Cambodia: the Path to Something Profound

May 17, 2015

In Cambodia, Along the Path to Something Profound

I tiptoed across the wood planks of a wobbly orange boat heading from the riverside town Kampot to the Gulf of Thailand. I burned my bare feet on the shiny outdoor tiles surrounding a Buddhist stupa at Udong, the old capital of Cambodia. Across the country, at the 11th-century ruins of Phnom Banan, I spelunked through deep, damp caverns steeped in legends of magic and superstition. All the way, I followed a Frenchman named Henri. For 16 years and more than 20 trips, he has led me through the heart of this beautiful but knotty country.

If only we had met — or even lived in the same century. Henri Mouhot, an explorer and naturalist, was born in 1826 in eastern France. He had a passion for learning and travel, beginning with Russia, where he spent time as a young man. But his name is most associated with the Angkor ruins, which he made famous in Europe after first encountering those remnants of the Khmer empire in 1860.

17FOOTSTEPS2-superJumboAs a diarist, Mouhot (pronounced moo-HOE) could be cantankerous (“the present state of Cambodia is deplorable and its future menacing”) and condescending (“this miserable people”), but he also revered nature (“I have never been more happy”) and loved exploring (“in truth, this life is happiness to me”). His diaries from Siam (now Thailand), Cambodia, Laos (where he is buried) and Annam (now central Vietnam), between 1858 and 1861, endure as some of the most prescient, insightful literature on the region.

More than 150 years ago, the French explorer Henri Mouhot was one of the first Europeans to see the ancient Khmer ruins that today form the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia.

Our odyssey together began in 1998, the year I spent in Phnom Penh, the capital, working at a newspaper; I’ve returned to Cambodia nearly every year since. I first read Mouhot for background, and quickly found parallels to the country I was experiencing. The diaries contain a black-and-white drawing based on one of his sketches of a thatch hut on wooden stilts with a longboat on shore. The image could have been sketched today. And that cantankerous comment? Sadly, it could easily apply to more recent phases of the country’s history.

The tourist scene at Angkor Wat is another story. Yet when I most recently approached it — on the back of a motorcycle, amid hundreds of other visitors — I felt the same awe he described from another age: “At first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?” The same questions propel me through the country year after year.

Map of CambodiaMy latest trip, last April, took me south, to Kampot (or Komput, as Mouhot spelled it). When Mouhot visited, this was Cambodia’s bustling port town. “Six or seven ships loading at one time,” he wrote. “Chinese and European vessels may be constantly seen going up and down the stream.”

Today, the main port has moved west to Sihanoukville; gone are Kampot’s ships. Gone, too, is the public debauchery Mouhot depicted: “Almost every vice seemed prevalent at Kompot — pride, insolence, cheating, cowardice, servility, excessive idleness.” It now boasts a reputation of beauty and calm and is a favorite among both locals and tourists who like a slower pace of life.

Mouhot arrived 150 years too early to stay at the lovely Mea Culpa, where, in rooms costing just $25, French doors open onto a patio with river views. He didn’t clutch a cup of coffee while watching the daily parade of fishing boats heading to sea, as I did. And he didn’t spend a morning with a boatman named Math Ly.

We set out on his flame-colored longboat at 7:30 a.m. The river was mostly empty, fishermen having already gone to sea. Only a long line of skiffs sat tethered to shore. As we headed south, rows of metal shacks gave way to mangroves in a faint, salty breeze. The river widened, and the horizon opened to distant islands dotting the gulf. Water and sky were both the hazy teal of sand-etched sea glass.

Mouhot spent time in this cacophonous town, where traders sold all manner of goods. “The dealers in fish and vegetables, and the Chinese restaurateurs, dispute the street with pigs, hungry dogs, and children of all ages.” The Kampot market today still feels clamorous and claustrophobic — a maze of low-ceilinged stalls seemingly selling everything: mangoes, rice, cabbage, watermelon, pickles, shrimp, fermented fish, flowering chives, laundry soaps and toothbrushes. But though there are children, dogs are scarce, and any pigs you encounter will be of the fried variety.

The King, in Kampot at the time of Mouhot’s visit, advised him to escape the clamor: “Go to Udong; go about.” Udong (or Oudong, as it is also spelled) was then the capital, about 100 miles north, beyond modern-day Phnom Penh. “An eight-days’ journey travelling with oxen or buffaloes,” Mouhot wrote. “With elephants you can accomplish it in half the time.”

Phnom PenhPhnom Penh Today

My journey out of Kampot, by air-conditioned bus, took me first to Phnom Penh (or Penom-Peuh, as Mouhot spelled it), less than four hours on a paved highway (no elephants). Today’s capital of 2.2 million people, at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, was known to Mouhot as “the Great Bazaar.”

Phnom Penh is the seat of modern-day power. Though travelers aren’t accorded the royal audience Mouhot had, tourists can glimpse the high life with a visit to the Royal Palace. In contrast to the city around it, the compound has well-tamed gardens and an open-air gallery painted with Buddhist and Hindu legends depicting tigers, monkeys, sailors, warriors and intricate tales of honor and loss. The king’s quarters are roped off, but visitors can peek inside the Throne Hall and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, with its floor of solid silver tiles.

From Phnom Penh, it’s an hour’s drive to Udong through congestion, then a green belt of rice farms. Mouhot wrote of cottages with fruit gardens and country houses for the aristocracy “who come here in the evening for the sake of breathing a purer air than they can find in the city.” Except Phnom Penh was just a market town, and “the city” was Udong, a spirited place of mandarins, chiefs and noisy courts of justice. “How do you like my city?” a second king asked Mouhot. (Cambodia had a first and second king at the time.)

A tourist takes photos inside the Bayon temple in Angkor Archaeological Park. Credit Jerry Redfern for The New York Times

“Sire, it is splendid, and presents an appearance such as I have never seen elsewhere.”

Little of that remains. The royals left in 1866 when the king chose Phnom Penh as a new capital. Udong suffered through decades of subsequent war, though today the remnants are slowly being rebuilt. Pilgrims now brave a constant heat to climb steps to a series of hilltop temples and shrines.

Children clung to my legs, attempting to sell me bracelets or cool me with hand-held fans. Elderly and disabled beggars lined the steps, each with a plate onto which more fortunate visitors drop 100 riel notes (less than 3 cents).

At a giant golden Buddha with ruby lips and a golden sash, children occupied the entryway, guarding visitors’ shoes for tips. This temple, once in shambles, has a new roof. A child monk sat among burning incense, taking offerings and dispensing blessings. I stood in an open window, soaking in a welcome breeze and gazing upon the paddies below. A few incongruous factories are scattered among the fields, but mostly it’s a green landscape that stretches to the broad waters of the Tonle Sap River.

That river is the artery of Cambodia. It is, as Mouhot wrote, the “grand and beautiful” gateway to the lake of the same name, which swells in the rains and drains each dry season. It connects the lake to the Mekong, switching directions as those waters rise and fall. “The river becomes wider and wider until at last it is four or five miles in breadth; and then you enter the immense sheet of water,” Mouhot wrote.

I rented a wood cruise boat and burbled up the river, hoping for a picturesque sunset. But Phnom Penh’s ever-expanding skyline only dimmed in a thickening haze, atypical of the dazzling reds and pinks that often cascade across the river as the sun falls.

Mouhot found his light at Angkor Wat (Ongcor), “the most beautiful and best preserved of all the remains,” in Siem Reap. It is still the world’s largest religious structure, encompassing 401 acres — so commanding that a traveler forgets “all the fatigues of the journey.”

Visitors climb out of one of the caves beneath Phnom Banan. Credit Jerry Redfern for The New York Times

Late in the day, I sought solitude. Most crowds flock to the top of Phnom Bakheng, an ancient hilltop temple, for a sunset view over Angkor Wat, but I headed instead to Ta Prohm, the overgrown temple famous for the tenacious trees that smother its stone. It was nearly closing time, and almost no one was there. There is no sunset to be viewed in these tree-wrapped grounds, as twilight is heard more than seen. The light fades, and the ruins erupt in a riot of birdsong — mynas, parrots and a hornbill with swooshing wings.

The Angkorian ruins extend far beyond Siem Reap. In the 12th century, under King Suryavarman II, the empire reached its apex, stretching into modern-day Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. A few sites endure, in various states of dilapidation and looting, between Siem Reap and the Thai border.

Phnom Banan (Banone), a mountaintop temple, is about 13 miles from the city Battambang, a pleasant jaunt through the countryside. It’s a near-vertical climb up laterite steps to the ruins above undulating hills. In Mouhot’s day, the temple still had eight towers connected by galleries of “fine workmanship, and great taste and skill in construction.” Now, only portions of towers remain.

What I wanted most to see was down the steps, at the mountain’s base. A sandy path led to a “magic cave,” as tourists call it today, a deep cavern of stalactites in the limestone rock. “The water dropping from these is considered sacred” by pilgrims who say it can impart “knowledge of the past, present, and future,” Mouhot wrote.

The cave is cool and dark, the soothing yin to the scorching yang outside. Inside is a maze of psychedelic rock formations. One looks like an elephant. A guide named Phuoc Ran took me to an inner room where a Buddha statue sat amid candles. Nearby, water squeezed through ceiling cracks and plopped over smooth, rounded rocks, caught by buckets and cups.

Statue of King SihanoukThe Statue of King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh

Take the water, he said, and “you will know the past, present and future.” I instead listened to Phuoc Ran, who was born in Saigon but fled to the Thai border during wartime. He told me he knows about New Mexico, where I live, because the American soldiers he met during the war watched movies full of Southwestern cowboys.

Mouhot, Phuoc Ran, me — we keep treading ground here because we keep finding stories to tell. That’s how we learn about past, present and future.

Mouhot understood the capacity for travel to enhance insight; he devoted his life to these gifts. Before he died — brutally, from malaria — in Laos at 35, he wrote to his sister-in-law about his passions. “Seeing so much that is beautiful, grand, and new,” he wrote. “From these I draw my contentment.”

Tun Dr. Mahathir: Don’t insult us, Malaysians

December 7, 2014

COMMENT: The UMNO political godfather just can’t keep his mouth shut. He must be in the news at every opportunity. This time he chooses to call Malaysians stupid because, according to him, we cannot run Malaysia Airlines (MAS) except to run it to the ground thereby requiring fresh injunctions of public money to resuscitate it.

Dr.MahathirThe only Smart Malaysian?

Tun Dr. Mahathir is objecting to Khazanah’s decision to appoint a foreigner to spearhead the recovery of our national carrier.The former Prime Minister must have forgotten that before his appointment of Tan Sri Tajuddin Ramli as MAS Chairman, Malaysians like Tan Sri Saw Huat Lye and Tan Sri Aziz Abdul Rahman (ably assisted by Dato Kamaruddin Ahmad as Managing Director) with Tun Raja Mohar Badiozaman and Tan Sri Zain Azraai as Chairpersons and outstanding and competent Malaysians as Directors, ran the national carrier well. Tun Dr. Mahathir should know why MAS was not making money during his administration.

So, it is not true that Malaysians cannot run MAS. That remark is not only an insult to us but also to the thousands of Malaysians, past and present, who served MAS  with dedication and whose services are still required to make its operations viable and profitable.

The truth should be told and that is there is too much political interference in MAS (and other GLCs as well). MAS should be allowed to operate as a truly commercial undertaking. No more politics, please. We expect good governance and hard-nosed decisionmaking from the new team in MAS New Co.

Azman MokhtarTan Sri Azman Mokhtar, the Managing Director, Khazanah Nasional Berhad, assisted by his competent professional staff, should be given a clear mandate to make MAS’ restructuring a success. He knows that his career and reputation are at risk if MAS is again a failure. Malaysia can no longer afford to put good money after bad ventures time and again.

I respect his decision with the backing of the Prime Minister and the Khazanah Board to appoint Mr. Christoph R. Mueller of Aer Lingus as the Chief Executive Officer-designate of MAS New Co. This is a strategic move to change the national airline’s corporate culture. Maybe, an orang putih from Germany can do that! 

Christoph R. MuellerChristoph R. Mueller and Aer Lingus

Mr. Mueller knows what he is up against in MAS, given its laid back culture and high operating costs due to leakages and badly negotiated contracts. Furthermore, he has to contend with the Employee and Pilot Unions whose support and cooperation will be needed.

I ask Tun Dr. Mahathir to leave Malaysia’s future in the hands of a new generation of Malaysians who are better educated than men and women of his and my generation, and who can get the job done if they are given the chance to get on with their jobs without political meddling. We should not be cynical and  must stop thinking that we are indispensable. It is best to stay on the sidelines and proffer advice when only asked.

I wish Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar and his team all the best in their attempt to rebuild our national carrier. It is a great challenge for him, probably his biggest one in his illustrious career.–Din Merican

MAS Restructuring: Malaysians are stupid, says “smart” Tun Dr. Mahathir (December 6, 2014)

Malaysians are too “stupid” to manage aviation, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad remarked today following news that a German is set to captain a revamped Malaysia Airlines Systems Berhad (MAS) from next year.

Malaysia's GeniusHe is a Malaysian Genius–Product of Mahathir’s Education Policy

Yesterday, state wealth fund Khazanah Nasional Berhad announced Christoph R. Mueller as the Chief Executive Officer-Designate of MAS New Co in a bid to turn around the crippled national carrier’s misfortunes much as he did with Ireland’s national carrier Aer Lingus.

“Malaysians are stupid. They don’t know how to manage aviation,” the former Prime Minister was quoted saying by news portal Malaysiakini, after gracing a Proton design event in the city.

“And now those responsible for the losses try to make things right,” he reportedly added in what appears to be a dig at Khazanah, which holds close to 70 per cent shares in MAS.

The flag carrier marked its seventh quarterly loss in a row recently when it posted a net loss of RM575.6 million for the three months ending September 30, widening from a RM373.2 million deficit in the same period last year.

It dove deeper into the red following the mysterious loss of flight MH370 on March 8 and the July 18 shooting down over Ukraine of flight MH17.

MAS had raked in billions in profits during the 1980s but began to suffer losses a decade later, after then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir privatised the airline. The MAS privatisation deal saw Tan Sri Tajuddin Ramli taking out a RM1.79 billion loan in 1994 to buy a 32 per cent majority stake in the airline.

Tajuddin, who was affected by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, later sold his stake in MAS to Putrajaya for RM1.79 billion — or RM8 a share — the same amount that he paid in 2001; the company’s closing share price at that time was RM3.68.

In the years since, MAS has undergone three business turnarounds at an estimated cost of nearly RM20 billion to the government. In a statement yesterday, Khazanah said Mueller will officially be appointed as CEO-designate of MAS New Co effective January 1 as they negotiate to bring him on board by March 1 next year.

Mueller has been CEO of Aer Lingus since 2009 and his contract ends on May 1. According to his biodata provided by Khazanah, the German is credited with turning around the Irish airline’s waning fortunes amid a declining Irish market and tepid European market conditions, and developing Dublin as among the leading hubs for North Atlantic long-haul traffic.

Mueller was also a key contributor in German carrier Lufthansa’s corporate turnaround in the 1990s, when he served as Senior Vice-President for network management and corporate planning, and orchestrated the move by a group of investors in the ill-fated SABENA Group, one of its subsidiaries, Delta Air Transport — which has since been renamed Brussels Airlines and operates as Belgium’s national carrier.

Other new appointments include Datuk Seri Mohammed Shazalli Ramli as a non-executive Director on the MAS Board, Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad Abdul Majid as Chairman of the Corporate Reskilling Centre (CRC), Shahryn Azmi as Chief Executive of the CRC and Datuk Boonler Somchit as a non-executive Director and advisor to the CRC.

Khazanah said the appointments were part of the key initiatives under its 12-point MAS Recovery Plan, and that they were agreed to by the Khazanah Board of Directors at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak Thursday.

Khazanah’s 12-point turnaround plan for the national carrier, titled “Rebuilding A National Icon — The MAS Recovery Plan”, also includes transferring all MAS assets to a new entity tentatively known as “MAS Baru” or “new MAS”. The total takeover is to cost Khazanah some RM6 billion.



Japan is still No.1 in Asia

September 5, 2014

Japan: Efficiency and Sense of Economy is a Way of Life

by Din Merican, Tokyo, Japan

Kamsiah and Din in Tokyo2In my book, despite what has been written about the country over the last 2 decades since the Plaza Accord of 1985 when the Yen was revalued against the United States Dollar, Japan is still No.1.

As a frequent business visitor to this Land of the Rising Sun in the 1980s, and after a considerable lapse of time  before this visit,  I reaffirm this assessment when I arrived with my wife, Dr. Kamsiah yesterday at Narita Airport on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH88.

It was indeed a very good flight where we enjoyed the excellent service provided by a team of very kind and dedicated crew of pilots and stewards and air hostesses. If they were affected by the MH370 and MH17 tragedies, they certainly did not show it.

Japan is an outstanding example of efficiency. That has not changed despite negative reports we read about Japan after the 1985 Plaza Accord. Why? These reports overlook the character of Japanese society and its culture, values, and heritage. The Japanese are hardworking, dedicated, efficient, friendly, and proud people. Their work ethics remain legendary.

The Samurai

We saw Japanese efficiency at Narita. It took us less than 15 minutes to clear immigration and customs and get our bags. After these formalities, we were met by two City Police officers who introduced themselves in good and fluent English, took our particulars and handed us a pamphlet containing contact numbers for emergency and ambulance services. We were then driven to our hotel by well dressed hotel chauffeur who greeted us with the usual bow of welcome. At the hotel, we again saw efficiency in action. The hotel staff attended to us promptly. After checking in at the Grand New Takanawa Prince Hotel, we were driven by a shuttle bus to Shinagawa station. We then took the train to Shinjuku and Ginza for some sightseeing.


The Japanese standard of efficiency is everywhere on display. Be it time efficiency, traffic management and system,  economic use of space , and fuel efficiency; this apparently is ingrained in the Japanese psyche. We are told that this habit is taught to Japanese kids in their schools. Tokyo is a very clean city and environment. Its garbage separation and collection system is second to none, and we feel that both Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya can learn a lot about how to deal with our rubbish and care for the environment

july 4th 2007Get Politics Right and the rest will follow






Malaysia Airlines will be fully owned by Malaysian Government

August 9, 2014

MAS Restructuring : Leave no stones unturned

by Din Merican

Azman MokhtarWell done, TS Azman Mokhtar for making this strategic move at this time, when Malaysians of goodwill are with our government following MH370 and MH17 tragedies where lives were lost. We look forward to know the details of your plan to restructure our national flag carrier.

We hope you will be tough with the MAS Staff Union, and not allow it to dictate what Khazanah should do in the national interest. So reduce staffing. Deal with crony contracts. Review the routes and financing of aircraft; and appoint competent professionals to manage the airline, and have a truly independent Board of Directors,  and finally please seek the advice of MAS elders like Tan Sri Rama Iyer, Tan Sri Saw Huat Lye, Tan Sri Aziz Abdul Rahman and Dato’ Kamaruddin Ahmad.

All of us want MAS to succeed but the restructuring must be comprehensive so that the rot that has plagued our national flag carrier in recent years can be eliminated. Let us face the moments of truth with a healthy corporate culture. Therefore, make use of this opportunity to start on a clean slate. Let us hope Prime Minister Najib has the political will to make a new beginning for MAS.

Malaysia Airlines will be fully owned by Malaysian Government’s Khazanah

by Thomas

BANGKOK — Mired in debt and reeling from two aircraft disasters this year, Malaysia Airlines will be fully taken over by the government as a prelude to a restructuring, the Malaysian government said Friday.

MASKhazanah Nasional, the investment arm of the Malaysian government, formally requested the delisting of the airline in a letter to the Malaysian stock exchange on Friday and offered to buy back shares at a price 12.5 percent higher than Thursday’s closing price.

Malaysia Airlines had been losing money for several years when five months ago, a flight bound for China disappeared, and no trace of the aircraft or its 239 passengers has been found. Just over three weeks ago, another Malaysia Airlines plane exploded over Ukraine, killing almost 300 people.

Khazanah was vague about its plans for the airline, saying only that it intended “to undertake a comprehensive review and restructuring” and that the airline had “substantial funding requirements.” Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, said a “holistic restructuring plan” would be announced by the end of the month.

“This process of renewal will involve painful steps and sacrifices from all parties,” he said in a statement that specifically mentioned the need for support from, among others, the airline’s creditors, raising the possibility of a debt write-down.

The share buyback, which would cost Khazanah about 1.4 billion ringgit, or $437 million, still needs approval by private shareholders, who own about 30 percent of the company. Khazanah’s offer price of 27 sen, 0.27 ringgit, a share appears favorable to stockholders: That price was last reached in February, before the company’s two tragedies.

The disappearance in March of Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing remains a mystery, and a search in the southern Indian Ocean is still underway. On July 17, 298 passengers on a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed when a company Boeing 777 was shot down over Ukraine.

The disasters aggravated what was already poor financial performance by the airline, which has lost money for the past three years and has been squeezed by nimbler rivals, like Air Asia, the privately owned, low-cost airline also based out of Malaysia that has grown exponentially since beginning operations more than a decade ago.

Malaysia Airlines, which began as Malayan Airlines, in 1947 during the British colonial period, has suffered a number of sharp losses in recent decades. It has often been managed by business executives close to the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, and was bailed out by the government at least once. Like many other government-linked companies in Malaysia, the airline is saddled with ties to influential contractors connected to the party, which has governed the country since independence in 1957.

The Malaysian government sees the carrier as a national strategic asset. In a statement Friday, Khazanah said the goal of the restructuring was to make the airline profitable but also for it to “serve its function as a critical national development entity.”

Malaysia can’t afford a botched handling of MH17

July 20, 2014

MY COMMENTWe have been hit by two tragedies, MH 370 and MH 17 a few days ago,Din Merican both within a space of four months. MH370 is still shrouded in secrecy and  it is a public relations disaster; our leaders and public and security officials handled the foreign media poorly. MH17 was brought down by Russian made missiles in the hands of Ukrainian rebels backed by  Prime Minister Putin’s government. Our political leaders and officials are again in the eyes of media. Let them handle the situation better this time.

Those who are behind this dastardly violence must be brought to account. Our diplomats and those of countries which lost their citizens and the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon must act in concert to ascertain the facts about the downing of this ill-fated 777 aircraft. At home, the new Transport Minister has to ensure that there are no cover-ups, blame games, excuses, and conflicting or contradictory statements. Please provide facts as they come to light, and do it well and ensure that there are no fumbles.

I am glad that our Prime Minister has allowed debate in our Parliament on MH37. I hope Parliamentarians on both sides of Dewan Rakyat can be rational and constructive in their deliberations so that we can achieve consensus on what we should do to restore national self confidence and pride in our national flag carrier, Malaysian Airlines.

No shouting matches please. Bung Mokhtar types must not be allowed to disrupt the debate or make fools of themselves. In this time of national crisis, UMNO-BN and Pakatan Rakyat must stand together. The debate should result in a plan of action for the government. To nudge the debate along orderly lines, there should be a White Paper to Parliament on MH17 in which the government can present its views on what it has its mind to deal with the aftermath of MH 17.Din Merican

Malaysia can’t afford a botched handling of MH17

by William Pesek (07-18-14)

There’s nothing funny about Malaysia Airlines losing two Boeing 777s and more than 500 lives in the space of four months. That hasn’t kept the humor mills from churning out dark humor and lighting up cyberspace.


Actor Jason Biggs, for example, got in trouble for tweeting: “Anyone wanna buy my Malaysia Airlines frequent flier miles?” A passenger supposedly among the 298 people aboard Flight 17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine yesterday uploaded a photo of the doomed plane on Facebook just before takeoff in Amsterdam, captioning it: “Should it disappear, this is what it looks like.”

That reference, by a man reportedly named Cor Pan, was to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, whose disappearance in March continues to provide fodder for satirists, conspiracy theorists and average airplane passengers with a taste for the absurd. On my own Malaysia Air flight last month, I was struck by all the fatalistic quips around me — conversations I overheard and in those with my fellow passengers. One guy deadpanned: “First time I ever bought flight insurance.”

MH17 CrashThere is, of course, no room for humor after this disaster or the prospect that the money-losing airline might not survive — at least not without a government rescue. This company had already become a macabre punch line, something no business can afford in the Internet and social-media age. It’s one thing to have a perception problem; it’s quite another to have folks around the world swearing never to fly Malaysia Air.

Nor is no margin for mistakes by Malaysia or the airline this time, even though all signs indicate that there is no fault on the part of the carrier. The same can’t be said for the bumbling and opacity that surrounded the unexplained loss of Flight 370. Even if there was no negligence on the part of Malaysia Air this week, the credibility of the probe and the willingness of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government to cooperate with outside investigators — tests it failed with Flight 370 — will be enormously important.

As I have written before, the botched response to Flight 370 was a case study in government incompetence and insularity. After six decades in power, Najib’s party isn’t used to being held accountable by voters, never mind foreign reporters demanding answers. Rather than understand that transparency would enhance its credibility, Malaysia’s government chose to blame the international press for impugning the country’s good name.

The world needs to be patient, of course. If Flight 370’s loss was puzzling, even surreal, Flight 17 is just MH 17plain tragic. It’s doubtful Najib ever expected to be thrown into the middle of Russian-Ukraine-European politics. Although there are still so many unanswered questions — who exactly did the shooting and why? — it’s depressing to feel like we’re revisiting the Cold War of the early 1980s, when Korean Air Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet.

More frightening is how vulnerable civilian aviation has become. Even if this is the work of pro-Russian rebels, yesterday’s attack comes a month after a deadly assault on a commercial jetliner in Pakistan. One passenger was killed and two flight attendants were injured as at least 12 gunshots hit Pakistan International Airlines Flight PK-756 as it landed in the northwestern city of Peshawar. It was the first known attack of its kind and raises the risk of copycats. The low-tech nature of such assaults — available to anyone with a gripe, a high-powered rifle and decent marksmanship — is reason for the entire world to worry.

The days ahead will be filled with post-mortems and assigning blame. That includes aviation experts questioning why Malaysia Air took a route over a war zone being avoided by Qantas, Cathay Pacific and several other carriers. The key is for Malaysian authorities to be open, competent and expeditious as the investigation gains momentum. Anything less probably won’t pass muster.

MH 370 and MH 17 taught us never to take things for granted

July 20, 2014

MH 370 and MH 17 taught us never to take things for granted

by Neil Khor (07-19-14)@

MASPride of Malaysia dented by Tragedy

COMMENT: The loss of 298 lives as MH 17 was shot down over Ukraine has come too soon on the heels of the loss of MH 370. An airline that had a near perfect record for the past 30 years since its inception is now suddenly the most blighted in the aviation industry.

Crying for Loss of Loved OnesThe manner in which we recover, and there is no doubt that we will, shall determine our collective destiny as a nation. Like many Malaysians, I was in shock and disbelief at midnight on Thursday as news of the loss of MH17 filtered through social media. Since the loss of MH 370, I have made it a point to fly MAS whenever possible come what may.

I have grown up with MAS, as a toddler traveling from Penang to Singapore in the 1970s right through my student days at UM, when the airline was kind enough to extend to students with AYTB (Asian Youth Travel Bureau) cards tremendous discounts allowing us to go home on the cheap.

In those days, it was a grueling nine-hour bus ride down Malaysia’s trunk roads from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. A MAS flight not only provided comfort and speed, it assured that students got home safely.

Like the airline, those of us born in the 1970s, have come of age to find a world changed beyond all recognition. It is not that we cannot adapt to change but the changes have come so rapidly and so brutally that nobody has had the time to make sense of it all. We may have been brought up to believe in God and Country (Rukunegara) but globalisation have altered our allegiances.

Similarly, the aviation industry, too. has not fared too well in this globalised world. The pacific period, from the 1960s to 2000, is over.

In those days, emerging nations like Malaysia personified themselves through national airlines. We broke away from Singapore to form MAS, which not only flew the flag but also assumed the burden of unprofitable but necessary domestic routes. The growing up years was characterised by good service, which by the 1980s, was amongst the best in the world.

Flying on MAS was a privileged and entire families would go to the airport to receive or send relatives off. It was definitely not the era of “everybody can fly” but rather “now you have arrived”. Cheap fossil fuels and better-designed plans made flying cheaper and more accessible. By the time the budget airlines appeared in the sky, the entire attitude towards aviation had changed as well.

MH17 Crash Site2 National carriers had to compete like any other in the industry resulting in spectacular bankruptcies, including that of Japan Airlines! With this fundamental change, attitudes towards flying also transformed. Malaysian society changed the most in the last 15 years. The Internet continues to be a great leveler. No single Prime Minister, no matter how powerful, can decide with impunity or set the tone of discussion on national issues like Dr Mahathir Mohamad.In short, MAS like many other “national” organisations has continued to come up short, never meeting the rising tide of expectations. Since September 11, 2002 when two planes slammed into New York’s Twin Towers, air travel has never been the same. I remember traveling from Minneapolis to Louisville in Kentucky with a guide dog as a fellow passenger.

There was hardly any security with checkpoints that were no more stringent than at a bus stop.  That was in 1999 but today the US is imposing full body scans, check-ups on laptops and security scanning of mobile phones. Soon security procedures will take as long as inter-continental flights in all major airports.

From the sad and painful experience of losing MH370, we have learned that the aviation industry itself has not kept up with technological change, with planes entering blind spots and much dependent on 1940s radar technology. There is also very little improvement on how to track planes to ensure better monitoring. Till this day, black box technology still relies on batteries that only last a maximum of 30 days.Now four months onwards, we have lost MH17, which was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over a route that was deemed officially safe by the IATA. Yes, some airlines have avoided this route over the Ukraine but many airlines flying from Europe to Asia were using this prescribed route.

Political maturity in short supply

How high an airplane fly is also dictated by the air traffic controller of the country whose territory one is flying across presumably they know what other flying objects will be flying over their airspace at the same time. As someone who flies on MAS, Emirates and SIA regularly from Malaysia to Europe, this route above the Ukraine is very familiar.

I have also flown frequently to neighbouring Georgia, crossing the Caspian and Black seas. There was really no way to have anticipated that a civilian plane would be shot down. If the European authorities had red-flagged the area as two other Ukrainian military aircraft had been shot down, they should have banned all commercial flights over Ukraine airspace.

Having lost two aircraft involving the loss of more than 500 souls is a very bitter pill for Malaysians to accept. For the longest time we have developed and made giant progressive strides forward. Yes, political maturity is still an on-going battle.

Religious and racial extremism is on the rise but most of us have enough to eat, some even able to share with the less fortunate by supporting soup kitchens.

Never take things for grantedMalaysia is still a great country, blessed with natural resources and a cultural diversity that is the envy ofMH17 Crash site 2 the world. But the loss of our two MAS flights has taught us never to take things for granted. Whilst we can plan and make the best preparations, we cannot foresee how these plans will unfold.

In the case of MAS, some hard decisions may have to be taken to make it viable again. There is no loss of face if we have to start again from scratch. To all those who have lost friends, families and loved ones in MH370 and MH17, my most heartfelt and sincere condolences.

Malaysians the world over are united in grief and sorrow. But I am sure we will emerge stronger and better, at least strive to be better people to ensure a stronger nation going forward.

NEIL KHOR completed his PhD at Cambridge University and now writes occasionally on matters that he thinks require better historical treatment. He is quietly optimistic about Malaysia’s future.