Aircraft crisis puts Malaysia’s political system to test

Deficiencies have been exposed as airliner search operation drags on

Muslims perform a special prayer for passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft in Kuala Lumpur International Airport yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Muslims perform a special prayer for passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft in Kuala Lumpur International Airport yesterday. Photograph: Reuters


It has taken only six days but the search for a missing airliner has exposed how decades of one-party dominance and media control have left Malaysia struggling to deal with the biggest test of its international credibility in decades.

Confusion over flight MH370’s last known location and conflicting statements by military and civilian authorities have fuelled growing criticism of Malaysia’s response.

Vietnam has scaled back its search-and-rescue operations – part of a 12-country effort across 27,000 square nautical miles of ocean – after complaining of receiving “insufficient information” from the Malaysian side.

China, whose nationals made up two-thirds of the 239 people on board, has been more vocal. Its foreign ministry has complained of “too much confusion” over Malaysia’s release of information about the aircraft’s supposed course.

Few countries could have flawlessly handled a crisis on this scale, especially if it had never had to deal with an aviation disaster before.

Hishamuddin Hussein, defence minister, said yesterday: “This is a crisis situation. It is a very complex operation, and it has not always been easy. We are devoting all our energies to the task at hand.”

But the disappearance of flight MH370 has put the spotlight on a country whose opaque political system is ill-suited to an incident that requires transparent engagement with the outside world, political analysts say.

“There is a kind of culture of secrecy with respect to how the government works. It never really explains anything, they never go into details and national security is often invoked,” says Ben Suffian of the Merdeka Centre, a Kuala Lumpur polling firm.

One party
Malaysia has in effect been ruled by one party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), since independence from Britain in 1957. The current administration is a coalition of parties, with Umno by far the dominant power.

The country’s press is largely either state-controlled or is instinctively government-leaning.

That has only recently been challenged by an increasingly vibrant and independent online media – which, in turn, has prompted Umno to move into social networking sites.

Yet the country’s military took flak this week after it was revealed that it possessed radar data showing that an aircraft might have veered to the west and travelled some distance over peninsular Malaysia after contact was lost with flight MH370.

They only revealed this some days later.

Malaysia’s system of affirmative action for the majority ethnic Malays, started in the 1970s, extends to the public sector. Malays, who make up 60 per cent of the population, get most of the top jobs.

Since many are Umno loyalists, this has fostered a system where appointments are not always made on merit, political analysts say.

“Had it been a pure ‘ethnocracy’ you would have very competent Malays up there as well. But this is actually a virtual one-party state,” says Wong Chin Huat, a fellow at the Penang Institute, a Malaysian think-tank.

“Not only are non-Malays excluded but competent Malays are excluded as well if they happen not to be on the right side of the political divide.”

Of the 31 members of Najib Razak’s cabinet, only one is ethnically Chinese and one Indian.

Yet ethnic Chinese make up 25 per cent of the population, Indians about 7 per cent.

Malaysia has admitted that there has been no progress in the hunt for the missing Boeing airliner, saying it had found no evidence of debris captured in satellite imagery from China and denying reports that the flight could have travelled for hours after contact was lost.

The admission, almost six days after the jet was lost, appears to knock down two of the most promising reported leads in a huge investigation that has not yielded anything conclusive.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)


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