KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s missing plane has made Hishamuddin Hussein a globally recognized lightning rod for foreign criticism of his country’s handling of the crisis, but could end up catapulting him to the prime ministership someday.
Hishamuddin, 52, has become a household name thanks to his daily press briefings on the crisis, broadcast live to rapt audiences around the world.
As defense and transport minister, it has fallen to him to face the often combative foreign press corps that has descended upon Malaysia, demanding answers from an authoritarian government accustomed to swatting away or imprisoning its critics.
But Hishamuddin, a son of the country’s third prime minister who harbors ambitions of following in those footsteps, is scoring points at home for appearing to steady an initially chaotic message projected by underlings, and for pushing back at overseas criticism.
“I see him as the only one (of future prime ministerial contenders) with PM qualities and the tragedy has shown that he is more of a leader and statesman than his cousin (current Prime Minister Najib Razak),” said Azrul Azwar Ahmad Tajudin, who heads the opposition-linked think tank Institut Rakyat.
Najib, 60, has largely stayed on the sidelines during the crisis.
Even before the drama, Hishamuddin ticked several of the boxes required to someday lead the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled tightly since the country gained independence in 1957.
He is already one of three party vice presidents, has the requisite bloodline — his grandfather founded the party — and has solid credibility with his fellow Muslim Malays, the majority ethnic group and UMNO’s bread-and-butter constituency.
Hishamuddin famously brandished a “keris” — a Malay dagger and symbol of controversial Malay-supremacy policies imposed by UMNO — at a party assembly in 2005.
The act angered multiracial Malaysia’s large minority communities, but scored with powerful pro-Malay hard-liners.
Hishamuddin was tarnished early last year as home minister, in charge of internal security, when a ragtag group of more than 200 Filipino Muslim militants invaded the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.
The episode exposed security lapses, and Hishamuddin appeared unsure how to handle the month-long crisis, which ended following a full-scale Malaysian military assault.
But few of the current top UMNO leaders are seen as having the ability to engage internationally — another key leadership criterion.
UMNO moderate Saifuddin Abdullah, a former deputy education minister and ex-schoolmate of Hishamuddin, said the MH370 crisis has given a clear boost to the telegenic minister, who attended schools in Britain and has spent 15 years in the Cabinet.
“Any vice president of UMNO is a PM candidate, but on this day, Hishamuddin seems to have stepped up and stands out,” Saifuddin said.
Hishamuddin attended Malay College, a boarding school for boys in Perak state, dubbed the “Eton of the East.” He graduated with a law degree from the University of Wales and obtained a higher degree from the London School of Economics in 1988.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared March 8 with 239 aboard and is believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean.
But so far, no wreckage or evidence of what caused the tragedy has been found, and Malaysia has been accused of bungling its initial response. Relatives of the 153 Chinese passengers have gone further, alleging a coverup.
China’s state media have heaped scorn on Malaysian authorities and the airline, while Beijing has urged more transparency in the investigation.
It is extremely rare for Malaysian leaders — unchallenged by their own meek, state-controlled press — to take unscripted questions from foreign reporters. But Hishamuddin has faced up to a daily grilling, winning mounting Malaysian support.
By claiming that the crisis is “above politics,” he has even won plaudits from some figures in the opposition.
He also has hit back at China, chiding Beijing over the release of satellite images early in the search that purportedly showed plane debris. The images forced a renewed search in the previously scoured South China Sea, but turned out to be a false lead.
Media and Hishamuddin’s Twitter feed have increasingly carried photos of him embracing grieving relatives and shedding tears over the tragedy.
It remains to be seen whether UMNO stays in power long enough for Hishamuddin to make a leadership run.
A rising opposition has capitalized spectacularly on public discontent over corruption and perceived misrule by the UMNO-led ruling coalition.
The opposition won the popular vote in parliamentary elections last May but failed to secure enough seats to take power.
Hishamuddin also faces rivals such as Mukhriz Mahathir, son of Mahathir Mohamad — Malaysia’s hard-line and perhaps most influential former leader.
But his increasingly well-received performance could give him an ace in the hole.