MH370 debacle reveals tough truths

Malaysia faces unusually harsh criticism over missing flight


It’s apparently a challenge to find people satisfied with the Malaysian government’s performance in its search for Flight 370: A mainstream daily newspaper there ran a story Monday on praise being lavished by an anonymous Facebook user from Sweden.

The mysterious disappearance of a Boeing 777 with 239 people aboard would test any government, but Malaysia’s is particularly strained because its elite are accustomed to getting an easy ride. Decades in power and a pliant media have cushioned them from scrutiny.

Its civilian and military leaders have struggled to provide answers from day one of the crisis, when it took several hours to even declare the plane missing. They said early on that the plane may have doubled back, but took days to say it was military radar that suggested that and days more to confirm it.

In response to criticism, government officials have repeatedly said they must wait to confirm information before they can release it. But that has not prevented them from making mistakes.

On Monday, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said police visited the homes of the jet’s two pilots soon after the March 8 disappearance, contradicting the country’s police chief, who said officers did not go there until a week later. The minister also raised doubts about earlier reports from Malaysian officials that a key data communications system had been turned off before the cockpit spoke to air-traffic controllers — a detail that has increased speculation that the pilots were responsible.

China, where most of the passengers are from, has been especially dismayed that it took a week for Malaysia to come up with details on the plane’s possible location. The official Xinhua News Agency said the delay “smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information.”

Passengers’ relatives, holed up in hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and desperate for news, have picked up on rumors and false leads in the media before the government has, adding to their anguish.

Asked Monday by a foreign reporter about the criticism, Hishammuddin said it was baseless. “I have got a lot of feedback saying we’ve been very responsible in our actions,” Hishammuddin, the main face of the government’s response to the crisis, said. “It’s very irresponsible of you to say that.”

The disappearance of the jet touches on issues that officials normally would not discuss publicly. The incident now appears certain to be a security failure at some level of the government, and has raised questions about the national airline and the defense readiness of the air force, which was unable to quickly spot a jetliner in Malaysian airspace and off its flight path. The possibility of Islamist militant involvement is also highly sensitive in the multiethnic country.

“In Malaysian political culture, they are not used to answering questions straight and honestly,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist from the Singapore Management University. “They are used to ‘government knows best for government,’ and have been very slow in realizing this is not a Malaysia crisis — this has global effects.”

Although nominally a democracy, the same ruling coalition has held power in the country for more than five decades, helped by gerrymandering and affirmative action policies that have won the support of the ethnic Malay majority.

But in recent years the government’s grip on power has weakened; the ruling coalition didn’t win the popular vote for the first time in elections last year, though it managed to hold on to power. The plane disappeared the morning after a court convicted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy — illegal in Muslim Malaysia — and a verdict widely seen as politically motivated. The verdict was handed down just hours before MH370 took off and it has since emerged that the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a supporter of Anwar, though this has not been widely reported in government media. On Tuesday, Anwar condemned speculation that the captain may have been driven by political motives to sabotage the plane.

Greg Barton, a Southeast Asia expert at Australia’s Monash University, said the country has a tradition of distrusting the West, a “Third Worldism” political philosophy that was a legacy of the pugnacious rule of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

“There is a natural instinct not to ask for too much Western help,” he said. “It’s made it hard for the government to move quickly.”

Malaysian officials have said they are working with foreign experts and countries, including the sharing of sensitive radar and satellite data.

Apart from online news portals, the print and television media in Malaysia are unabashedly pro-government.

“Stop bashing SAR (search and rescue) efforts, says Swede FB user,” read the headline in the mass circulation New Straits Times, which went on to quote at length from the Facebook page of the anonymous Swede defending the government.

“Can you imagine the burden they (the government) carry on their shoulders and how much precaution they have to take before announcing anything?” the Swede was quoted as posting on his account. “No. Because you are not in their shoes.”

The government said soon after the jet disappeared that there were indications it might have turned back from its last known position over the South China Sea after it stopped communicating with the ground, but did not fully explain why. It took a week for it to confirm that military radar data had confirmed the plane had flown over the country and then north toward the Indian Ocean.

“There is a bit of haziness there,” said Ibrahim Suffian, the head of the Merdeka Center, a Malaysian political research institute.

Like several others, Ibrahim said he thought the government’s media management had improved in recent days, perhaps because they had contracted a crisis management company to advise them.