Tomorrow, the search for Flight MH370 comes to a close. After an enormous multinational effort, investigators, observers and family members of those on board are still nowhere close to an answer since the ill-fated flight dropped off radar in the early hours of March 8, 2014.
For Jennifer Chong, whose husband Ling Tan was aboard the Malaysia Airlines aircraft, the quest for truth has been an exhausting one.
“The world’s longest search is our longest wait and biggest pain,” she says in an interview. “It remains very difficult for us. Both of our sons and myself are suffering from multiple psychological disorders with traumatic features.”
Jennifer was married to Ling Tan for 22 years. He sat in business class seat 1C and was among the 227 passengers who departed from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, together with 12 crew members. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was the captain of the aircraft.
The plane’s last blip was when it made voice contact over air control at 1.19am as it was hovering over the South China Sea, about 30 minutes after take off. It vanished from air traffic controllers’ radar screens at 1.22am.
But Malaysian military radar was still able to track the plane as it deviated from its original flightpath westwards crossing the Malaysian peninsula until it left the range at 2.22am while over the Andaman Sea, some 370km northwest of Penang.
“My sons lost their father during their formative years where they needed him most. Words just cannot described what we had gone through. The hope and frustration over and over again, after four years (and counting). We are staying in the wait mode for too long that we cannot come out if it.
“Financially, Chong Ling is the economic engine of the family. With his disappearance, our family is facing a financial crisis. There are mortgages to pay and school fees to pay,” says Jennifer.
According to the flight manifest, of the 227 passengers, 152 were Chinese nationals; 38, Malaysians; and the remainder were from 13 different countries.
Malaysia, China and Australia undertook the original 27-month search, which became the most costly search in aviation history, but bailed in January 2017, after the Australian government declared there would be no new search due to a lack of credible evidence. Everyone on board was presumed dead.
A year later, US-based Ocean Infinity embarked on a renewed search for the plane. It signed a 90-day “all-or-nothing” contract with the Malaysian government, where the seabed technology company will only be paid if it found the plane, with the fee rising the longer the operation took.
If Flight MH370 was located by end June, Ocean Infinity would have taken home a bounty of US$70 million (RM278 million). But after completely scouring its targeted area in April, it requested an extension until May 29.
Newly minted Transport Minister Anthony Loke granted the request, as the discovery of the aircraft is part of his ministerial pledge when he took office on May 21.
But recently he told the press there would be no further extensions and the government would release a full report on the Ocean Infinity offshore search. He has yet to determine a release date.
“I’m not privy to whatever details that may not have been revealed, but as a minister, I am committed to releasing all details to the public,” he was quoted by Reuters.
He later clarified in an interview with broadcaster Astro Awani that the decision to end the search came from Ocean Infinity, not the government.
“Please wait for May 29,” he said. “I can’t tell you what will happen after May 29. The aircraft may have been found before that date, so how can I tell you what will happen after May 29? I don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.”
Initially, Jennifer had high hopes that the new government would be committed to the search as the previous Barisan Nasional government “seemed like it didn’t want the plane to be discovered”.
“We are very disappointed and discouraged to hear the search will be terminated. Both Voice370 and the Chinese families have written to the government to urge them to continue the search,” she says.
Voice370 is the plane’s family support group and it has, as a collective group, urged the government to conduct fresh investigations into the missing flight as part of its agenda over the next 100 days. But a fresh search is not part of Pakatan Harapan’s 100-day pledge.
“The families are looking forward to have a meeting with Loke as soon as he has settled in his job,” Jennifer says.
“Not a suicide”
For Peter Chong, his determination to push for the discovery of the aircraft also stems from a personal agenda. While he may not have had family on board the flight, he was a close friend of Captain Zaharie; he wants to see the veteran pilot vindicated.
Larry Vance, an aircraft investigator from Canada, believes Zaharie committed suicide and took the entire plane with him.
“He was killing himself,” he told the Australian edition of the talk show 60 Minutes on May 23. Vance speculated that it was family problems that drove the pilot off the edge.
But government investigators have rubbished that and believe everybody on the plane, from the captain to the passengers, was unconscious as the uncontrolled craft ran out of fuel and nosedived into the sea.
“Speculation that the pilot committed suicide is rubbish,” Peter says in an interview. The 55-year-old made headlines for his defence of Zaharie from the moment the plane vanished
“He was a very good friend. Someone you are thankful to have. He is also very professional and he is one of the lucky few who got to work on something that was his hobby. Many of us don’t get to do that.”
Efficiency and transparency
Ever since Flight MH370 was untraceable, the Malaysian authorities have been criticised for being opaque in their investigations, and bungling search efforts.
Public communication from the country’s officials on the loss of the flight was initially beset with confusion. For example, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, then MAS chief, said air traffic control was in contact with the aircraft two hours into the flight, but the last contract with air traffic control was less than an hour after take off.
Another example of a delay was the release of satellite data by London-based telecoms company Inmarsat. On March 11, three days after the MH370 disappeared, Inmarsat provided officials with data suggesting the aircraft was nowhere near the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea, areas which were the focus of search operations.
The information was publicly acknowledge and released by the then prime minister Najib Razak only on a March 15 press conference.
Jennifer wants more transparency from Malaysian authorities. She believes some of the information could have been conceded by the previous government that has jeopardised the decision to determine the location of the plane.
“The famous line of the authorities, ‘If it is there, we will find it’… Obviously the plane is not there,” she says.
Meanwhile, Peter hopes the government hauls up the key people involved in the search and “get to the bottom of this”.
They are Najib, Hishamuddin Hussein and Azharuddin Abdul Rahman. Hishamuddin was acting transport minister and defence minister while Azharuddin is director-general of the Department of Civil Aviation.
Asked Transport Minister if there was any indication that information on #MH370 was concealed: "I'm not privy to any information that any information had been concealed but as Minister of Transport, I am committed to making sure every report, every detail will be made public". pic.twitter.com/3FNaBh06Pt— Sumisha Naidu (@SumishaCNA) May 23, 2018
“We owe it to the families to be transparent. What has spoilt our image is the entire search was not transparent enough. Even the media was frustrated,” Peter says.
He believes the Ocean Infinity report and its findings would be a dud given that the seabed company failed to locate the any debris.
“What good is that report when you can’t even find the plane? To find the plane, you need data, but that has proven to be inaccurate. So, if that’s the case, the logical thing to do is revisit other places.
“You’ve spent so much money, but you don’t need to spend 1% of that amount to review these witness stories. If the Malaysian government really wants to end it, then they owe it to the families,” he says.
On the top of Peter’s list, as well as the MH370 families, is the cargo manifest.
An “infinite” search?
De facto PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim recently spoke about the missing aircraft and expressed a desire to get to the bottom of the mystery.
“Was it a failure of the system? Was it a failure of those monitoring the system or was it an intention to ignore or cover up?” he told The Australian on May 26.
“What was described by the authorities and what was in the cargo was totally different.”
The right man to lead the search is Anwar, says Peter, as he is not in government and is well-known in international circles.
“But we have to remember it is a pledge, even if it is made by the old government, that Malaysia will never give up the search. So we must hold the government to that promise,” he adds.
But for Jennifer, her wish is to see the case come to a close. “Hopefully it will come soon,” she says.
“Malaysia has lost the plane by letting it fly out of its sight. They owe it to the families and the world to locate the plane and to determine the cause of the disappearance.
“I hope that there will be a breakthrough in the investigation and that countries such as China, Australia, France and India, which had citizens on board MH370, will apply constant pressure to Malaysia to make sure this would be done.”