Kuala Lumpur – Malaysians awoke last Saturday morning to distressing and unexpected news; one of the national carrier’s planes had gone missing.
As thousands took to social media to express their concern for the 239 people on board flight MH370, Malaysian activist Azrul Khalib and his friends began thinking about a more meaningful way to show their support for those affected.
The result was the Wall of Hope – a place for ordinary people to share their own handwritten messages of hope for passengers and crew.
“We are not able to contribute to the search itself, but we are hoping this small contribution can help console, heal and support the families affected,” said Azrul, who is part of a group called Malaysians for Malaysia.
The first wall was erected in a luxury shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur City Centre on Monday. The response was immediate. The 200 tags printed initially for people to leave their messages on were used up in just half an hour. The mall printed thousands more.
“We want them to know that the whole country is standing next to them and supporting them in this really terrible time. In times like this we discover that there are things bigger than ourselves. We are reminded of our humanity,” Azrul said.
Nearly a week after the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 went missing on a night flight to Beijing, and with the search for the plane now stretching from the Indian Ocean to the coast of Vietnam, the incident has inspired widespread sympathy for those involved.
But it has also exposed the shortcomings of Malaysia’s government amid ferocious criticism of its handling of the crisis. Information has been patchy and government ministers, the airline and civil servants have sometimes contradicted each other or made comments widely deemed as inappropriate.
too many contradictions [in the government’s official line]. This is not the way to manage a crisis.”]
Despite the emergence in the country of a vibrant online press, Malaysian ministers are rarely challenged on policy because most of the mainstream media is either owned by the state or the ruling political parties.
Legislation that limits freedom of expression, such as the Sedition Act, cows many journalists and fosters a climate of self-censorship. Investigative journalism is almost unheard of in a country that’s been governed by more-or-less the same coalition since independence in 1957.
At a particularly testy press conference on Wednesday, a government press official even berated journalists over their “ethics” for trying to interview the Chinese ambassador who’d unexpectedly arrived to listen to the proceedings.
The official told the media they should be using the room only to speak to Malaysian officials.
“The government has been so comfortable with the local subservient media that when facing the free international media, they are in disarray,” opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told parliament the next day.
“[There are] too many contradictions. This is not the way to manage a crisis. Each and every statement must be verified first before being issued.”
With the plane seeming to have vanished, and just a handful of facts provided to the public, a multitude of conspiracy theories have flourished.
The aircraft, with 227 passengers and 12 crew representing 14 different nationalities, took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41am on March 9.
Climbing to its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, the Boeing 777 headed out on a clear night across the South China Sea. Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, signed off from Malaysian air traffic control at 1:30am.
It was their last communication.
The vast area of search, compounded by the possibility that the plane turned back across the Malay Peninsula, has highlighted the limitations not only in technology but also of cooperation at the national, regional and international levels.
“MH370 has revealed real gaps in the government of Malaysia’s capabilities,” said Ernie Bower, senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
“The incident has stress-tested Malaysia’s security systems, interagency coordination and maritime and aviation domain awareness capabilities and all three areas have been very publicly revealed as needing serious enhancement.”
|Vietnam, the US and several other countries are aiding in the search and rescue operation [EPA]|
As of Friday, some 13 countries were involved in looking for the plane, with 57 ships and 48 aircraft scouring the South China Sea and the north of the Strait of Malacca in what is still being referred to as a search and rescue operation. On Friday, the search was extended further towards the Indian Ocean.
“The investigation team is following all leads that may help locate the missing aircraft,” the Malaysian government said in a media statement. “We continue to work closely with the US team, whose officials have been on the ground in Kuala Lumpur to help with the investigation since Sunday.”
Each day brings new speculation about the reasons for the plane’s disappearance and where it might be, deepening the anguish for those whose friends and family were on board the flight.
Selamat Omar has been staying at a hotel near the airport with other families since the incident happened, waiting for any news on the whereabouts of his son, Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat, who was onboard the plane.
Omar is not interested in apportioning blame; he just wants the aircraft found.
“This is no one’s fault,” he told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think one human being would want to kill another. I don’t think Malaysia Airlines wants to lose money.” Mohd Khairul’s wife was also at the hotel but too distraught to speak to anyone, he said.
It is a view shared by the people adding their messages of support – in languages including English, Malay, Arabic and German – to the now more than 25 Walls of Hope that have been set up around the country.
“We are waiting for a miracle,” said 21-year-old marketing student Andrew Law after he and his friends tied their messages alongside the hundreds of others already on display in one Kuala Lumpur mall.
“We need to have faith.”
Additional reporting by Florence Looi