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SEWOL DISASTER: Unfair to view tragedy through a cultural lens

Publication Date : 27-04-2014

 

The Korean culture of obedience and deference to authority is getting a hard knock as divers struggle to bring up the bodies of students from the sunken ferry Sewol.

Foreign and Korean media suggested that it was mostly the students who disobeyed orders from the crew and captain to stay in their cabins who came out of the tragedy alive.

There were 325 students from Seoul's Danwon High School, out of 476 people on board the ferry. Only 75 of the high-schoolers survived.

Even as I mourn the dead, my head tells me the blame lies beyond just a quiet acceptance to do as told.

Is it wrong to put one's life in the hands of those trained in safety procedures and have the expertise to deal with such emergencies?

It is only in looking back that we know how those who should have known better had betrayed the innocent faith of the teenagers.

I am loath to blame the youngsters for following orders in a crisis.

I lived in bustling, wired Seoul for six months in 2010 as a university exchange student. I have since returned to visit twice more.

Pop culture is pervasive even as the people seem steeped in Confucian traditions, especially in a social setting.

Elders and people in authority receive deep respect and are hardly questioned. I saw this daily, in my interactions with them.

The respect is reinforced in the different ways people are addressed.

The older folk are spoken to in jeondaemal or formal speech while banmal, or informal speech, is used for those of the same age, younger or of a lower stature.

It is strictly adhered to.

Another striking feature is that on outings, my younger Korean friends allowed the older ones to steer the conversation. Should they disagree or hold a different point of view, they would express it in the most polite manner and with great restraint.

But these behavioural traits and manners of speech do not and will not submerge any person's desire or ability to survive or to think independently to overcome the odds.

I believe the teenagers on the ferry did not lose their instincts to live. But they could not overcome several factors beyond their control: the ferry was allegedly carrying far more cargo than allowed; safety procedures were lax and a less experienced officer was steering the vessel when disaster struck.

Like South Korea, Singapore's education system is often perceived as instilling a culture of obedience in the young, who are subjected to rote-learning.

I am a product of this system. But my peers and I have little problem expressing our views - politely - during discussions with our supervisors at work or our parents at home.

Listening to the authority should not mean we can't think for ourselves.

To view the wanton loss of lives in the sinking of the Sewol through a cultural lens is unfair.

The students did the right thing in putting on their life jackets but the ferry was fast listing while the captain and crew were tardy in calling for help.

The sea was cold and the teenagers were lost in terror, with no idea of the safety procedures in such an emergency. Ultimately, the painful fact is they were very young.

I feel the best way to honour them is to focus on the human errors and tangible factors that need to be corrected so that a similar tragedy never happens again.

 

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