Malaysia Airlines flight 370

'We are still at square one': How the world's attention drifted away from the MH370 story

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 11:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 4:38pm

So, when will you come to KL again, sir?” asked the hotel receptionist as I fumbled for my cigarette pack in my pocket before my cab arrived.

I was so exhausted I had to pause and think before I replied. “When they find the plane,” I said with a weary smile.

The day I left Kuala Lumpur and returned home to Singapore, I had an unfamiliar and unsettling feeling.

Something just wasn’t right.

There had always been some sort of finality at the end of reporting assignments. A judge would pass his verdict on a case, a team would win the championship, an official death toll would be given after natural disasters, and so on.

But when it came to the MH370 saga, there was no light at the end of the tarmac. Indeed, right now we are still at square one.

Flight MH370 went missing on March 8. After about three to four weeks, media interest began to wane. It was getting extremely tough to find anything new to report on. One by one, members of the international media, including myself, had our final drinks at the hotel bar, exchanged e-mail addresses, added each other on Twitter and said our goodbyes.

During the first week of the entire saga, no one thought this story would play out longer than a week. I had been confident authorities would quickly find the plane somewhere in the sea. So, I only packed for three nights but I ended up staying in the Malaysian capital for 33 days.

There was a cloud of haze shrouding parts of the capital’s skyline due to nearby forest and bush fires during the first few days.

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The hazy conditions uncannily mirrored the confusing atmosphere at the media centre. As if highly speculative stories weren’t bad enough, the utterly bizarre communique with Malaysian authorities made everything worse. They were providing the media with much fodder to write about their incompetency and gaffes – many of which were too shocking to ignore.

The media centre was at the basement of the Sama-Sama hotel, just beside the airport. The press conferences were held in a smaller room that could barely contain all the photographers, camera crews and reporters. Why they chose such a small room for daily pressers regarding a story that gripped the entire world is still beyond my understanding.

Most of us would reserve seats by placing bags or simply grabbing a seat two or three hours before the scheduled time.

Every morning and late at night, the staff at the hotel I was staying at would ask me for updates. Initially their question was: “Have they found it?”

After some time had passed, the question was: “So, what are they refusing to say now?”

I would always indulge and give them a standard two minute spiel on what had transpired. Soon, I needed another minute to debunk conspiracy theories they had picked up online.

At the nearby coffee shop where I had my late night dinners, the roti canai cook would ask me for daily updates too. The coffee shop had two TV screens. I asked him if he watched the pressers on TV daily.

“The radio and TV is always running but there’s no point. I have no idea what these people are talking about,” he said.

“Sometimes, I don’t get what they’re saying too,” I said cheekily and we both laughed.

One of the reasons for the lack of understanding and the confusion was made clear to me during the first week. My first few stories from KL included a profile piece on the country’s civil aviation chief and it required me to get background information on the man and why there were so many gaffes initially.

That’s when I learnt the various government agencies weren’t used to talking to one another and being coordinated. According to a senior government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, there were also some egos that needed to be stroked and it wasn’t easy for cooperation to take place between different governmental stakeholders.

While initially the focus in KL was all about the incompetency and the gaffes as well as the conspiracy theories, it was tough to have a feel of the real human elements. Sometimes it was all about coordinates, radars and fancy names of warships. It was easy to get swept away with minor details and forget the bigger picture.

In Beijing, the stories always involved the family members at the briefings at Lido Hotel. But in Malaysia, it was different.

Spending considerable time at the Sama-Sama Hotel and away from the family members made it tough sometimes to remember that actual human lives were involved. There was a disconnect and a distance from the human element of the story, especially because it wasn’t very easy to reach out to the family members, many of whom had been housed at different hotels with very tight security.

The human tragedy part of the story only hit me like a truck after a couple of days in KL when I was among the reporters who went to stake out one of the hotels where the Chinese families were staying at. We were told that Malaysian Airlines officials would be briefing both Chinese and Malaysian family members that evening.

The look on a particular young teenager’s face as he approached the hotel to attend the briefing is something that I won’t be able to forget. His face was blank. It was worse than seeing someone who was horrified. It was a look I had not seen before, not even at the saddest funeral I’ve attended.

To make sense of things and to get away from it all, the only place to turn to was either your hotel room or the only bar in the vicinity – The Traveller’s Bar at Sama-Sama Hotel.

In the initial weeks, most reporters always ended up there after filing their stories or completing their live reports. The service was terrible, but where else were you going to go?

After the first week though, the bar was totally tapped out of Tiger and Heineken beer. And as if wanting to taunt us, the pub band played classics like Leaving On a Jet Plane and Hotel California where the line “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave” struck a chord with a couple of journalists.

But the day finally arrived for me to leave.

And 24 hours before I left KL, I called one of the affected family members I had been in close touch with. I thanked him for all the time he had given me over the previous four weeks.

I also informed him that I was leaving and that quite a lot of the reporters were packing up too. “When will they give us the information we want?” he asked. I didn’t know what to say to the man whose beloved son had been on the flight.

“Don’t worry, as long as there is no debris, my son is alive,” he said. “I’m sure of it and I won’t listen to anything or anyone till there is solid proof.”

We spoke about his health and his family for a while. He thanked me for calling him and wished me a safe journey home.

I couldn’t help but notice the cruel coincidence of the 100-day mark falling on Father’s Day on Sunday.

It’s hard to imagine the psychological black hole the family members must be feeling they are stuck in, as we surpass 100 days since the Boeing jet vanished. It represents a psychological defeat. There’ll be another one again, on March 8 next year. If the plane or debris is never found, this will be Malaysia’s Hiroshima. A stain that will cast a long shadow on the country for years to come.

They say time heals everything. That’s probably not true in this case, I think. Without any closure and world attention drifting to other topics, each day might just be a bigger black hole than the previous one.

I hope I’m wrong though.