• Thu
  • Nov 20, 2014
  • Updated: 6:31am
South Korea ferry disaster
CommentInsight & Opinion

Twin air and sea disasters in Asia demand honest inquiries

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 3:51am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 10:58am

Within the space of six weeks, Asia has witnessed an airline disaster with no wreckage and no bodies, and a marine disaster in which a sunken ferry became a tomb for hundreds of victims. Two very different tragedies have generated similar living images that have transfixed the world: of angry, grieving parents and family who want transparency and accountability about what happened so that they may seek closure.

Our thoughts, firstly, must be with those who may never know what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 or where their 239 loved ones, mainly Chinese, came to rest; and those who struggle to understand how a South Korean ferry could have foundered without more decisive rescue efforts for 300 on board, mostly schoolchildren. The two tragedies have more in common - cultural issues in the official responses to the respective emergencies. The frustration of the relatives of those on the vanished airliner at what they saw as a lack of transparency and openness about the many questions raised by the plane's fateful diversion from its flight path is well documented. They have lashed out without even a credible scapegoat for their loss. No such unknowns constrained South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who is quoted by aides as describing the actions of the captain and some crew of the stricken ferry as "tantamount to murder".

This is a visceral reaction that anticipates judgment and reflects national trauma. It should also serve as a reminder that even in the jet age, we treat the sea with anything less than the utmost respect and discipline at our peril. This will resonate in Hong Kong, where the government has just completed an internal inquiry into whether there was maladministration and neglect of duty in the Marine Department leading up to the Lamma ferry disaster 18 months ago.

There certainly seems to be a case for explaining apparent indecision and confusion among the South Korean ship's officers even as disaster loomed, compounded by an openly criticised culture of unquestioning obedience to hierarchical authority, when disobedience may have saved lives in this case. We depend on an interface of human, mechanical and technological factors for safe sailing or flying. Safety could be enhanced if the inquiries into these two disasters address effective ways to transcend local cultural sensitivities to improve transparency and accountability.


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This article is now closed to comments

People should think twice before travelling on an aircraft or ship crewed by people from a culture of blind obedience to authority and lack of independent thinking, putting fear of failure and loss of face before making timely common sense decisions.
IMO, accidents like this cross cultural lines.
There will be cowards and heroes in every country regardless of cultural backgrounds.
Case in point, the Costa Concordia accident where the Italian ship captain also jumped ship leaving passengers behind. What limits the dead to 32 instead of thousands was it did not sink like the Sewol in such a short time.
Then there is the driver Pan Yiheng, touted as a hero of the high-speed train D301 who chose to clutch the hand brake till the last moment of his life instead of fleeing, thus limiting the deaths and injured to a lesser number.
I think the issue at hand may be the qualification of a captain is more technical with little emphasis on his/her moral/psychological well being.
Is it possible that we set up psychological tests so we pick no just the most capable but also the most stable and selfless captain?

I do not get the point of this article. What has this to do with (Asian) culture? The Korean ferry disaster is very similar to the italian Costa Concordia disaster. In both cases: The crew botched it up! And "obedience" is not a cultural problem here. Anyone who has ever been on a large boat or ferry might know that emergency situations are relatively "in-transparent" for a passenger onboard who cannot oversee what has really happened. So, better keep calm and listen to the instructions of the crew, although in this situation nobody can know how "talented" the captain is in emergency management. The Malaysian Airlines disaster is just a very unfortunate case. Does anyone still think that the Malaysian officials or government are intentionally keeping the truth away or that this all is a big conspiracy? Now so many "experts" failed to find the needle in the hay stack.
Bringing this into a cultural context is really far-fetched.
Yellow folks are inferior to whites, period. SCMP says so.


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