‘Don’t speculate, just pray’, this message was tweeted by a Malaysian Minister late last week who appeared to suggest that the two were mutually exclusive. He wasn’t a Priest type of a Minister mind you, but a Minister of the Malaysian Government(an apparently professional organisation that governs 30 million people and a US$492bn economy). Given the events of the past week and a half it’s hard to say whether he meant we should be praying for the passengers of MH370 (whom he had alternately declared dead or kidnapped on four separate occasions across two different oceans) or for the Malaysian Government itself.
With today’s announcement it appears that the latter was intended, since the former were confirmed dead this morning at some undefined point in the Indian ocean.
To be fair, it appears the Malaysian government may indeed have been in great need of our prayers over the past week and a half. First we had the Malaysian Government confirm the plane had gone missing somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam, then we had the saga of the Vietnamese Navy pulling out every piece of styrofoam from the South China Sea and declaring it plane debris. The Malaysian government then became convinced that the plane had crash-landed somewhere in the Malacca Strait, which is where the Wall Street Journal started looking like it knew more about what had happened to the plane than the Malaysian government did. Frustrated American officials started revealing that they had passed on information regarding satellite trackers on the plane’s Rolls Royce engines(that revealed the plane had continued flying for about 7 hours) on to the Malaysian authorities, but Malaysian authorities still continued to insist that the plane had been lost in the Malacca Strait rather than flown off to the Indian ocean.
While all of this was going on half-promising, half-amusing red herrings started popping up. Like the Iranian asylum seekers who boarded the plane on fake/stolen European passports. When questioned how the Iranians could have been mistaken for Italians and Austrians, a representative of the Malaysian government replied that one of the Asylum seekers looked like the very black Italian football player Mario Balotelli. Only he didn’t, and it appears the Malaysian Minister had been looking at a picture of some unfortunate other Black person who had been passing through the security gate at the same time. This was followed by another detour that has yet to be completely debunked(but that I suspect of being another red herring), when the most experienced pilot on the plane turned out to be a supporter of Anwar Ibrahim and was alleged to have crashed the plane to avenge Anwar’s recent sodomy conviction. Of course what they also leave out of that story is the fact that the Pilot also expressed solidarity with the US during the Boston Marathon and seems to have spent the majority of his spare time with his loving family making helpful YouTube videos about air conditioning units. Hardly the profile of a terrorist mastermind, hell, it’s hardly even the profile of a jaywalker.
Which is where things started to get dicey. Officials at Rolls Royce (who had – unbeknownst to everybody – installed trackers on their jet engines), started figuring out that the plane had indeed made an abrupt turn and flown right back across Malaysia. Malaysia declared such a scenario impossible before concluding the scenario very possible only a few hours later. Malaysia’s insistence on searching the Strait of Malacca for more styrofoam – even after receiving this information – started making American officials suspicious and some started to wonder if the plane had been taken hostage with the Malaysian Government negotiating with the kidnappers in secret.
Cue an interesting series of events where every Asian country started checking its backlog of radar information and the people of India discovering their radar was routinely turned off (the Indians cleverly spun this as ‘on demand’ radar).
It is true that it is easy to criticise, but it is also true that it is easiest to criticise when such criticisms are warranted. A friend of mine was involved in the training of the Malaysian Navy many years ago. At the time I remember asking him how he’d found the experience. He replied with a simple “they’re not a real Navy”, and the talk promptly turned to other things. I remember being briefly puzzled at his response since – as far I was aware – Malaysia had spent a significant amount of money on its armed forces. Now, however, I think I understand what he was talking about.
The countries of Asia have been able to buy a lot of new equipment with their bulging accounts, but such equipment is near useless if you don’t have the skilled personnel to operate it (or if your radar is turned off). But it’s also not enough to just have skilled operators and technicians, you need to have professional politicians – or bureaucrats skilled in communications – running the show, and if you don’t have those things then resources start getting misallocated and confusion reigns.
Rather than start from a position of assuming nothing except the most certain details, the Malaysian government appears to have assumed a set of very narrow circumstances and then moved quite slowly to widen those parameters when it became apparent certain earlier assumptions were incorrect.
Worse than that, they addressed any criticism of the above by suggesting prayer as an appropriate antidote to curiosity. Well, I’m sure the people of the world were praying, but I’m not sure that dispelled their curiosity either.
It looks like MH370 might have suffered a catastrophic failure of some kind that rendered the passengers unconscious (possibly through depressurisation) with the autopilot continuing to fly the plane until it ran out of fuel – but the point is that many of the other disaster scenarios (such as somebody with a fake passport hijacking the plane and flying it into an Indian city) might have eventuated too. For the benefit of the passengers we should pray that they died swiftly and relatively painlessly, but for the benefit of the world’s future passengers we should pray that Asian governments learn to do better.