My thoughts on the Mount Kinabalu tragedy

My thoughts on the Mount Kinabalu tragedy

In April this year my daughter went overseas for 4 days for her Year 5 school camp. The great thing about Singapore is that within one hour you can reach exotic locations that make great experiences, especially for school children learning to expand their horizons and challenge themselves.

This trip was the first time my daughter had been away from home for such an extended period. She is a rather anxious child, and in the lead up had had a nightmare that the boat sank. Never one to ignore a premonition and also being a professional problem-solver, I tried to stay calm and explain what she would need to do if that situation panned out. I even called the school to double-check that there would be enough life jackets on the boat. I was reassured.

So we all bid farewell to our children and for the next 4 days received very detailed emails from the school about their daily activities. The house was painfully quiet during those 4 days and I was desperate to pick up my daughter.

So on the 4th day all the parents headed off to the ferry terminal as a massive electrical storm hit Singapore. The boat arrived. But our children did not. We waited and waited until the last passengers exited. No school group. Everything was calm and patient until one parent became hysterical and mentioned the Korean boat tragedy. It sent a ripple of panic through the group of mums. Eventually nearly 1.5 hours later, our children arrived. The storm had meant that they gotten on a different boat which delayed their departure. They were fine.

11 days ago a group of 29 year six students from the lovely local public school up the road went on their Year 6 end of year camp. The scene was familiar – the gorgeous group of kids posing for photos excitedly before a paparazzi of anxious and proud parents. These kids were heading off on a special leadership adventure that would see them challenge themselves by trekking up Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, a hugely popular tourist destination. A fitting end to the primary school years.

But an earthquake hit the mountain while the children were on it. 7 children, 2 teachers and a local guide perished. Gone. In an instant.

Several children were injured. A school community traumatised.  A nation in mourning.

If Mother Nature were indeed a Mother, she could never have done this.

I watched the news as details unfolded. The news got worse and worse. And then I realised that I knew one of the children, who had miraculously survived. It was horrible.

What can you do? You can’t blame an earthquake. It is completely unforeseen. This was a total, paralysing tragedy.

Logically, as a parent, you know that the best thing for your children is to give them opportunities to leave you for a bit to try new things that build their confidence and develop their social and leadership skills.

You know that as child you went away to youth and school camps that were totally amazing experiences that shaped you.

But you don’t want your children to go. Because they are the most precious thing you have. You want to keep your eyes on them every second. But if you do that, they won’t be as independent and confident as you are. But then you fear what will happen if you let them out of your sight. And then you realise that within one second something could happen that could leave you paralysed.

When a close friend of mine who got pregnant later in life asked me what the biggest change would be, I said, “welcome to the world of worry.” Because as a mother, not a second goes by from the moment you lay eyes on your child, that you aren’t consumed by your worst fears. But you carry on and keep yourself busy with work and conversations and chores. And then in a free and quiet moment that fear taps you on your shoulder.

Fear is paralysing. It stops us as parents from letting our children experience what we did as children. So we buy electronics and fill their afternoons and weekends with structured activities. Because it makes us feel better. Are we in fact doing everything for our children, or have we just become totally self-absorbed?

My daughter was so excited to see me at the ferry station. She threw her backpack on the floor and hugged me exhaustedly. In the car on the way back home, she told me everything that was bad about camp. The mosquitos, the food, that she cried because was very homesick. But that camp was 8/10 and awesome and she was brave and did the zip line and jumped off the back of the boat into a net and kayaked and got to walk out into the shallows and collect shells.

But there are a group of parents who will never get to hear their child complain. They won’t be able to hear how awesome that climb up the mountain was. They won’t hear their child’s excited voice detail their accomplishments. They won’t be able to take them home, shower them, feed them, or put them to bed. They won’t ever see their child’s eyes or see their smile or hear their voice. They won’t feel their skin or breath them in when they kiss them goodnight. And that is totally and utterly devastating.

But as parents we need to keep pushing our children to take risks and learn and grow. As hard as that is.


My thoughts and prayers are with all the year 6 parents at Tanjong Katong Primary School. May they be able to heal.