Malaysia's bumbling ruling elite:
Lewis M. Simons 5:40 p.m. EDT March 23, 2014
Fiasco over missing airliner just the latest example of country's
As errors, misstatements, retractions and head-scratching
rationalizations tumble over each other in the case of Malaysia
Airlines Flight 370, the world is coming to recognize what the
country has known for decades — that Malaysia's leaders are
accustomed to getting away with murder.
Sometimes figuratively: For example, with elections looming and
Prime Minister Najib Razak losing popularity, top opposition leader
Anwar Ibrahim recently was sentenced to five years in prison on a
sodomy charge. Two years ago, Anwar, who enjoys support in
Washington, was acquitted after spending six years in prison on the
And sometimes perhaps literally: In October 2006, the gruesome
remains of a human body were discovered on a remote hilltop outside
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's principal city. There was no corpse,
really, just hunks of flesh and shattered bone. DNA determined that
the victim was a 28-year-old Mongolian woman who had been involved
in a long love affair with one of Najib's closest advisers.
These instances of real-life political shenanigans and
pulp-fiction-style crime share deep cultural and behavioral traits
with Malaysia's clumsy handling of the mysterious Boeing 777 and the
239 people on board.
Spinning dubious stories
In the cases of the murder and the missing plane, Najib and other
political leaders have felt free to spin their own dubious stories.
The big difference is that this time, the world is watching as the
leaders repeatedly are caught in their own web of claims and
denials, allegations and refutations.
Where does this arbitrary political culture come from?
In 1979, following traumatic, bloody rioting between Malays and the
substantial ethnic Chinese minority, the government granted a broad
array of privileges to Malays, in effect ensuring them of perpetual
This quota system also enabled the ruling party, which has held
office for 60 years, to ride roughshod over the facts, as we now see
regarding the missing plane. Questions such as how two Iranians
carrying false passports were allowed to board were bungled. The
matter of the jetliner turning off course went unreported.
A full understanding of Malaysia's ineptitude on the world stage
today isn't possible without recognizing the power elite's belief in
its open-ended unassailability.
Until the jetliner flickered off Malaysian radar screens, that
misplaced cockiness was best seen in the case of the murdered woman,
Altantuya Shaariibuu. She had accompanied Najib, then defense
minister, and his adviser, Abdul Razak Baginda, her lover, on a trip
to Paris to purchase two French-built submarines and an overhauled
Spanish sub for Malaysia's Navy.
The package was worth nearly $1 billion. French authorities are
investigating whether the defense company gave a $100 million
"commission" to Baginda. Shaariibuu, according to witnesses
at her murder trial, demanded a $500,000 slice for her services as
Blind eye to justice
Once her remains were discovered, the short-reined domestic press
turned a blind eye on the prime minister's evident connections,
which he blithely denied. Baginda, an Oxford Ph.D., was imprisoned
on charges of abetting the woman's murder.
A year later, the high court acquitted Baginda. He left the country.
A private investigator he had hired quickly filed a stunning
declaration in court, implicating the prime minster and his wife in
organizing and covering up the crime. Baginda quoted a text message
the prime minister allegedly sent him after the woman's remains were
discovered: "I am seeing IGP (inspector general of police) at 11
a.m. today … matter will be solved ... be cool."
Within 24 hours, the private detective, without explanation,
replaced his declaration with a new one that erased all references
to the prime minister. Then he fled Malaysia.
In both documents, the detective identified two junior police
officers on the prime minister's security detail as having carried
out the killing. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to hang.
That never happened. Last August, the pair were acquitted.
After eight years, the murder case remains unresolved.
Anwar is in limbo, appealing his sodomy conviction yet again.
Najib, prime minister for five years, until now has remained aloof
and secure from the world's stares. With the disappearance of Flight
370 and the world pointing repeatedly to all the faulty information
coming out of Malaysia, business as usual finally might be coming to
Lewis M. Simons, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was based in Malaysia with
his wife and two daughters, who were born there.
Ref: Al Jazeera:
Malaysia Airlines flight: 'This is not a normal investigation'
Malaysia's vanishing airplane catastrophe exposes the country's political and social fault lines. Last updated: 20 Mar 2014 06:01 Zarina Banu Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific. A catalogue of backtracking is defining the investigation thus far, writes Banu [EPA] The crisis over Malaysia's missing Flight MH370 would surely test any government. But Malaysia's handling of the search, investigation and communication with the outside world has thrown it into an uncomfortable spotlight and caught it severely off guard. The catastrophe is exposing the deep fault lines characterising the country's political economy. Since independence from the British in 1957, Malaysia's ruling elite have built and reinforced a political system that has institutionalised their cultural and economic dominance. Inconsistency The system is so entrenched, it shapes and permeates all layers of Malaysian society. Now we're seeing it play out in how the administration is managing and communicating the investigation to the rest of the world. A catalogue of backtracking is defining the investigation thus far, frustrating the families of those on board and provoking a backlash of anti-government feeling. We've seen Malaysian officials contradict each other over vital early details about MH370's satellite communications systems. Acting Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein and Malaysian Airlines CEO, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, have disagreed over whether the system was switched off before or after the flight's co-pilot uttered the now infamous signoff: "Alright goodnight" to ground control on the morning of March 8 when the plane disappeared. Consequently, the pilot and co-pilot, Zaharie Shah and Fariq Ab Hamid, became the first suspects, in a possible plot to sabotage or hijack the Boeing 777, which led to bewilderment and distress amongst the families. Inconsistencies also stood out in the police investigation. At one point, Hishamuddin said police officers had visited the homes of the pilots as early as March 9, the day after the aircraft vanished. But police chief Khalid Abu Bakar then confused the issue by saying officers had in fact not gone to the pilots' homes. Things were muddled from the start. The hunt for the ill-fated jet began on March 8 in the South China Sea, was abandoned and diverted to the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean. Malaysians are concerned about the state of readiness of their military, after radar tracked an unidentified object moving west over peninsular Malaysia on March 8 and the air force took no further action to ascertain what that object was. Sources close to the government have said, off-the-record since they are not authorised to talk to the media, that they are unsure how to manage the message. Sure, it is a trial that would test any government, agency or communications team. With a daunting search involving more than 20 countries and stretching across some 6.2 million square miles, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. Yet, there are some fundamentals here that Malaysian government agencies aren't following. What they should be doing is: Verify the incoming information; unify the message; decide which agency takes control of its dissemination and keep the families informed at all times. The baffling stream of information must be heart-breaking for the relatives of the 227 passengers and crew. Of those, 154 are Chinese, a ratio which has prompted the mainland to rally behind their cause. Families of the victims have been filmed shouting at Malaysian officials as their grievance builds over the lack of information and disorienting turn of events. China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Hong Lei, has even urged Malaysia to provide, "comprehensive and correct information". My message to the government would be: Yes, this is not a normal investigation, but instead of playing victim to events, leverage the nexus of abnormality, tragedy and interest in the story to recreate a new Malaysia. Malaysian government under microscope Let's put it into context. The global glare of publicity is landing on an administration deeply uncomfortable with any level of scrutiny. Malaysia's ruling party keeps tight control of all aspects of domestic media - it is either state-sponsored, choked by authorities, or opposition-led. Media outlets or editors that dare question the administration perish by the wayside, or are ordered back in line. At election time, the New Straits Times newspaper, a mouthpiece for the ruling coalition will be awash with barely rewritten government press releases, eulogising about the "achievements" of those in power. What has this to do with Flight MH370? This stranglehold on free expression has nurtured a government unused to being cross-examined in public and more accustomed to changing its mind and message at will. Moreover, the lack of oxygen given to rational democratic debate within Malaysia has fostered a cosseted leadership that either goes on the attack or retreats to its ideological ivory tower when it feels imperiled. To enforce its intolerance of dissent, the Malaysian government deploys powerful tools of control. Until September 2011, the Internal Security Act (ISA) was a catch-all deterrent to those who spoke out openly against the government. It sanctioned detention without trial and swept many opposition members into solitary confinement. In its place, authorities have of late been commandeering the Sedition Act to silence critics with increasing vigour. This insidiousness has come to haunt the Malaysian government in its current time of need. True, as Hishamuddin said, "This is not a normal investigation". But his and his cohorts' mishandling of crisis communications has made the government look shifty instead of perhaps being just plain incompetent, adding rocket fuel to the plethora of theories on the plane's whereabouts. Hishammuddin - himself - is political royalty: He's the current prime minister's cousin, the son of Malaysia's third prime minister and nephew of its second. With his blood ties, he could easily be Malaysia's next prime minister. Ethnicity and connections are highly likely to determine one's fate in Malaysia. Lucrative affirmative action policies promote ethnic Malays over the more than 30 percent Chinese and Indian minorities. The situation translates into each Malaysian being born with a semi-pre-ordained destiny - boosted by state coffers - that will decide which university you choose, what jobs you get, how many children you have, or even whether you end up in the cabinet. Meanwhile, the elite have enriched themselves through a cosy network of crony capitalism that venomously lashes out at those who threaten its existence. Malaysia ranks third, behind only Russia and Hong Kong, in The Economist's crony capitalism index 2014, a list of "countries where politically-connected businessmen are most likely to prosper". It's a sad indictment for a country that was once celebrated as having as much economic potential as South Korea. Seize control of the situation Social media, Asia's rising economic clout and irreversible globalisation mean the insular behaviour of the Malaysian government is long past its sell by date. A Malaysian love of communication has neatly translated into a wholehearted adoption of the internet and social media - and with great effect. More and more Malaysians are turning to alternative web sites like Malaysiakini, The Malaysia Insider and Free Malaysia Today to source their news. Indeed, the opposition's popularity partly rests on the delivery of its message through Facebook, SMS and whatsapp. Last year, the opposition's frontline social media campaign helped it wrestle away the government's crucial two thirds parliamentary majority, needed to change the constitution. It's time the ruling coalition acknowledged that its supremacy - which has benefitted the few at the cost of many - needs a serious overhaul. As a communications professional, my message to the government would be: Yes, this is not a normal investigation, but instead of playing victim to events, leverage the nexus of abnormality, tragedy and interest in the story to recreate a new Malaysia. Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.