Lessons from the Korean ferry tragedy – the perils of blind obedience

April 19, 2014

What was the one operating factor that caused so many kids to perish in the Korean ferry disaster? Was it dodgy steel? Might it have something to do with the weather? Or maybe it was lousy seamanship?

I have no doubt, there will be many theories, but one that may have a disproportionately role in the unusually high death count, may have something to do with the cult of venerating authority that is such an entrenched feature in Korean culture viz-a-viz the inability to question a request made by an authoritative figure.

The ferry disaster may seem to be another stand alone in the pantheon of disasters. But I distinctively recall there was a period when the Korean airline industry was riven with same corrosive culture of blindly following without questioning. Result: planes fell out of the skies like cats and dogs.

In those days, it was not unusual for younger Korean pilots to follow orders from the top blindly without ever seeing the wisdom to question them – the prevailing mantra of Korean air used to be – the captain is more senior than me. He is in charge. He has years and years of experience under his belt and he is God and if I want to aspire to be a captain one day. I would do well to else to sit quietly in one place and do nothing.

No….this ferry tragedy is not new….not at all. Nope, it’s just old dressed up as new. As when the ferry listed at the speed of a motorised wheel chair. Some bloody idiot told those brainwashed kids not to move….to stay where they are….so they just sat there obediently like sheep….and we all know, where sheep end up….don’t we….or maybe we don’t…as they’re all in the bottom of the ocean in this case.

How sad….how very sad.

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‘When I was a boy and the teacher asked the whole class – what do you want to be when you grow up. Everyone stood up proudly and said, ‘a lawyer, doctor, architect etc etc.’ When it came to my turn. I would usually look down and keep quiet.

I learnt from an early age that people in authority can often be very cruel and heartless without even realising it – as there was once when I told the whole class, that I wanted to be a landowner when I grow up. The teacher made fun of me by asking, ‘how is that possible, you are so slow.’ And the whole class laughed. After that whenever this teacher saw me, he would often poke fun of me by telling the whole class, ‘the great landowner is here!’ And again everyone laughed.

I don’t know how it happened, but one day news of ambition reached the ears of my employer. He was a landowner and after school I worked as a dog handler in his lands.

One day I was told by the mandur the great planter wanted to me to report to the mansion on the hill. He wanted to see me. The night before I couldn’t sleep as I thought, he was going to sack me. I have always lived in fear of the great planter. He was always a larger than life to me.

The villagers said he once fought the communist. They raped and killed his wife and children, so he gave them death and though he was shot many times, death had no dominion over him. The Tamil rubber tappers believed, he had made an unholy pact with Durga, the goddess of death so whenever they passed his lands on a full moon, they would pluck a hair from their brow to protect themselves from restless man eating tigers. As Kali was fashioned from the brow hair of the goddess of death.

The taoist believed he was a reincarnation of Mara. They believed the communist had murdered him, but since the planter so loved the land, the spirits of the good earth had taken pity on him and turned a blind eye and so the man who was meant to be on the other side…stayed on with the living.

Then there were those who just believed the bush jacket of the planter was made out of steel mesh that could stop bullets. They called him, the six million dollar man – as the planter wore a glass eye, had a stump leg and his left hand was made out ivory.

He smoked a briar pipe. Listened to only Spanish love songs. Drove a land rover with big tires. Wore square dark glasses and sported a pencil moustache like a silent movie film star. I had only seen him a few times. And even then it was only from a distance.

When I saw the planter. He did not bring up the matter. He simply asked whether I was happy with my work as a dog handler. He then went on to explain to me – a man would do well to know his place in this world and if he didn’t know his place, then he would have to be told his place. I told the planter, I did not understand…the planter gave me an example…he told me. A teacher is supposed to impart knowledge. That is his role. But if for some reason this teacher teases me or makes fun or me, then it’s my duty as man to remind him of his role and if necessary to put him in his place. After those words he waved me off.

One day during PE when the teacher made fun of me again in front of all the students. I told him what the planter had shared with me. I told the teacher, please don’t make fun of me. As when I am asked a question what I want to be when I grow up. I can only say a landowner and that is the solemn truth. I may not know how this is possible, but as implausible as that may be, that is what I aspire to be. I went on to tell this teacher that I meant no disrespect and that he should stop what he was doing…as his role is to impart knowledge and not to be a comedian. When he heard this. His face turned beet red and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘how dare you!’ and punched me. Later on when everyone asked how I got a black eye. He would say I picked a fight with another boy and I had been insolent, so I received another round of beating from the disciplinary master. During those days that was how it was…the software to bring up kids was very rudimentary and teachers were all very powerful figuress….there was no one to complain too….and even if I told the truth….no one would ever believe me…that was how it was then.

When I shared this with the planter the following day. He told me that there are times when a man has to go against the grain just to earn his right to be his own man. He went on to share with me that it doesn’t always pay to respect one elders without always questioning and if possible interrogating their motives. As it’s not in every case that they are right or for that matter driven by altruistic motives and a wise man would do well to always remember this. Thereafter he asked me to hop into his land rover. We went for mee rebus, then the planter took me to the chap huaw tiam (village sundry shop). He bought me a hockey stick and an ultra man mask. When he handed me these things, the planter simply said, ‘we shall see whether you have what it takes to be a planter.’

Two weeks later the PE teacher ended up hospital. Apparently one night after a heavy round of drinking in the snooker parlour. According to eye witness accounts. He was set on by a short mask fiend, who beat the crap out of him with a hockey stick in pitch darkness and sped off in a waiting Land Rover. Despite an extensive search by the police. They never ever found the culprit.

Even today, I often wonder to myself – who could it have been? Really, I do wonder.’

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