Should report on JB hospital fire be made public?

By Wong Chee Tuck

The Johor Bahru Sultanah Aminah Hospital fire that happened on Oct 25, 2016, at the southern intensive care unit killed six patients. It is a tragedy that must not be forgotten, and all possible lessons need to be drawn and learnt. The people must not fall into social amnesia.

The seven-man inquiry committee recently submitted its findings to the health ministry. Its members also urged the ministry to “declassify” the investigation report and make it public.

The body formed to probe the cause of the fire is an independent investigation committee set up by the government. It is debatable why a public inquest or public inquiry was not instituted in the first place, so that releasing the report to the public would not be an issue. Whatever it is, there is a need for the committee to ask for approval to make the report public.

Be it a public inquiry or not, why is it important to make the report public? All these inquiry systems are set up to investigate events which have or could have caused serious public concern.

The critical concern with the JB hospital fire is that the most basic human right – that everyone has a right to life and cannot be unjustly killed – could have been violated. The six patients died in a place where the sacred duty is to save lives, yet they died a cruel death. This is the greatest irony of all. The state has not protected its citizens from unwanted deaths, whatever the victims’ station in life may be. The state must answer and be accountable for its failure to uphold its responsibilities.

The public must know why such a disaster happened and be given the assurance that such incidents will not be repeated. Members of the public are generally laypeople. When they walk into a public space, they must feel safe, and not as though they are walking into a death trap. This is exactly what happened at the hospital’s ICU – it was a death trap for the unsuspecting victims.

Former health minister Dr S Subramaniam was reported to have said that the fire was caused by a fluorescent light capacitor which ignited some combustible materials in its proximity. The framing of the causal relationship between the hospital fire and lighting capacitor is rather simplistic. A reductionist approach of all political, legal, ethical and moral issues to merely a technical concern is rather outmoded in the 21st century. Since the cause of the fire was the capacitor, the obvious solution is to change old capacitors to new or better ones.

A technical issue simply requires a technical solution. The technical persons may then be the sacrificial lambs to cover the faults of major decision makers. This does not mean that those in the former group are free from blame. But it is probable that the key decision makers in the top hierarchy have largely lost managerial control over the safety of people, and the fall guy is the laughably tiny capacitor.

But the issue goes deeper: was the fire foreseeable and preventable? If not, why not? A faulty capacitor leading to fire is a decades-old and low-tech issue. Since the capacitor sparked off the fire which led to multiple deaths, something must have gone seriously wrong in the managing of risk by all relevant parties.

The public must know the full story. Citizens must have the right to determine how safe is “safe enough” and what risks to health and safety are acceptable. Certain democratic procedures must be established so that the public can voice their concerns over safety issues as their own lives are at stake. Without checks and balances from the public, certain members of the hospital management and the health ministry may operate differently from their avowed aim to provide compassionate care to the public.

The public must also know whether crony capitalism which worships the maximisation of profits over the worth of human life has infected the system.

Without correct, relevant and updated information, the public cannot exert effective checks on their own health and safety. It is of critical importance that the investigation findings be made public. The decision process pertaining to the safety of persons in public spaces must be democratised.

There have been concerns about whether public inquiries are appropriate for investigations into disasters as the adversarial nature of the inquiries may not lead to the truth of the matter. Also, the government of the day may not like to be blamed for its failure to protect the citizens. This similarly applies to whether the investigation report prepared by the committee should be made public.

Despite the possible shortcomings of inquiries being made public, on the whole, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages as the exact root cause(s) of the disaster will be identified. Coverups or bleaching of the issues may have short-term gain for the government of the day, but it will come back to haunt the people in the long term. Cost and benefit analysis must not be allowed to override the right to life.

The public expects the officers in the new government to have the moral courage to conduct a surgical operation to root out the deep-seated malignant and toxic tumours of utter disregard for human worth and life.

Wong Chee Tuck is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.