• Lessons from Malaysia
    March 19,2014
     

    The families and friends of the passengers and crew aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are being tortured beyond belief by the total absence of knowledge about what has happened to the missing Boeing 777.

    And in their agony there’s an important lesson for honest government officials: Transparency is invariably better than secrecy.

    The loss of loved ones in any kind of unexpected manner is an almost unbearable experience, but it’s far worse to not be told what happened to them.

    This time the suffering is made worse by a multitude of unanswered questions: Was the aircraft hijacked? If so, who was the mastermind, and what was the ultimate objective? And where is it? Hiding on some remote airstrip? Smashed to smithereens on some far-away mountainside? At the bottom of the Indian Ocean?

    A Boeing 777 is a very big airliner, and, as big as the search area may be, it would seem reasonable to believe some sign of it would have been found by now.

    And adding to the agonies of the families and friends is the realization, now confirmed, that the Malaysian government badly bungled the flow of information to the anxious public, a public that’s entitled to candor no matter how painful it may be.

    It says something that a government such as China’s, where transparency has seldom been practiced, has joined those criticizing the Malaysians for their confusing response to the disaster. (Of the 239 passengers on Flight 370, 153 are Chinese citizens.)

    “Unless transparency is ensured, the huge international search operation can never be as fruitful as we hope and expect,” said an official statement in the Chinese press.

    This past weekend Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak finally disclosed an array of details that the public — and particularly the families and friends of those aboard the missing jet — were entitled to from the very beginning.

    It would be tempting to blame it all on the fact that since 1957 Malaysia has been governed by a single political party that has a poor reputation for honesty and transparency. It is a government that functions on the basis of patronage and gives priority to ethnic issues rather than to merit and efficiency, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in an editorial this week.

    “Perhaps this crisis will now stir its citizens to be more demanding of officials,” the editorial added, although right now the greater priority would appear to be getting the correct answers to the many questions about this tragedy.

    In the meantime, the families and friends wait, and there’s no relief for their anxiety. The suggestions that the jet may have been hijacked might provide some hope that the passengers are still alive, but they don’t answer any of the agonizing questions.

    Relatives of some of the Chinese passengers have threatened to stage a hunger strike in an effort to force more information from the Malaysian authorities.

    “Now we have no news, and everyone is understandably worried,” the father of one of the passengers said. “The Malaysian ambassador should be presenting himself here, but he’s not. Relatives are very unsatisfied. So you hear them saying ‘hunger strike.’”

    One person waiting in a Beijing hotel was overheard asking: “Do you think the Malaysian government is hiding something?” and “Could they have shot it down and covered it up?”

    Airline officials were there to offer help to those waiting for information about the missing airliner, but they were subjected to hostility. That may be regrettable, but given the circumstances it is also understandable.

    The longer this mystery lasts, the more justified the hostility.

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