‘Yes sir!’ society

Updated 04 Jul 2020


THERE are two lessons from the tragic PIA crash in Karachi, and if we don’t learn from them, the almost 100 victims would have died in vain.

Firstly — and more easily fixable — is the business about pilots flying on fake licences. There is nothing to suggest that the captain of the ill-fated PIA flight was one of them, but his mishandling of the aircraft is an indicator of the culture of incompetence that rules our skies.

When an Airblue plane crashed a few miles from Islamabad a decade ago, killing all on board, the inquiry report shone a laser on the relationship between the captain and his first officer. Although the latter informed the captain that their approach was too low, and they should pull up, he was ignored because to have agreed would have indicated that his junior knew more than the captain did.

Then there was the near-tragedy at Islamabad airport some 30 years ago when the PIA Jumbo scraped home on its belly. Initially, the pilot was praised for executing a masterful belly landing, saving many lives. It then emerged that he had switched off the sensor that warns pilots they were too close to land without lowering the undercarriage.

Our brainwashing begins earlier than the classroom.

I’m sure there are many other examples of why PIA is considered such a dangerous airline to fly on. The powerful pilots union (Palpa) prevents any meaningful punishment for blatantly dangerous manoeuvres.

But fake licences should not surprise us: remember the recent Axact scandal where millions of dollars were coined by the Karachi-based firm selling fake degrees around the world? After a flurry of arrests and court cases, the whole affair seems to have been forgotten.

Perhaps even a dysfunctional country like Pakistan can fix the problem of fake licences. But if this happens, it’ll be due more to foreign pressure and our image abroad than any concern for the lives of Pakistani passengers.

However, it is the second problem that is far more pervasive and deeply entrenched. As the Airblue report highlighted, the rigid hierarchy, even on a three-man flight deck, was such that the first officer could not do more to convince his captain of his dangerous approach than utter emollient words like ‘Sir, are too low’. The captain was apparently too full of his authority to agree, and insisted on maintaining his course: any change would have implied that his junior officer knew more than he did.

Now multiply this attitude across our entire society. When the boss is convinced he (seldom she) knows best, you will never get the optimum outcome. Take Kargil as an example of poor planning resulting from this rigid hierarchical approach.

When Musharraf cursorily ran the broad outline of his madcap adventure past Nawaz Sharif, there were few of the obvious questions that should have been asked. The kitchen cabinet reportedly saw the prime minister’s mild approval, and kept quiet. Musharraf’s team, for their part, only spoke out against the enterprise after they had retired. They, too, were prisoners of the ‘Yes, sir! No, sir!’ syndrome. To this day, the report of the debacle has not been released, even as an internal case study, as far as I know.

But it’s not just the military that operates on this principle. When I was president of a private university, I used to call weekly meetings of the teaching staff. At these sessions, I put forth my ideas for changes, and asked my colleagues to give counter-arguments. Although these were educated, intelligent people, they almost always stayed quiet, or agreed with me.

And when I monitored classes from the back of the room, I noticed that students hardly ever asked questions. Although I hated interfering, I would almost urge them to query or criticise. Again, silence. So clearly, the senior/junior hierarchy was at work. This is why we produce so few inquiring, curious minds.

Sucking up to the boss for promotions is a global malady, but mostly, it ends at the end of work. Here, we live with it each moment of our lives.

Our brainwashing begins earlier than the classroom. Boys are deemed too inexperienced to choose their careers, so their fathers decide. Girls aren’t practical enough to choose their husbands, so their parents use force, if necessary, to select a ‘suitable’ spouse. I know things are changing for the younger generation in a certain class. But for the majority, these major decisions are still made by parents.

Much of Asia is prisoner to this paternalistic approach, and is the poorer for it. Individuality is crushed, and bad decision-making is just one result. When people end up in the wrong career, or a disastrous, abusive marriage, relations between parents and their children can be ruined for life.

I am informed by a friend that Japan Airlines trains its pilots to overcome their childhood conditioning, and stand their ground. But how do we transfer this to our entire society?


Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2020