Why Malaysia’s leaders are wilting in MH370 spotlight, according to NYT


(MM) – Years of being obeyed without question have put Malaysia’s leaders in an unfamiliar position in the global glare over its handling of flight MH370 that has gone missing six days without any trace, the New York Times (NYT) reported today.

Malaysian authorities have come under intense heat amid an ongoing massive hunt for the Beijing-bound jumbo jet carrying 239 people onboard, as media agencies worldwide chronicle the conflicting reports between civilian and military officials,

“The crisis has led to introspection about why the government has appeared uncoordinated and unable to pin down seemingly basic facts about the missing flight,” the US daily’s Southeast Asia correspondent Thomas Fuller, who is reporting from Sepang, wrote in an article.

Fuller observed Malaysia was a country that had been spared many of the natural disasters and suggested that this was a possible reason why its officials were inexperienced when faced with “a crisis on this scale”.

“Malaysians have come to accept that their leaders don’t answer questions,” Fuller quoted lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan, as saying.

“When you are not seriously challenged in any meaningful way, of course you get complacent and comfortable,” added the former head of the Malaysian Bar and former co-chief of electoral reform group, Bersih 2.0.

Speaking to other Malaysian political observers, the veteran reporter noted that national leaders appeared lacking in initiative and a sense of accountability as a result of society’s tolerance and deference to figures of authority.

“There’s always been a kind of wait-for-instructions-from-the-top attitude,” he quoted Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent poll research firm Merdeka Center, as saying.

But Fuller attributed such ingrained deference to figures of authority to “Authoritarian laws [that] have helped keep the governing party, the United Malays National Organisation, in power — and an ascendent opposition in check”.

He pointed out that before MH370 vanished and left an international relations disaster on the government’s hands, global opinion was focused on the incidents within the country and its domestic jurisdiction.

He named Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s five-year jail sentence for sodomy last week and his DAP political ally, Karpal Singh’s sedition conviction — which put both men at risk of ending their long political career — as examples of top-down governance.

He further alluded to the racial and religious polarisation that has plagued Malaysian society in recent years, observing that “talent often does not rise to the top of government because of patronage politics within the ruling party and a system of ethnic preferences that discourages or blocks the country’s minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, from government service”.

But Fuller also reported that MH370’s disappearance was “so unusual” that no government could be fully prepared to deal with the ever-growing international criticism that followed in its wake.

“This is almost a unique situation. Anyone would be caught off guard,” he quoted prominent local economist and former civil servant, Ramon Navaratnam, as saying.

Investigators who have been roped in to help the multi-nation search for the missing Boeing have admitted to being bewildered by the lack of any debris or signals that should follow an aircrash or hijacking.

MH370 had departed the Kuala Lumpur International Airport shortly after midnight on March 8, only to fall off tracking radars roughly an hour into its flight.

The hunt was initially focused on waters to the east of Peninsular Malaysia where it was feared the plane may have crashed; but Malaysia’s armed forces said its radars observed a turnaround, prompting an enlarge hunt to the country’s western borders.