In a national crisis, can we count on you, Singapore?

It has been a week since the crash of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) MH17 over Ukraine. Even as the recovery efforts are still in progress, a quick scan of the front page of major newspapers and news websites suggest that the world is already moving on from the tragedy.

The contrast between the permanent and deeply unsettling effect of the crash on family and friends of the victims, as well on MAS as an operating entity, and the shifting interest of rest of the global community is sobering.

It has been reported that there were many more flights by Singapore International Airlines (SIA) traversing the route flown by MH 17 than most other airlines - including MAS. Given that the attackers seemingly did not specifically target the aircraft because it was MAS, the statistical probability was greater that an SIA aircraft would have been struck – simply because it flew more fights over the area. We lucked out, MAS did not.

Our feelings are with the Malaysians and all those affected by the tragedy. For ourselves as Singaporeans, we may feel some relief at our good fortune. But perhaps we can also spend some time to pause and reflect on what it would mean if it had been an SIA aircraft that had been shot down and if many of the passengers had been Singaporeans. How would our Government have responded? How would our people have reacted?

These are important questions to ask ourselves for two reasons.

First, awful tragedies can happen even when all things are done right, so we should think about how best to manage our reaction now rather than in the event, however unlikely.

Second, the quality of a country’s response to a tragedy is not only a function of the crisis management efforts of the government but the reaction and conduct of the people.

The Malaysian government has been resolute and confident in its response to the tragedy. This is in marked contrast to its handling of the earlier MH 370 incident. Obviously, many lessons have been learnt and applied.

However, Singapore should not have to go through one tragedy so that we can respond better to another one. We can learn vicariously from others to improve our own crisis management skills and contingency plans.

One of the most obvious difficulties faced by the Malaysian government has been dealing with the rebels in the contested area where MH 17 was brought down and with the recalcitrant Russian government. This illustrates the challenge for less-than-first-power-ranked countries to bargain with larger powers in a crunch.

Singapore would have faced similar – and being much smaller than Malaysia, perhaps even greater - difficulty in the same situation. As in the episode of the mysterious crash of MH370, Malaysia has depended on its friendships with countries such as Australia and the United States to bring leverage on the rebels and the Russian government.

We would have to do likewise.

This brings home the essential truth that as a small, albeit strategic, country, we depend on political alliances and vital economic linkages to help secure our security and thus our sovereignty. Singaporeans must not think that we live in a vacuum or that our own efforts alone can ever be adequate to ensure our future.

We have always needed and will always need powerful friends. And it is in times of crisis that their value comes into play. Even as there has been a growing preoccupation by both political leaders and Singaporeans with domestic political matters in recent years, we should not be negligent in nurturing our key relationships.

The Malaysian people have been supportive of their government’s actions and, broadly speaking, have been understanding of the difficulties and challenges it is facing in responding to the event.

The Dutch people have been shaken but have stayed calm, despite losing the most in the casualty list from MH17, while their government has been restrained but firm in its response.

The Dutch and the Malaysians deserve not only our sympathy but respect for how they have respectively conducted themselves as a people and as a government in relation to this unexpected tragedy.

How would we have responded as a people? Many Singaporeans these days appear to hold unrealistically high expectations of their political leaders and the public bureaucracy, and are prone to criticising and perpetuating criticism of the government. Whatever the divides or disappointments during normal times, it would not do well for us to continue in the same vein when the country faces a tragedy or confronts an existential shock.

I can't help but wonder whether Singaporeans would pull together and rally behind their leadership. Would we be able to constrain our high expectations and face realistically the challenges inherent in dealing with a tragedy so far away and in such a conflicted space? Or would there be brickbats aplenty?

With the solid backing of the people, the government can be emboldened to act decisively and with resolution and focus on the task at hand. Without it, the government would be fighting a war on two fronts: the crisis itself, and domestic criticism and harping from an impatient and insistent people. In such a scenario, no government can bring full focus to bear or have complete self-confidence in its handling of the crisis.

The tragedy of MH17 is a powerful reminder of how unexpected life can be and a sobering illustration of how societies and governments can be sorely tested with alarming abruptness.

It would be a greater tragedy still if countries did not learn from the experience to improve their capabilities and to reflect on the quality of their social culture. They must not ask if they are ready for what they know today, but if they are resilient enough for what they do not know tomorrow may bring.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is the chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group, a strategic risk consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore.