I recently wrote about the communications fiasco that was the Malaysian government’s handling of the Flight MH370 crisis. The piece argued that the confusion over the investigation and communication in the days just after the plane vanished on March 8 was perfectly reflective of the leadership’s entrenched political makeup.
It was a sad inevitability for any Malaysia watcher. Under the thumb of a virtual one-party state, Malaysians were long resigned to a government changing its mind at will. Most of the outside world – more used to a country of the Malaysia truly Asia advertising campaign – was not.
This has been a milestone experience for Malaysia. The leadership has been thrust into an awkward global spotlight in which it has been forced to be accountable and open to the international community.
|Inside Story – The mystery of flight MH370|
Once the dust settles on this tragedy, could the lessons learnt act as a catalyst for the political shake up, or even awakening, that Malaysia so urgently needs? Will the Malaysian people demand a more answerable government from now on – and more importantly will the ruling elite deliver?
At a communications level, in fits and starts the government has learnt valuable lessons about the saga. Namely that it is imperative to verify and corroborate information before it is disseminated to a critical and connected world. We saw the turmoil after the search for the Boeing 777 in the South China Sea was abandoned, distress over conflicting reports about when the Aircraft Communications and Addressing Reporting System was disabled and suspicion cast around one of the pilots’ support of opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
Yet, the administration bumbled on making fundamental communication errors.
On March 19, 12 days into the search operation, Malaysian security dragged out Liu Guiqui, mother of Malaysia Airlines passenger Li Le, virtually horizontally, from the media briefing room, screaming, “My dear – I don’t know where my dear is – twelve days! My son! Where is my son? Why don’t you give me an answer?” The pictures of a distraught Liu Guiqui shoveled more criticism into the laps of the Malaysian government. Moreover, the administration banned the relatives from talking to the media – behaviour more in line with an authoritarian government than one with a global community to which to answer.
Malaysians are split about the way the leadership has managed these catastrophic events – a fissure that mirrors a virtual 50-50 political divide between the government and the opposition.
The less urban, latched on population believe the government has been doing a sterling job. This demographic tends to back the ethnically Malay ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and is buoyed by how calmly Acting Transport Minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, has been toughing it out in front of the world’s media.
In fact, many Malaysians have felt the international media is giving them an undeserved kicking. Night after night, the emotions of Chinese relatives have been aired on mainland media, while in the US, Republicans and Democrats have demanded more American involvement in the search and investigation.
In fact, many Malaysians have felt the international media is giving them an undeserved kicking. Night after night, the emotions of Chinese relatives have been aired on mainland media, while in the US Republicans and Democrats have demanded more American involvement in the search and investigation.
Malaysians have equally felt that their national carrier has been taking great pains to treat the families of the 239 victims on board the Boeing 777 with care and sensitivity. Malaysia Airlines, until now with a reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s best carriers, is a great source of pride for many in Malaysia.
The urban, plugged in, analytical rest of the population are more cynical. Nineteen days into the tragedy they want to know why, despite the widespread availability of 21st century communications equipment, that Malaysia, of all countries, managed to “lose” a plane. The failure of the Royal Malaysian Air Force to intercept the jet has left many Malaysians feeling unprotected and embarrassed by the laxness of their armed forces.
The opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, led by Anwar Ibrahim, has been pressing the government in parliament over the heedlessness of its armed forces, only to be told that it was playing partisan politics at a time of tragedy. Communications Director for Anwar’s party, Keadilan Rakyat, Fahmi Fadzil, is deeply frustrated and suggests that the crisis communications teams of Prime Minister Najib Razak should be advising him instead to adopt a new attitude of political openness.
This deflection of blame and initial arrogant nature of the Malaysian leadership during the first chaotic days is vexingly reminiscent of the behaviour of the ruling party, UMNO and its coalition flunkeys.
Time and time again the leadership plays the so-called unity card. Malaysia is dominated politically and demographically by ethnic Malays, with Chinese and Indians making up around 30 percent of the population. It employs the fear of violent disunity among the three races to instil compliance and suppress open debate.
Race and religion are used on a daily basis to rupture the relationships between the three ethnic groups. Today, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, there is very little intermingling, between Malays, Indians and Chinese. The country now has Malay teachers telling their third, fourth and fifth generation Malaysian-born Chinese and Indian students to go back to where their forefathers came from and as time goes by, the Chinese and Indians are finding themselves increasingly politically and economically crowded out of their home.
Social media savvy
Malaysia is home to a young population – out of 29 million people around 11.5 million are between the ages of 10 and 29. The opposition coalition, albeit ideologically loose, is increasingly organised and confident of its support, particularly after it won the popular vote in last year’s election.
These two groups are now major stakeholders in the country’s wellbeing and future. And they’ve leapt on social media and the internet with a passion, using it to vent their grievance and put pressure on the leadership to reform its silo thinking.
But without institutional fractures and a change of government to what extent can the disappearance of a plane spark concrete political reform? The opposition may continue to press for answers about how the plane went undetected for so long, but whether the government will furnish a credible response in return is arguable. Once the heat is off and the international media circus leaves Kuala Lumpur taking its cameras and commentary to another news hotspot the government will undoubtedly settle into its old ways.
Malaysia tinkers at the edges of authoritarianism and is relatively corrupt – Transparency International ranks Malaysia 53 out of 177 countries – and the leadership deploys powerful tools of social control covering legislation, the media and distribution of state finances to maintain its power.
Moreover, Malaysia’s political blueblood – of which the Acting Transport Minister is a member – co-opts an unskilled and unmerited network of friends and relatives into a heady mix of power and money that can deliver riches and status to those on the inside.
Will Malaysians even have the appetite for a political witch hunt after the crisis? Right now, many are emotionally exhausted with the affair. They’ve never experienced a trauma of this magnitude played out millimetre by millimetre in front of the world. Like the families themselves, Malaysians are hoping that hard evidence of the plane and what brought it down will quickly emerge to deliver complete closure to the tragedy. Only at that point can they start looking at the ramifications. But by then, it might be too late and rather than the disaster serving as a catalyst for change, it will be business as usual.
Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.