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.
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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.