Failure to pool information haunts saga of missing flight

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

The sad saga of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 supposedly flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but whose fate is still unknown, tells many stories of our times.

There is the mystery of what happened to the aircraft. There are large questions about the competence of the Malaysian authorities. There are revealing questions about the value of human lives and the values of peoples and governments in trying to protect and care for human life.

Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, took seven days before admitting that the flight’s communications systems had been switched off and that MH370 had been tracked for seven hours since its last contact in a different direction from the one to which it was supposed to be going. He refused to state that the aircraft had been hijacked and merely said that “we are investigating all possibilities as to what caused the aircraft to deviate from its original flight path.”

These comments speak volumes about the incompetence or culpability of the Malaysian government: Did the government not know what was happening, or did it just fail to share its information with people who might have helped?

For days after the last contact, the search effort was concentrated in the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam when clearly the aircraft had flown away in another direction.

Malaysia’s public point man is acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is also minister of defense. He is regarded as a political heavyweight, a cousin of Prime Minister Najib. Indeed, Hishammuddin’s father, Hussein Onn, succeeded Najib’s father Abdul Razak as prime minister, and there have been suggestions that Hishammuddin will take over from Najib.

They are all part of an all too familiar Asian story of political family dynasties. The same happens in India, in Japan, in Singapore, even in China. Political power does not translate into competence.

Did Hishammuddin not think, as transport minister, that it might be worth talking to himself as defense minister to ask his armed forces what their signals had picked up, especially when the military got involved in the search and rescue?

It is a weak defense to say that he did not want to scare people with wild unproven theories. The Internet has gone berserk with all sorts of theories. The Wall Street Journal and other foreign newspapers told the world, several days before Razak admitted it, that the aircraft had flown on for several hours after the last routine message from the flight deck in a totally different direction from its flight path to Beijing.

Did the Muslim-dominated government suspect an Islamic plot, and that was why it kept quiet? Malaysia’s ruling party and its ruling families have maintained unbroken power for more than 50 years by gerrymandering boundaries, bullying the press and critics with the Official Secrets Act and the Internal Security Act, and giving favors to the Malay majority in a multi-ethnic country of Malays and other indigenous peoples, Chinese and Indians.

Sadly the talent of the government has not grown with the riches that its rulers have amassed. They were not ready to cope with a major disaster or with a probing press backed by angry relatives and an angry China because 163 of the 227 passengers on MH370 were Chinese.

Who will now trust security at Kuala Lumpur airport, even though the Malaysian authorities are among the majority in the world who do not check the international database of stolen passports (only the United States, United Kingdom and Emirates do)? Who will put Malaysia Airlines as their favorite airline? What new draconian measures will governments put in place in the name of security? The only way of bringing real security to a flight is to drug all passengers and carry them in coffins. If the pilots were involved, the only safe way will be to develop robot pilots.

The last words from the flight deck were, “All right, good night,” as MH370 left Malaysian air space and prepared to go into Vietnamese air space.

Vietnam said the flight never entered its air space. No distress signal was received. The day after its disappearance, Hishammuddin said the aircraft might have turned back toward Malaysia, but he did not reveal the basis for this thought, and the search continued in the South China Sea with false sightings. Three days after the last message from the flight, the head of Malaysia’s air force was reported as saying that the flight had been detected in the Malacca Strait on the other, western, side of Malaysia, more than an hour after its last contact. But he later denied the claim.

After Najib’s press conference, the mystery became more mysterious and the speculations wilder. The options given by the Malaysian government for the whereabouts of MH370, given that it had flown for seven hours after contact was lost, were that it was in a flight corridor between Thailand and Kazakhstan or that it had flown south to the vastness of the Indian Ocean. Surely, if it had flown the northern option, governments of India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, all with sensitive equipment to detect intruding aircraft, would have found it. Those governments should speak and rule out the intrusion of MH370, so that the search could be concentrated on the southern vastness.

Some Western newspapers speculated on an al-Qaida involvement and shoe bombs to open the flight deck doors as part of a hijack. Hijackers generally seek to make a point: What was it this time?

Why fly for another seven hours to crash out of fuel, or did they land somewhere?

Were the pilots involved?

Why did Malaysia wait so long before checking on the pilots’ backgrounds?

Who can be safe and how can security protect us if pilots disable aircraft systems and go off on an adventure of their own?

There are obvious questions that must be asked of the shadowy military forces that tracked MH370 after it lost contact. What did the Malaysian military know, and why did they not tell search and rescue to go to the Indian Ocean? Equally pertinent, what did the U.S. spy-trackers know? Did U.S. newspapers get a tip about the aircraft changing course, because the U.S. did not want to tell the Malaysians directly, or because the Malaysians did not respond to American information?

A disaster like this should have prompted the emergency services of all countries to pool their information to discover what happened to MH370, in real time or at least within a day. Evidently that didn’t happen; so much for a world that cares about the fate of human beings.

International media coverage of the plight of MH370 has been intense, not just in countries from which loved ones were on board. How many hours and how much money has been spent on looking for the doomed aircraft in the wrong places because the Malaysians were not honest?

We would not begrudge one penny if the aircraft is found safe and sound. The death of any of the 239 people on board diminishes us all.

We saw the same concern with the 33 miners trapped in Chile in 2010, which was followed breathlessly moment by moment on global television until the miners were safely rescued. Every day hundreds of people die from hunger or accident or disease that could have been prevented.

Every day governments of the so-called “great powers” — great in muscle but not in brain or moral sense — add to the numbers of those who die unnecessarily. Deadly drones targeted by the U.S. strike innocent and guilty alike. Russia condemns hundreds to death every day by its support for Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad. Bureaucrats the world over reduce people to mere numbers.

Perhaps only brave reporters portray people as alive, who could make a contribution to the world that would be just as important — but less selfish or bloody — than those of Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. The problem is how to recognize the potential of human beings without waiting for a tragedy like MH370.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.