Guest Post by K.S. NARENDRAN
As I write this, we are entering the ninth month after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. I would not want it to be forgotten soon. My wife Chandrika Sharma was on that flight.
Over the past few months, as public attention has shifted to other issues, the long-drawn search for MH370 has seen many developments, ranging from the disturbing to the outrageous. The ineptitude of the Malaysian authorities was on public display, particularly in the early weeks of March 2014, and so merits no further comment. What is intriguing, even worrisome, though is that relevant institutions have been inaccessible or indifferent, be it in terms of pushing for the truth and seeking accountability, or in responding to the affected families’ needs. What follows is my own experience, my take.
The Indian Government: Mute and invisible
In the first week following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines’ Flight 370, I had asked whether our government had any view on the incident, and any role in responding to it. After all, Indian citizens were involved. This evoked an interesting, if not distressing, set of responses. Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, E Ahmed, deemed the election campaign a higher priority, and opined that the Indian Embassy (at Kuala Lumpur) ought to have stepped in. In informal conversation, many were sympathetic with this view. The Ministry of Civil Aviation and the DGCA seemed similarly indifferent, or saw no role for themselves in responding to the incident or in assisting the affected families. Even the state governments, otherwise quick to take offence at any perceived slight or injury to sons and daughters of their ‘soil’, remained untouched, conspicuous by their silence. The only face of the government that I saw were the CB-CID Special Branch of the Police, the Indian arm of the Interpol and the Intelligence Bureau. Each asked the same set of questions, suggesting that they work in silos, that they don’t trust each other.
Many, notably from the media, repeatedly asked me soon after MH 370 disappeared whether the Indian government had got in touch and, more specifically, what I was seeking from it. The answer is simple. What happened was not merely a commercial transaction between the airline and the passenger, where the state could remain a bystander. I expected that our government, like nearly every other government that had citizens on that flight, would step in to address the diplomatic challenge, and the domestic obligations to its affected citizens. These, I had expected, would have been shared by the ministries of external affairs and civil aviation.
This was a period of personal crisis arising from an event that occurred in foreign territory. As an ordinary citizen, one did not know how best to respond, on what doors to knock, and what tools were at hand. Was I to engage independently with the airline and the Malaysian government, or would the Government, as the custodian of my interests (and, indeed, the interest of all its citizens), act on my behalf? The least I expected was that the families of passengers would be offered facilitation, technical advice, and sound counsel. What were my rights as a family of the passenger? Would the government assert it right to have its specialists join the investigations? That last was probably too much to hope for, but the other expectations did not seem unreasonable.
There were other questions too. Would the government offer advice on insurance matters? Could it advise me on my legal options, deploying its best understanding of jurisdictional and liability issues? What would be the tax treatment of compensation offered, if any? Would it offer the services of counsellors? Would it help expedite the process of dealing with closure of a passenger’s bank accounts, insurance claims, transfer of movable and immovable assets, helping to provide the required documentation?
The possibilities for a government to demonstrate that it is for the people, that it cares, that it is ready to act to mitigate hardship and remove real or imagined obstacles, are immense. Sadly, we have seen none of this. Does the need of our political masters to secure their own survival have to come before a humane response to an unprecedented situation? Must the administrative machinery and the numerous governmental institutions go into hibernation or ‘safe mode’ till the electoral process is concluded?
It could be argued that as one who is privileged, I should have no cause to complain or seek the government’s indulgence. Yet I believe the government has a role to play, and that the expectation that it plays its part is legitimate – just as it is legitimate to expect that the government will play a part when its citizens are victims of piracy, or when its citizens find themselves in difficulty in a foreign jurisdiction, for no fault of their own. How can it expect an ordinary citizen to navigate these legal and procedural shoals without any assistance?
Surely then, it cannot be anyone’s case that the Government need step in only when faced with acts of depravity by individuals and groups, or when death, destruction and the injury to the public is on some monumental scale. That, at other times, it is entirely personal business, and one shouldn’t expect or protest too much.
A holistic response in an MH370-like situation would convince me that the government is for all citizens and not just for special interest groups or vote banks, and that I can expect more than just a knock on the door from the taxman or the cop. I regret to state that I have been sorely disappointed.
Employers: Business as usual?
Go to IBM’s website and search for Philip Wood. “Zero results found”. If you expected some reference to the tragic disappearance of its employee in the MH 370 incident, you are mistaken. Look up its announcements or press releases and you will encounter the same result. It is as if he did not exist or his disappearance is of no consequence to them. Doesn’t the silence of a behemoth such as IBM is odd? Doesn’t the silence of the company, Freescale, whose 20 scientists and technologists on MH 370 vanished, perturb you? One suspects that it is the same story with all employers whose people unfortunately found themselves on MH370.
Contrast this with the incarceration of the Al Jazeera journalists by Egypt: the ticker on its TV news channel makes sure that this is never forgotten every hour of the day, with a call for their release.
One hears much rhetoric about the values of corporate institutions, their vision, their goals. In recent years, there is even much talk of their role as responsible corporate citizens. It is also quite common to speak of these institutions’ culture as if we were speaking of a person’s character. Corporate ‘persons’ are generally vocal on issues of free trade, legislative and institutional protections, trade privileges, competitive advantage, unfettered resource access, and control. They have no qualms in extending their reach and influence to seek conditions that favour their growth appetite, often on a global scale. Isn’t it a sad commentary then on the reality behind the rhetoric that a large, powerful, global organisation like IBM, rich in history, and the backbone of many critical applications worldwide, has not thought fit to engage with the MH 370 investigation, to lend its weight and voice to the calls for professionalism, transparency, disclosure, dignity and sensitivity in dealing with families?
Many questions arise: does the corporation’s role in a matter that is also of public interest cease with the separation or demise of its employee(s) once all financial dues, including compensation, are settled? Can a case be made out for visible, public engagement by a corporation in a situation where larger issues of human rights and values such as dignity are involved, even if the victim is an employee, a sole individual? Does it behoove an organisation to remain indifferent to the fate of the victim, the affected families, and to the cause of justice? Can values that govern the internal organisation be at odds with its practice in the public domain? Ultimately, must organisations remain only an instrument of purpose, whose interfaces must be so carefully designed as to reassure shareholders that their investments are safe and their interests are paramount? Must employers say or do nothing that might create difficulties for governments under whose benign gaze the business of maximising shareholder values can go on unabated? Even if precious values or the greater good at stake?
It is small wonder that while millions of dollars are committed to projects under the CSR umbrella, making headlines, creating tangible assets, softening the harsh edges of corporations and presenting them as somehow more human and ‘for the people’, very few make bold to venture into the territory of ‘rights’. I have yet to come across any corporation with a commitment backed by resources to create an active agenda to safeguard and champion rights, to support enforcement, to create forums for dialogue and dissent. The ‘body corporate’ is invoked to protect those who transact in its name; these very same business wizards shirk committing the corporation to any public statement of disapproval or dissent that is potentially inexpedient.
So it has come to be that private and public statements of concern, sympathy, condolences, and offers of help and solidarity to the affected families are the boundary beyond which employers have not stepped. They have failed to come forward to lend their names to the struggles that have unfolded to ensure full disclosure, transparency and sensitive handling of the families’ concerns, treating these as largely private matters between the families and the authorities in the case of MH370.
Could the story have been different if 100,000 IBM workers wore a badge of solidarity with the family and friends of Philip Wood for a day, as they press the authorities to be more transparent? If enough corporations, whose employees criss-cross the globe round the year, raised concerns and questions around air safety and the investigation, it would certainly have pushed governments towards being more responsive, sensitive and transparent?
Institutional silence is ultimately about self-preservation and contains a measure of indifference towards larger goals. The failures of governments and institutions in the matter of MH 370 bring home to us our culture of indifference and denial when it comes to issues that lie beyond more ‘important’ concerns. Breaking this stone wall is essential if we are to move towards a more humane, caring society.