Saturday, 26 July 2014

In a national crisis, can we count on you, Singapore?

Is our society resilient enough to survive tragedies like MH17?
By Devadas Krishnadas, Published The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2014

IT HAS been a week since the crash of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) MH17 over Ukraine. Even as recovery efforts are still in progress, a quick scan of the front pages of major newspapers and news websites suggests that the world is already moving on from the tragedy.

The contrast between the permanent and deeply unsettling effect of the crash on family and friends of the victims, as well as on MAS as an operating entity, and the shifting interest of the rest of the global community is sobering.

It has been reported that there were many more flights by Singapore Airlines (SIA) traversing the route flown by MH17 than most other airlines - including MAS. Given that the attackers seemingly did not specifically target the aircraft because it was MAS, the statistical probability was greater that an SIA aircraft would have been struck - simply because it flew more flights over the area. We lucked out, MAS did not.

Our feelings are with the Malaysians and all those affected by the tragedy. For ourselves as Singaporeans, we may feel some relief at our good fortune. But perhaps we can also spend some time to pause and reflect on what it would mean if it had been an SIA aircraft that had been shot down and if many of the passengers had been Singaporeans. How would our Government have responded? How would our people have reacted?

These are important questions to ask ourselves for two reasons.

First, awful tragedies can happen even when all things are done right, so we should think about how best to manage our reaction now rather than in the event, however unlikely.

Second, the quality of a country's response to a tragedy is not only a function of the crisis management efforts of the government but the reaction and conduct of the people.

The Malaysian government has been resolute and confident in its response to the MH17 tragedy. This is in marked contrast to its handling of the earlier MH370 incident. Obviously, many lessons have been learnt and applied.

However, Singapore should not have to go through one tragedy so that we can respond better to another one. We can learn vicariously from others to improve our own crisis management skills and contingency plans.

One of the most obvious difficulties faced by the Malaysian government has been dealing with the rebels in the contested area where MH17 was brought down and with the recalcitrant Russian government. This illustrates the challenge for less-than-first-power-ranked countries to bargain with larger powers in a crunch.

Singapore would have faced similar - and being much smaller than Malaysia, perhaps even greater - difficulty in the same situation. As in the episode of the mysterious crash of MH370, Malaysia has depended on its friendships with countries such as Australia and the United States to bring leverage on the rebels and the Russian government.

We would have to do likewise.

This brings home the essential truth that as a small, albeit strategic, country, we depend on political alliances and vital economic linkages to help secure our security and thus our sovereignty. Singaporeans must not think that we live in a vacuum or that our own efforts alone can ever be adequate to ensure our future.

We have always needed and will always need powerful friends. And it is in times of crisis that their value comes into play. Even as there has been a growing preoccupation by both political leaders and Singaporeans with domestic political matters in recent years, we should not be negligent in nurturing our key relationships.

The Malaysian people have been supportive of their government's actions and, broadly speaking, have been understanding of the difficulties and challenges it is facing in responding to the event.

The Dutch people have been shaken but have stayed calm, despite losing the most in the casualty list from MH17, while their government has been restrained but firm in its response. The Dutch and the Malaysians deserve not only our sympathy but respect for how they have respectively conducted themselves as a people and as a government in relation to this unexpected tragedy.

How would we have responded as a people? Many Singaporeans these days appear to hold unrealistically high expectations of their political leaders and the public bureaucracy, and are prone to criticising and perpetuating criticism of the government

Whatever the divides or disappointments during normal times, it would not do well for us to continue in the same vein when the country faces a tragedy or confronts an existential shock.

I can't help but wonder whether Singaporeans would pull together and rally behind their leadership. Would we be able to constrain our high expectations and face realistically the challenges inherent in dealing with a tragedy so far away and in such a conflicted space? Or would there be brickbats aplenty?

With the solid backing of the people, the government can be emboldened to act decisively and with resolution and focus on the task at hand. Without it, the government would be fighting a war on two fronts: the crisis itself, and domestic criticism and harping from an impatient and insistent people. In such a scenario, no government can bring full focus to bear or have complete self-confidence in its handling of the crisis.

The tragedy of MH17 is a powerful reminder of how unexpected life can be and a sobering illustration of how societies and governments can be sorely tested with alarming abruptness.

It would be a greater tragedy still if countries did not learn from the experience to improve their capabilities and to reflect on the quality of their social culture.

They must not ask if they are ready for what they know today, but if they are resilient enough for what they do not know tomorrow may bring.

The writer is the chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group, a strategic risk consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans Gives Perfect Response To Horror Of MH17

What MH17 tragedy reveals about Dutch society
By Russell Shorto, Published The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2014

A CULTURAL conundrum that I struggled to comprehend during my six years of living in Amsterdam concerned the Dutch attitude towards celebrities.

They are passionate about their own celebrities - far more than about Hollywood stars, which is fair enough - but in the midst of intensely gossiping about a home-grown film or sports personality, they will suddenly turn blase, as if the celebrity were a mere family member who had started to become uppity.

The explanation is in the size of the nation. When you've got a total population of 16 million crammed into a country smaller than most individual states in the United States, everyone is within a couple of degrees of separation from everyone else. Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, and the other stars of its World Cup team are brought down to earth by the fact that, chances are, you know them, or your uncle does.

About two-thirds of the 298 people who died on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 were Dutch. I asked several Dutch friends how they were doing. As I more or less expected, every one of them knew at least one person who was on the plane. One friend, who lives in The Hague, said her daughter was friends with a girl whose entire family were on the flight: They were going on vacation to Borneo.

A few people want to lash out, saying the country should strike out against Russia. Someone posted the address of Vladimir Putin's daughter - who lives in the Netherlands - on the Facebook page of the Netherlands-Russia Centre. There were some vicious tweets.

But in the main, the reaction to the sudden loss of a cross section of Dutch society - the proportionate loss of life for a country the size of the US would be about 6,000 people - has been muted. The government declared a national day of mourning but events were already taking place everywhere, in a natural, non-official way.

The Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in their gut reactions to things. When hit with a national shock, Americans will almost instinctively reach for ideology or ideals. People saw the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US as an assault on "freedom".

The Dutch have an innate distrust of ideology. You could relate that to World War II and their experience under Nazism but it goes back much further. It has something to do with being a small country surrounded by larger countries that have had long histories of asserting themselves.

It also stems from the fact that Dutch society grew not out of war against a human foe but out of the struggle against nature. Living in the lowlands on a vast river delta, the Dutch came together to battle water. Building dams, dykes and canals was more practical than ideological. For better or worse, the Dutch are more comfortable with meetings and remembrances than with calls to arms.

Geography has defined destiny throughout Dutch history. The little country has reached outward and prospered because of its ability to trade and engage with others. It also has proven to be a safe haven for refugees from less tolerant lands. Even before its 17th century golden age, Holland had become an intensely polyglot hub for goods and ideas, intricately connected with far-flung places.

MH17 reflects and updates that history. Of course, by definition, the plane was packed with travellers. But this tragedy gives an inadvertent indication of how racially mixed the country has become.

Among the Dutch passengers listed on the flight manifest were a Vietnamese family who lived in Delft, the city of Vermeer; a Chinese couple from Rotterdam; a Dutch-Israeli student; a Dutch-Malaysian family; a Dutch-American; people born in Curacao and South Africa; and others with German, Indonesian and British backgrounds.

We hear about the growing multi-ethnicity of the country mostly through the screeching of right-wing fanatic MP Geert Wilders,the leader of the Freedom Party, who riles up some elements of society by declaring that newcomers (read Muslims) are torpedoing Dutch traditions and turning the land of windmills into a giant mosque.

The international media is a sucker for Mr Wilders because he seems to give the lie to what the Dutch are most famous for (besides tulips and marijuana cafes): tolerance. The Dutch pioneered the concept in the 16th century, enshrining it in their de facto Constitution two centuries before "all men are created equal".

One truth revealed by this tragedy is that the country is quietly becoming a melting pot, a place intricately connected to other parts of the world. The Dutch people who died on MH17 mirror their own rapidly evolving society, and remind the rest of us that our futures don't lie in tribalism but in expanding our connections.

The writer is the author of Amsterdam: A History Of The World's Most Liberal City. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University, is a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

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