To many of us, mangosteen is a delicious fruit. But to many Malaysians, it is another blemish to its already messy investigations into the missing MH370 that threatens to tarnish its international image further.
About two weeks after the loss of MH370, during the daily media briefing, Malaysia Airlines CEO was asked about the cargo that the plane was carrying. Almost nonchalantly, he replied that the plane was carrying four tonnes of mangosteens.
In normal circumstances, this would have been taken at face value. The media would have reported it as such and nothing more would have come out of it. But it was anything but normal. For two weeks prior, the media and the world have been treated to a comedy of errors and a display of incompetence by the Malaysian authorities that by then, anything said was scrutinized and analyzed to the full. And scrutinize they did. It was soon discovered that it was not mangosteen season yet. So where did the mangosteens come from? No one, not even the Police Chief could give any satisfactory answers and so this was filed as another one of the many contradictions, flip-flops, half truths and misinformation that have shaped the MH370 investigations into what many analysts have described as an utter shamble.
It illustrates the manner in which MH370 incident is being handled. Amateurish, incompetent and sloppy to say the least. There seems to be a lack of purpose. A plan in disarray. Unkind words are used to describe not only the investigators, but the government and ultimately the country itself. There are accusations of a cover-up. Tempers flared, and panda diplomacy put on hold. If ever there is a lesson to learn from the way Malaysia has handled the incident, it will be on how not to handle a crisis. “If you look at Malaysia, there’s no crisis management,” said Robert Jensen, president of Kenyon International Emergency Services, a global company that helps airlines deal with such disasters.
But is Malaysia really that incompetent? Are the vitriol and criticisms warranted and justified? What went wrong?
It all boils down to communication or the lack of it that causes the perception of incompetency. Malaysia appears to be unprepared to handle this unprecedented incident. In fact, up to now, they have yet to come out with a name to their crisis management team. Having a name is not something petty. A name is important because it signifies that a body with clear structure is in place. Instead they have a nameless, seemingly ad-hoc grouping of people whose only credentials are that they are the most senior officials. Not necessarily the most qualified to handle such a complex investigations. For example, should the MAS CEO, a businessman, be in the team? Or should he take a backseat and let his security or technical chief be in the limelight? And in the early days at least, there wasn’t any clear structure of who was doing what. Everyone had something to say and worst, they contradicted each other. The presumed leader, the Acting Transport Minister seemed to have lost control and lacked the panache to handle the media. Co-incidentally, he is holding another, more powerful portfolio as the Defense Minister but oddly decided to use his Acting portfolio instead. One would imagine that a Defence Minister portfolio would hold more credence especially in a case where the extensive use of defence capabilities is necessary.
And then there is a breakdown in communication. Communication and the management of information are crucial in getting the right perception. But as mentioned above, there is no clear communication structure. Basically anybody who is somebody has something to say. For example, the Prime Minister announced that MH370 ended its journey in the southern Indian Ocean. MAS then issued a statement saying that there were no possible survivors. A few days later, the Acting Transport Minister contradicted by saying that the plane did not crash, and that there was hope of finding survivors. “My overall view is that it’s one of the worst cases of crisis management communications I’ve ever seen,” Mr. McClellan, a public relations consultant, said. “Basically, they’ve broken all the rules of how to do it. They have not been speaking with one voice, which is imperative. They’ve been yelling like an uncoordinated choir and that absolutely can lead to confusion.”
Finally, they seem to be lost, not knowing what to do next. While searching in the South China Sea, the head of Malaysia’s air force said the military received signals after ground controllers lost touch with the aircraft, suggesting the plane headed off its northeast course and instead flew to the west. It took them more than a week after that to decide to shift their search operation to the Indian Ocean.
There are many other examples that seemed to show the failings of the Malaysian authorities in dealing with this incident. But this is not to say that Malaysia is not capable. Where it matters the most, they have shown that they able. They managed to galvanise 26 nations to assist them. They managed to employ the expertise of various international organizations. Unfortunately they have failed in the communication process. And this caused the negative perception about the competency of the investigation team and the country as a whole.
So what are the lessons for Singapore? Preparedness and communication come to mind. Is Singapore prepared? Do we have a communication structure in place? Time will tell but hopefully there will not be a time for this to be tested. Singapore’s economy is essentially built around its reputation as a highly efficient, open and transparent country. It is not something that we should take for granted. And it will only take an international incident like MH370 for all these to unravel if it is not managed properly.
Malaysia will no doubt survive this episode. But whether history will be kind to Malaysia, it is too early to gauge. As it is now, in the court of world public opinion, Malaysia is guilty of the worst blunder in the history of crisis management.
As to the origin of the four tonnes of mangosteens, no one knows for certain just as no one knows for certain MH370’s final destination.