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Turning Disaster into a Learning Experience

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For THE EDGE, Malaysia, April 28, 2014

As they say, one can only tell if a child is well brought up by how it acts—not when it is rested, fed and showered—but when it is exhausted, dirty and hungry.

It would be good for Malaysia to turn the disaster of MH370 into a learning experience—in fact, the occasion allows for deep and serious self-reflection, especially by the country’s officialdom.

One of the most interesting things to note in the aftermath of the disappearance of airliner was the communication-cultural gap between the local and the international—in fact, between the introverted and the external.

One may take the stand that the western media are “emissaries from Rome” in that their supposition that “one measure fits all”, and their criticisms are therefore often off the mark for that reason. However, in this case, the issue was largely with other East Asian countries. More correctly, it was about incessant public demand being made on the Malaysian government, by the public from other countries. This was a public that did not have to accept the dismissive, one-directional and laconic style of public communication that Malaysians are used to.

It is here we see serious gaps in Malaysia’s development towards its self-adopted goal of Vision 2020. While we have one of the safest airlines in the world—and this is borne out by uncontroversial international statistics—we have an official culture that epitomizes Third Worldness.

The plane disaster—whatever it may be that befell the unfortunate passengers and crew of MH370—could have happened to any other airline. That is really not the issue. The question of MAS competence or Malaysia’s commercial aviational competence in general does not arise here. Tragedies do happen. What is at issue—and this is what we should not ignore but instead learn as deeply from as possible so that we at least gain something from a horrific event—is what the communication skills and the dubious handling of the crisis reveals to us about ourselves —for now, we forget what it reveals to others because they will soon move on to other interesting events.

There is no need to be overly defensive and hope whatever weaknesses Malaysian officialdom have shown will simply go away. This is a wake-up call, not to the public in general perhaps, for they have been aware of the situation for several decades, but to the establishment, that one cannot forever deny the need for competence, accountability, meritocracy and transparency and still hope that things will turn out alright.

One can claim that these fancy words I just used are extreme positions in many contexts, but denying them is even worse. That is not only an extreme position in itself, but also a denial that is reminiscent of a fish being boiled for supper in slowly increasing temperatures. The longer it waits, the surer its unpalatable fate.

Modernization is about the learning of technologies and techniques. Somewhat simplified, it is about the management of the technologization of society—and of governance. Threats, intimidation and incarceration as tools of government are all signs of a system in crisis.

I can understand that when a system is being built in haste and under pressure from all sides, leadership (meaning management really) does not have the luxury of developing a harmonious culture conducive to communication, openness and tentativeness. There are other priorities.

But that cannot become the permanent mode of development.

The case of the bomoh turning up to help out is interesting. He not only symbolized pre-modernity, but also expressed what introvertedness—be it traditional or contemporary, leads to. At the level where he represented local religion in contradistinction to imported religions, there is no big issue. But where he so painfully represents the non-scientific mind, he also reminded us of how great the tension is in Malaysia between rationality and dialogue on the one hand, and manipulation and coercion on the other.

For quite a while now, the push for Malaysia to leap onto a new stage of social and economic development, has been obvious. Can it make that leap now? It is not only the middle income trap the country is caught in, it is also mired in the mediocrity trap. And both these traps are not static. They do close, like a fly-trap does.

It is time for all sides to discuss how we can turn the flame off so the fish can escape to swim freely and not end up as soup.

The paradox is that although Malaysia has a centralized regime but when in a crisis, it shows painful lack of coordination. This does remind us that what the country has is not a centralized regime in the managerial sense, but only in the coercive sense.

Idolizing mediocrity should not become a religion.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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