Current Affairs

MH370: Business as usual, or lessons learned

By Charles Santiago, Member of Parliament for Klang

Almost one month ago Malaysians woke up to the news that the MH370 flight from its federal capital of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing had gone missing. And, we are still searching for answers.

During this time, we read one too many conspiracy theories juxtaposed against sheer anguish and grief of family members, who were holding out hope for their loved ones.Prominent news organizations stirred up even more emotions with their coverage, some of which ranged from egregious news to fake reports.

But in this frenzy of events one thing stood out like a sore thumb – the communication blunder by the Malaysian government.

If anything, this tragedy showcased the country’s biggest weakness – its culture of secrecy. It showed how ruling politicians were accustomed to choosing the piece of information they would like to feed the local media with.

It also showed how the government hid the truth.

But all that changed with the crisis. The government and top ranking civil servants were forced to answer the foreign media, which showed no mercy in its line of questioning.

Scrambling for answers, Malaysian authorities at their best could only come up with incoherent, contradictory statements. Announcements were made but recanted hours later, adding to the existing confusion.

It was not at all an easy feat to manage this crisis. Malaysia has never seen a tragedy of this scale. But the inconsistency in the information disseminated incurred the government the wrath of the family members whose children, husbands, wives and relatives were on the plane.

I do admit that acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has risen to the occasion but him alone does not make the Malaysian government. Apart from making occasional appearances, Prime Minister Najib Razak was largely missing from the scene. And he could certainly learn a thing or two from his Australian counterpart.

Premier Tony Abbott made an announcement about a possible sighting of the plane’s wreckage in Parliament, indicating that he is serious about finding the jet and more importantly, that he is above partisan politics.

In direct contrast, a simple request for a briefing for opposition lawmakers has been ridiculed, questioned and nonchalantly dismissed by ruling party supporters. We rule three states in the country, two of which are the richest and most developed. And Opposition parliamentarians make a fairly big sum in the composition of Malaysia’s Parliament.

Ruling and Opposition politicians could have stood side by side, in solidarity, in the face of this national crisis. But we were not even informed beforehand about Najib’s definitive announcement of the flight ending in the Southern Indian Ocean.

That very announcement was later refuted by the UK-based satellite company, Immarsat, which said it did not make the definitive conclusion. This further infuriated the families of the Chinese nationals on board the missing plane, prompting them to verbally abuse the Malaysian government.

Malaysians reacted strongly to the Chinese families calling the government liars and murderers. They took to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to hit back at the Chinese families, an action which was mistakenly construed by the government as overwhelming support for them.

Notwithstanding their simplistic notion, the tragedy has shown the good side of Malaysians, who came together to hold candle vigils and interfaith prayers for those on board the missing plane. It was heartwarming.

I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the search and rescue team members, who despite lethargy and the notoriously rough Southern Indian Ocean, are working on tirelessly to bring a closure to this devastating tragedy.

Twenty-six countries are working together but how much is being shared remains a question.

Territorial disputes over islands and sea lanes on the South China Sea between Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia may have pressured governments to hush up about satellite images, fearing accusations of spying. And super powers like the US may not be telling us all that they know.

We have seen heart-wrenching scenes of wailing mothers and grief-stricken family members over almost a month now. They need to know what happened to the flight, which made a surprising turn just at the point of handover from Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City, and flew West.

The Malaysian military radar had picked up a blip on its screen when the jet changed its route. But the government took one week to admit this gross negligence. And it was a crucial week that was spent scouring the South China Sea as opposed to the Indian Ocean.

Time is of essence here. And as I write this, the time to find the black box is almost over. It’s pinger signals will die Monday due to the 30-day battery life.

Investigators will be able to help the families and country move on as a whole if they find the black box, which may hold the key to what happened to the flight.

We have nine ships, ten aircrafts and one black box detector searching the sea. Our only hope at this point in time seems to be the pulse signal detected within the 217,000 sq km search area in the Indian Ocean. The signal, measuring 37.5 Khz per second is a man- made noise and not natural to the sea. This news, therefore, is cause for some optimism.

But the pulse signal needs to be verified. And we do not know how long this verification process will take. So we will continue to hope.

And that includes the hope that the Malaysian government will finally learn that information cannot be suppressed, the media cannot be used as its propaganda tool and gross negligence of duty and total disregard of Parliament cannot be accepted as a norm.

So yes, I will continue to hope…

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