COMMENT The loss of MH370 will be a defining moment in the country’s history. While attention rightly focuses on comforting families, finding the plane and what has caused this tragedy, the event has shown the depth of caring among Malaysians.
Across faiths, ethnic groups and borders, Malaysians have reached out to each other and to friends. Pride has been put aside in accepting international help and social media on the whole has shared more messages of hope than division. In the shared sadness of loss, the tragedy had revealed and reinforced a strong sense of community.
The image of an interfaith prayer led by former PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was perhaps the most powerful moment over the weekend, as it reflected what had been happening in society itself as Malaysians from all walks of life reached across their differences for those affected by the missing plane. It did not matter what word was being used, as the sentiment was the same.
Crises like these reveal character. They tell us who can handle pressure, test leaders and what are the real priorities. The character that was revealed is a society that cares for each other.
Despite all of the anger and stupidity surrounding recent events - from red paint throwing to unjust legal decisions - the ties among Malaysians are strong and resilient.
The silent majority of people who go about their lives, take planes, go on vacation and work, came out this weekend in the phone calls made to each other, recollections of classmates and on Facebook. This same silent majority is the one who is fed up with politicians abusing power and attacking each other, and wants more emphasis on solving the country’s problems and more dignity in political engagement.
They put Malaysia, its citizens and visitors first. If anything, this is a silver lining of the tragedy.
Never the same
Crisis also bring changes. This loss will bring home how globalised the country is - and take away some of innocence of many Malaysians who have been gratefully largely sheltered. This event is a country’s shared trauma on many levels, and this involves careful outreach to children and others who need help to process and understand.
MH370 will likely bring small changes in everyday life. The area most affected will be travel, as it will introduce new security protocols and make the time of travel in airports longer. The changes will also extend to visas, code sharing and travel destinations.
This event will hit Malaysia in its Visit Malaysia year, and expectations need to be adjusted. People who travel are more likely to stay connected with loves ones, who are likely to worry a bit more. Despite this crisis, it is important to remember that air travel is still among the safest means to get around.
The airline affected will face even greater challenges. MAS was in trouble before this terrible loss. The airline will now deal with even more scrutiny as it moves ahead. While its staff are valiantly working day and night to engage - and there will most certainly be lessons on how crisis management could have been improved - there are dark clouds on the horizon for the national carrier.
One of the most difficult tasks ahead will be strengthening the airline and this will involve more interventions than have happened so far, with security and safety a crucial element of this review and recovery effort.
Malaysia’s practices in immigration and security will also come under heavy scrutiny. The longer the uncertainty surrounding the flight’s status goes on, the more intensity and speculation. The government cannot ignore that something went wrong in its management in this area.
As a regular traveler, I see first-hand the pressures many of the immigration staff face in long hours and from long lines. The focus needs to be on the system as a whole, rather than the possible shortcoming of a few officers. The fault is with inadequate enforcement procedures from the top and leadership.
The loss of faith in security will require meaningful reforms and improvements in governance. This loss can be an opportunity to bring about much-needed changes in areas of rule of law, safety and security.
Dark side surfaces
There is more international attention on Malaysia than ever before. Not all of the intensity of exposure has been positive. MH370’s loss will also bring to the fore serious issues that are facing Malaysia in other areas of governance.
These include concerns with the illegal economy, human trafficking and corruption. It is estimated that Malaysia’s illegal economy is almost 20 percent of its economy. Illegal outflows of capital are massive, with the latest report of the Global Financial Integrity putting the country at the second highest in the world.
Legitimate concerns also have been raised about transparency, information-sharing, treatment of different ethnic communities and more. These issues have long been raised in the domestic arena, and will remain prominent.
In this age of globalisation, the actions at home are shared abroad. The ability of the government to manage messaging to an international stage in the age of social media is minimal. The impact on Malaysia’s economy longer term cannot be ignored. This is a wake-up call that more needs to be done to protect ordinary people and simple principles of fairness and dignity in governance can go a long way in this protection and protecting Malaysia’s national interest.
The choices ahead are stark - to continue to allow the dark forces to grow or to meaningfully address them. MH370 on many levels shows that the time for denials and dismissals is over. Approaches that emphasise particularism and exceptionalism do not help the country.
The tragedy has brought people together and put the interests of ordinary people centre stage. Malaysians should be proud of how they have come together and in the process have reminded their leaders of the real priorities to build their country and community.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.