomes make the inter-organisational collaboration dynamic.

A collaborative arrangement for natural disaster response is more likely to succeed when there is an accountability system in place to monitor and access input, processes and outcomes. Success is also more likely when that collaboration builds on technical competencies, and with the presence of keen conveners to create public values.

In 2017 Malaysia will assert its commitment to regional disaster management as the vice-chair of ACDM. In view of Malaysia’s commitment to both regional and international frameworks on disaster risk reduction, complemented by the availability of resources and a focal institution for disaster management, Malaysia can play the role of a convener at the regional level.

However, in-depth empirical research is still needed to examine the challenges of inter organisational collaborations in disaster contexts, and how such collaborations can be sustained and advanced.

  • [1] Muhyiddin Yassin, “Official Statement,” Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015,
  • [2] Statistics from the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT),
  • [3] “Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR),” United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2007,
  • [4] Ben Wisner, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability, and Disasters (New York: Routledge, 2004).
  • [5] Marjin Janssen, JinKyu Lee, Nitesh Bharosa and Anthony Cresswell, “Advances in Multi-Agency Disaster Management: Key Elements in Disaster Research,” Information Systems Frontiers 12, no. 1 (2010): 1-7.
  • [6] “Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction,” United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015,
  • [7] Mary M. Shaw, “Successful Collaboration Between the Nonprofit and Public Sectors.” Nonprofit Management and Leadership 14, no. 1 (2003): 107-20; David R. Connelly, Jing Zhang and Sue Faerman, “The Paradoxical Nature of Collaboration,” in Big Ideas in Collaborative Public Management, eds. Lisa Blomgren Bingham and Rosemary O’Leary (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2008), 17-35.
  • [8] Cynthia Hardy, Nelson Phillips and Thomas B. Lawrence, “Resources, Knowledge and Influence: The Organisational Effects of Interorganisational Collaboration,” Journal of Management Studies 40, no. 2 (2003): 321-47.
  • [9] Connelly, Zhang and Faerman, “The Paradoxical Nature of Collaboration.”
  • [10] Richard T. Sylves and Louise K. Comfort, “The Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spills: Reducing Risk in Socio-technical Systems,” American Behavioral Scientist 56, no. 1 (2012): 76-103.
  • [11] Robert B. Olshansky and Laurie A. Johnson, Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2010).
  • [12] “Government Sets up New National Disaster Management Agency,” The Star Online, September 2, 2015, my/news/nation/2015/09/02/government-newagency/.
  • [13] “Kerajaan Tubuh Agensi Pengurusan Bencana Negara,” Sinar Online, September 2, 2015, http://
  • [14] “Zahid: Department of Civil Defence Now Under Prime Minister’s Department,” July 29, 2015, article/zahid-department-of-civil-defence-nowunder-prime-ministers-department.
  • [15] “Kuala Lumpur,” United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot, 2015, kuala-lumpur.
  • [16] 6 Shahidan Kassim, “Asean Regional Forum Disaster Relief Exercise 2015 Closing Ceremony Speech,” Majlis Keselamatan Negara, 2015, https://www. 2015-closing-ceremony.
Lee Khiam Jin is currently completing a PhD at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He was formerly the chief administrative officer cum head of the Corporate Affairs and Programme Division of the AHA Centre in Jakarta. Lee has also served at Unescap’s Information and Communication Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division in Bangkok.

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