Transparency can hide the truth


There are those who remain unconvinced by all the reports on lost flight MH370. More information doesn’t always mean a better understanding. There are always going to be doubters.

On Monday evening, the Prime Minister delivered a statement that flight MH370 had ended its last few hours over the Indian Ocean. Given the dwindling fuel supply and lack of landing strips in the area, the assumption had to be made that the plane went down with all hands. The hope was clearly that this news, bad as it was, would at least give closure to the relatives.

Except it didn't. Some relatives, especially for those from China, felt that they weren’t being told the whole story, even after a statement from the UK Air Accidents Investigation branch (AAIB) on the methodology used to track the plane’s final hours. At a press conference in Beijing, one attendee complained: “You have paid all this money for a rubbish report and they are pulling a fast one on you!” Another accused Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya of “talking out of his a**”.

In the midst of all this, China’s special envoy to Malaysia made a request for the government to release all data they had on the crash, presumably so they could examine it firsthand and corroborate the results.

The criticism levelled at the Malaysian government has been ongoing for a while. An editorial in Beijing Times pulled no punches in its criticism, saying that, “One day, we will find out what happened on MH370 during those final seven hours and why some people did not want us to know”.

When Australia took over the search of the south Indian Ocean, a representative of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority spoke so eloquently of their progress, a local paper reported that “the alacrity, transparency and neutrality of the (Australian’s) response stood in contrast to Malaysia’s actions”.

Nevertheless, though I believe Malaysia would benefit from greater transparency in how we do business, it remains unclear if transparency always leads to benefits. In fact, instead of providing clarity, transparency can sometimes make matters murkier.

Take, for example, the policy at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which requires authors to disclose what links they have with the medical industry. In theory, this is so readers can determine what the risk of bias may be. However, this means that a false accusation of an author failing to disclose a relationship can be very serious.

JAMA tried to mitigate this by stating that anybody filing such an accusation must remain silent about it while an investigation is carried out. But in one case, an accuser frustrated at the slow pace of the investigation made his suspicions public, and there was nothing JAMA could do to punish the “whistle-blower” when that happened. As a result, the transparency meant to make things clearer to the public ended with more heated arguments and none being the wiser.

Closer to home, a similar issue of transparency was distracting people from the real issues. Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi got into trouble for his reply to a question in Parliament about a statutory rape report that showed that more cases among the Malays. He reportedly said, “Maybe the non-Malays are not as sensitive about it, which is why not many people come forward to make reports.”

Wan Junaidi said in his defence that he agreed his statement would cause hurt, but only if it were taken out of context. Fortunately, Parliament’s Hansard has a record, so anybody can see what were the actual words he used. It must be noted his original comment was made in Bahasa Melayu, and I think it's a fair question to ask if it was translated correctly.

More interestingly, anybody reading the Hansard will see that minutes later, the MP for Rantau Panjang, Hajah Siti Zailah, highlighted that there is a rape happening once every 15 minutes in Malaysia but only one out of 10 cases are reported. Furthermore in 2009, there were 3,600 cases but only 162 convictions.

To me, this is the more important fact: Rapes are under-reported and many perpetrators escape unpunished. Transparency shows the truth to all, but few seem to see it.

In a world where data is available to all, it can be hard for the general public to tell the difference between good and bad analysis. To quote Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust, raw data is much like raw sewage: it may contain the odd nugget, but can be harmful if misapplied.

Is it possible the AAIB analysed the data incorrectly? I understand the basic science behind the approach they took, but if you dumped the data in my lap, I would be lost as to where to begin. I also agree it would be good if another independent party took a look at it – if it hasn’t already been done within the current investigation team.

Yet, even if the Malaysian government makes available all the relevant data to the world, it doesn’t mean things will become clearer. Although the truth lies within the data, anybody paranoid enough will always find a lie.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion, but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at star2@thestar.com.my.

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