Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 17 March 2014

Reflections on Flight MH370

The disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines plane prompts us to reflect on fate, the sorrow of loss, and a mystery of facts that are stranger than fiction.   


World attention has focused the past week on the missing Malaysian Airlines plane.  For Malaysians, it’s been an especially tense and intense experience.

Of the many aspects surrounding the disappearance of MH370, the most deeply felt and most painful is the loss of loved family members and friends. 

Having to endure the sorrow, mixed with uncertainty of what happened, are Malaysians, Chinese and citizens of many other countries who are relatives of people who were on board.

As long as MH 370 was not yet found, there was the hope, however distant as the days went by, that the plane could have somehow landed somewhere, and that the missing people were safe.

Miracles happen after all.  Many years ago, when news came of the crash of a small private plane, the newspapers published obituaries of the life and career of Tan Sri Ghazali Shafee, the former Home Minister who was the passenger.

But the next day, he walked out of the jungle, having survived the crash and getting assistance from villagers.

Amidst the many stories last Friday that the plane possibly flew over the Indian ocean, before crashing there, there was also an article quoting an analyst that was convinced the plane may have landed somewhere in that area.

Family members of the missing have been recalling the memories of their loved ones.  There is the story of the young Malaysian couple who married in 2012, and was now on their way to their delayed honeymoon in China.

Another poignant story was in the form of hopeful and heartbreaking tweets that a young daughter has been sending to her missing father, the plane’s Chief Steward.

“Come home daddy, it’s the only thing I want,” tweeted Maria Nari the day the plane went missing. On subsequent days the tweets continued.  “Daddy, you’re all over the news.  Come home fast so you can read them!”   

“Daddy it’s been 48 hours, don’t forget to eat your dinner, you must be starving.”  “Normally at this hour he would tell me this, don’t sleep so late, OK?  Goodnight, daddy.”

The focus has been on the fate of missing passengers.  But there were also 12 MAS crew members on board. 

We usually take airline crew almost for granted, when they serve us on board. Maria’s tweets remind us that the crew take more risks, since they are almost daily on the planes. 

Yes, it is easy to forget that there are risks in flying.  We are told that modern aircraft are now very safe and that we are far more likely to die from a car accident than from a plane crash.

Few if any of us listen when the crew demonstrate safety procedures.  We seldom if ever imagine that the plane we are on will get into trouble, let alone crash.

MH370 removes that complacency.  Incidents, fatal ones, can and do happen. And it can happen to someone you know or are close to, and it can happen to you yourself.  

Any of us who use planes might have been on that ill-fated flight.  This reminded me of words of the folk song by Joan Baez:   “And I’ll show you, with so many reasons why/ There but for fortune, go you and I”.   

It was pure chance that five passengers who were booked that night did not turn up, missed the flight, and made way for four others who were on standby and were able to get on.  Fate dealt each of them a hand, and their lives changed forever.

The disappearance of flight MH370 has caused a lot of frustration, especially to the families of the missing, with so little information trickling out even after so many days. 

There were contradictions in many strands of the information given by different people, denials of rumours speculated in the press, false leads when debris floating in the seas turned out to be unrelated to the plane.

Malaysia was criticised by the international media and aviation experts for giving out information that was conflicting, too little and too delayed.  In response the authorities said there was too much unfounded speculation, little reliable information to give out, and sensitive data had to be corroborated and confirmed first.   

For Malaysia, it was a test of performance under stress and held in the global spotlight.  One lesson is that crisis management, collaboration with other countries, and communicating with the media and the public, all have to be improved.

For the public around the world, the most intriguing aspect of MH370 was the incredibly changing story of what happened to the plane.

There were many dramatic twists and turns in the theories and stories of what happened, pieced together from data and signals tracked from the plane by military radar.

The story kept changing, as more information emerged.  First, MH370 lost contact and must have crashed in the sea half way between Vietnam and Malaysia.  Then came news that the plane may have turned around and tried to head back to KL. 

Next was the sensational information that a plane (that could be MH370) had crossed the peninsular from the East to the Malacca Straits north-west of Penang.

There came was the incredible news that the plane may have flown on for four or five hours, or over 2,000 miles, after losing contact when it was over the sea north east of Kota Baru.  

The plane may have flown over the Indian Ocean, possibly near the Andaman Islands.

This is the strangest missing plane incident in recent history, a fact stranger than fiction, except that the fact itself was still not revealed.

Most people love a mystery, especially one in real life rather than a book, and one which did not seem to have an ending.

First, where was the plane?  Second, how did it get there?  Third, who or what incident caused it to get there and why?

Even after the plane is found, on land or under the sea, the questions will continue to reverberate for a long time, until all the answers are found.