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Mix-ups in search for missing plane expose Malaysia’s political tumult

A "Pray for MH370" projection is seen on the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) building in Kuala Lumpur March 14, 2014.


Since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared into the night sky a week ago, the world's attention has turned to the political elite of the small Southeast Asian nation – and has been alarmed by what's on display.

Military officials and police have contradicted politicians and agency heads. And officials, particularly Hishammuddin Hussein, the defence minister and acting transport minister, have appeared baffled, confused and out of touch with the realities of the ongoing investigation.

But as search teams from more than 10 countries fail to find any trace of the missing plane, – in a probe that is now expanding, rather than contracting – observers of Malaysian politics say the tragic confusion is a natural outcome of the country's sheltered political system, weakened institutions and paternalistic ruling party, which has come increasingly under strain from a resurgent opposition in recent years.

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"It does shine a light on this inflection point in Malaysian political evolution," says Ernest Bower, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies(CSIS).

At the same time, the widening international co-operation that now involves the United States, China, India and various ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries has highlighted sensitive regional dynamics – and worries some that China is seeking to assert more control in Asia.

In an election this past yearwith 85 per-cent-voter turnout, the coalition Barisan Nasional party – that has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 – had its worst ever showing, capturing only 47 per cent of the popular vote; only through gerrymandered constituencies did it maintain a parliamentary majority.

The day before Flight MH370 vanished, a Malaysian court sentenced opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to five years in jail for what many consider trumped up "sodomy" charges. In the election, Mr. Anwar's coalition won 51 per cent of the vote.

"The opposition will definitely use [the plane incident] as ammunition for why the current political opposition has got to go," says Aim Sinpeng of the University of British Columbia.

The country has not only largely been shielded from natural disasters that regularly strike elsewhere in the region, but the government has also been protected from harsh questions by a strict control of traditional media – with occasional crackdowns on proliferating online voices.

Subramaniam Pillay, a finance professor in Kuala Lumpur who was involved in a group fighting for a fair election, said that the lack of co-ordination on display between various departments and agencies, has been the result not just of one-party rule but of Malaysia's preferential hiring practices that favour ethnic Malays over sizable populations of ethnic Chinese and Indians, eroding the quality of Malaysia's institutions. "The co-ordination has been very poor," Dr. Subramaniam said.

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Others say this lack of a meritocracy has driven many talented Malaysians abroad, to hubs such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Domestically, young talent is now increasingly moving toward the opposition. Malayasia's economy, similarly, has been overshadowed by reforms and strong growth in nearby Indonesia and Philippines.

"The last time the Malaysian government was in such a spotlight was in 1997, with the Asian financial crisis," Dr. Pillay added, noting that even then, a strong prime minister refused to seek aid from the International Monetary Fund or World Bank and fielded questions confidently.

Now, in a new time of crisis, the international spotlight on Malaysia has highlighted Mr. Hussein – who has family ties to politics, like many in his party, and is the son of a former prime minister. He is, perhaps, most well known for a divisive televised speech he gave in 2005 during which he waved a traditional Malay dagger called a keris, a potent symbol of Malay identity that, to many Chinese, is also a reminder of race riots in 1969.

"One could argue that the government's steep decline in popularity really started when Hishamuddin waved [the] Malay dagger … which many in the ethnic Chinese population interpreted as a threat," says Dan Slater, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "So he's not a figure who's likely to bring the country together in a moment of national crisis. He's a person who will remind a lot of Malaysians why they started supporting the opposition in the first place."

The search across a vast stretch of ocean, as well as China's criticism of Malaysia's response, has also heightened tensions in an area of the world where maritime boundaries disputes are tense and where a war-weary United States has long been the regional policeman. "China has been very shrill in its criticism of the Malaysian response," Mr. Bower of CSIS said. "The region is concerned that a narrative in Beijing is forming, that 'Malaysia is weak and we need to step in.'"

There is, however, sympathy for Malaysia's response in the region. Dany Bolduc, a former Air Asia executive who worked out of Malaysia Airlines' home airport and now runs an online travel startup in Singapore, said Kuala Lumpur's airport has security comparable to any in Asia – and that the situation of the missing plane is extraordinary. "It's a unique situation," Mr. Bolduc said, noting also a "paternal political setup" that is unused to being tested.

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Still, given how neighbouring countries have bungled their own crises, some observers do not think Malaysia – which has a modern military and navy, and decent infrastructure – looks as bad as some have made it out to be.

"Prime Minister Najib Razak is the country's only government leader who is able to engage international audiences in any sophisticated way – and he has gone missing," said William Case of the City University of Hong Kong.

"Malaysia may have less reassuring spokespersons than do other countries. But I'd underscore that its substantive response is no worse."

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