Featured image: Front page of the New Straits Times. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
It has been a bit more than a year since this site’s last post, and much consideration was made before this post was published. Today marks Day 19 of the MH370 search, our flag carrier believed to be lost at sea.
After more than two weeks into this tragedy we only know one thing for certain: The families and friends of those onboard that flight, and our nation as a whole, are in grief. The political types among us might like to call this “unity” but I cannot go further than to say we share a common feeling of helplessness and deep sadness. Not all of us are necessarily offended by criticisms and tough questions posed by the foreign media regarding Malaysia’s handling of this crisis, or the manner in which family members in China are expressing their concerns. And not being offended by these does not make us any less affected, empathetic or patriotic.
Who are we anyway to tell surviving family members and friends how they should feel and how they should grieve? We can only ask that volunteers and others providing family support services are not abused (again) while carrying out their duties. A rally outside the Malaysian embassy to express frustrations? While such gatherings may be uncommon in the People’s Republic of China it is not quite the case in Malaysia and many parts of the world. So why are we outraged by this display?
To be fair to the families and friends in China and here at home, the exact location of MH370 and the fate of those onboard are technically still unknown today despite daily media briefings and two statements by the Malaysian Prime Minister. In his last media appearance the Prime Minister announced that one source has narrowed in on the likely location of the aircraft based on “never before used” calculations which assumed the aircraft’s speed and altitude while in flight. He went further to say that the source is doing “further calculations on the data”. In short, the Prime Minister declared that MH370 “ended” based on a plausible but inconclusive theory.
So urgent was his revelation that a media briefing was convened at 10:00pm giving MAS an “incredibly short amount of time” to inform the families “before the world did”. The result was an international communications disaster that MAS had to later clarify and one that put the Chinese government on the offensive. What of the fate of those onboard? The Prime Minister did not say exactly except that the aircraft “ended” in a “remote location, far from any possible landing sites” and for the media to respect the privacy of the families. Soon after that came the flood of condolences on social media and by the next morning most of the country’s major newspapers went black.
At a time when a great many things are still unknown in this “unprecedented” tragedy, the Prime Minister implied that there are no survivors on MH370. Or did he? Surely this is not the occasion to practice the Malaysian kau-paham-paham-je-lah way of communicating as lives are involved. Whatever he really meant in his statement we must assume the Prime Minister’s officers had at least made clear to MAS as the airline is the bearer of news to the families.
At a subsequent media briefing by MAS, its Chairman said:
Based on this evidence, the prime minister’s message was that we must accept the painful reality that the aircraft is now lost and that none of the passengers or crew on board survived.Chairman, MAS
Now it does not get any more explicit than that. So why did the acting Minister of Transport then express hope when asked about survivors; when flags are already raised at half-mast in some locations around the country? Why are some of us upset that families in China demand clarity when here we are giving unclear if not conflicting messages? Why do we get defensive when our own miscommunication and mixed messages are rightly pointed out to us?
Many in Malaysia have accepted that there are no survivors on MH370 following the Prime Minister’s statement and given that the aircraft has been lost for more than two weeks, believed to be in the rough and cold waters of the Indian Ocean. This belief is indeed not unreasonable and does allow for some sort of closure, if not for the families then at least for the rest of us. That said, even the country’s Fatwa Council is not prepared to declare the passengers as deceased and have advised that the Muslim solat jenazah ghaib is not yet necessary as search operations are ongoing. The Council goes further to categorise the passengers as simply “missing”.
Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. It is one thing for Malaysia’s public communication to be in disarray in the first week of crisis—which it was, despite the acting Transport Minister’s defensive denial—but we are approaching the third week. Given the magnitude of this crisis and Malaysia’s dependence on other authorities for information, it might be acceptable for some information delay but it is not acceptable for information to be ambiguous or worse, conflicting.
The acting Transport Minister, the lead spokesperson, has to stop telling the media (and by extension the world) that a certain official (e.g. Inspector-General of Police) will appear the next day to answer questions only for that individual to not show up. He has to stop saying he “may consider” disclosing certain information when no such thing will ensue. He has to keep the daily MH370 media briefings focused by not inviting other irrelevant parties onboard (e.g. Malindo Air). As much as this incident has been a massive emotional roller-coaster, he also has to realise that being a father, brother and son cannot be a reason for a Minister to dodge a question from the media about those onboard the missing aircraft (as he did recently). The CEO of MAS is also a father, brother and son but he is not granted that leeway.
The said Minister needs to come to an urgent realisation that he is not addressing an ever-nodding, hero-worshipping party assembly. The ample congratulatory mentions sent to him following his media briefings and vanity Tweets are not necessarily reflective of the audience at large. Nevermind the foreign media, there are many of us at home who want clear communication on this matter.
Seeing that MH370 is still not found, best for the Minister and team to take a deep breath and get their public relations act together. We will be tuning in at 5:30pm, daily.
Note: As a Malaysian, a “MAS baby” and friend of a passenger onboard MH370, here’s extending gratitude to all those who work tirelessly in the Search & Rescue operations. One must acknowledge that Malaysia’s years of successful foreign diplomacy is at the root of the overwhelming international help we have received in this time of need. No other nation can yet say that 26 countries have cooperated and mobilised resources to help find their one missing aircraft and friends. To the families and friends of those onboard, as well as the entire MAS family, know that many, many, many of us grieve with you.