MH370: A mystery, with some revelations

Restoring sense of security calls for right lessons to be drawn


It is now more than two weeks since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished from the face of the earth, and while hope remains that it might be found, we seem no closer to solving the mystery of what happened, or why.

The mounting anguish of the families waiting for news on their lost loved ones is painful to watch, as is the floundering of the authorities in the face of the searing questions that have inevitably come.

Many have mocked the response, from confusing statements and changing positions to the comic antics of shamans, to the flood of leaks and clarifications, with each day seeming to bring a new lead, theory or explanation.

Those of us looking on might well wonder what would have happened if the ill-fated flight had taken off from Changi Airport instead.

The instinctive reaction would be to say that, of course, Singapore would have handled the crisis better, and I would like to believe so.

But that seems like hubris to me. Besides, some recent fiascos of our own - from riots in our streets to security checkpoint breaches - should prompt us to guard against smugness, and its dastardly cousin, complacency.

So, while the top priority remains the urgent search for the plane and passengers, it is not too soon to ponder the somewhat grandiloquent statement made by Malaysian leaders that MH370 "will change the history of the aviation industry, and holds lessons for everyone".

What might these lessons be? What should we in Singapore take away from this deeply troubling episode?

I am by no means an expert in aviation security, but let me offer five simple observations, having followed developments in the MH370 saga from Day 1.

1 Just no letting up on security: To everyone's horror, MH370 exposed gaping holes in the global security network, from millions of missing passports that are used to board planes, to airport security agencies that neglect to check passengers' records against global databases of such lost documents.

No doubt, this will give rise to moves to tighten up the system, if only temporarily.

It should also prompt airport authorities everywhere, including in Singapore, to have a care as they push for automation and efficiency gains in their operations. Ultimately, security is only as good as the officer on the job staying alert and ready to respond to a crisis which might arise when he least expects it.

Further, the missing plane has pointed to gaps in radar and satellite tracking systems, as well as the telling reluctance of governments to share sensitive information they might have. These issues will have to be faced up to and addressed.

But even so, more basically, it is no use having elaborate radar and other detection systems, if no one responds to unexplained aircraft movements, simply because it seems like just another day at the office.

2 Safety comes first, really: Questions have been raised about airliner safety, although these have been dismissed, as the Malaysian plane in question was said to be "airworthy".

Yet, there have been recent scares with planes having to be turned back or make emergency landings because of mechanical faults on both Airbus and Boeing jets.

Airlines everywhere will have to reassure passengers that they will live up to all the hype about the romance of air travel on their modern fleets, and are not compromising on safety, even in the face of intense pressures to cut the red ink on their balance sheets.

While competition might mean improvements in creature comforts - wider seats and bigger screens - which are certainly welcome by passengers, nothing beats a sense of assuredness that you are in good hands when you board a plane and the flight will land when and where it is supposed to.

And on the off-chance that it is unable to, well-trained and reliable pilots will know how - and be empowered - to make the right call to divert or abort a flight, with safety always the paramount concern.

3 Pick the right people: Malaysia has been much maligned for its handling of the crisis, suffering untold harm to its international reputation.

I don't wish to add fuel to the fire. But the lesson to be drawn is the importance of ensuring that the right people are picked for key jobs, with the necessary skills, experience, character and temperament.

Such decisions should turn on more than just good grades, fancy degrees, or the right connections. Grit, groundedness and good sense should count as much. Finding the best people must entail appointing whoever can do the job best, regardless of gender, race, age, background, or even nationality.

So please, let's go easy on the anti-foreigner "Singaporean first" rhetoric that has become so popular these days. Give the job to whoever will deliver when it counts.

4 Sooner or later, a crisis will come: The best way to prepare for a crisis is to expect one. Some might see this as paranoia, or even "scare mongering". But simply assuming that such disasters won't or can't happen to us, or that our systems are sound and superior, is the surest way to set ourselves up for a spectacular fall.

The best organisations don't allow for such delusions. Instead, they get ready, and rehearse repeatedly. All players need to know how to react in such an eventuality, from who will take charge of what, including overseeing operations, coordinating information gathering and processing, to managing communications with key stakeholders, including the media and the public.

In today's hyper-media age, the old assumption that in a crisis, public communication is a luxury or distraction is likely to compound a disaster. As we have seen, in the absence of credible and timely information, conspiracy theorists will rush to fill the vacuum, forcing the authorities to respond.

It is much better to get ahead of the information curve. Those charged with public communications will have to hone their abilities to do so. They could take a leaf from the calm, collected fashion in which Australian officials handled themselves last Thursday, presenting new satellite information which offered fresh leads, even while managing expectations and stating plainly what they did, and didn't, know.

5 Building trust and sense of community: Long before such a crisis strikes, people will need to have developed a sense of community, trusting in themselves and each other, as well as the authorities, to do the right thing in a difficult moment.

Without this, the tendency will be to assume the worst, including the notion that officials are withholding information or just plain lying, for whatever reason.

As emotions will naturally run high in crisis situations, it will be critical for everyone to have a sense that they are all in it together, and that finger-pointing, or worse, point-scoring, for organisational, personal, partisan or political gain, will do no one any credit.

All of this, I grant, is easy to state, but much harder to do. It is more likely than not that we will revert to business-as-usual once the incredible story of MH370 recedes from the headlines, as it eventually will.

Therein lies the greatest danger.

After all, we all assumed that planes don't just disappear without a trace, certainly not in the 21st century, with all our sophisticated modern communications technology.

Well, now we know that this can happen.

Returning to the sense of security we enjoyed before March 8 will require that we put in the effort to learn from the disturbing missteps that made the sad saga of the past weeks possible.