Crisis of credibility in Malaysian plane search
By Anil Netto
PENANG - It has been a sight that Malaysians are unaccustomed to - senior ministers and officials shifting uncomfortably and bristling in delivering curt responses to journalists trying to extract more information about the still unresolved March 8 disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner destined for China.
A series of false leads and apparent withheld information about the airliner's known pathway has resulted in a wild goose chase involving dozens of countries. Today, Australia's Air Force said it sighted two objects in the southern Indian Ocean that may be related to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
The Malaysian government's unexplained delay in disclosing the
plane's turn back from its scheduled route toward an area near Penang in the west coast of the peninsula has exposed Prime Minister Najib Razak's government to global criticism of its perceived as inept crisis management.
The government in general and air force in particular have faced uncomfortable questions over how its three radar locations in the north of the peninsula failed to detect the plane in the early hours of March 8 - an apparent failure that prevented fighter jets stationed at the air force base in Butterworth on mainland Penang from scrambling to intercept the jetliner and guide it to a safe landing.
Contradictions and dithering over the findings of primary radar records meant precious time was lost searching for the Boeing 777 aircraft over the South China Sea instead of the Straits of Malacca and Indian Ocean. The costly delay in disclosure of crucial information to the global community, however, is symptomatic of Malaysia's wider governance problem.
Whatever the outcome into the investigations of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, "this could prove be a turning point for Malaysia," said an economics lecturer in Penang who requested anonymity.
The confusion on a global scale has laid bare the poor performance of senior ministers and raised new concerns about the competence of the upper echelons of Malaysia's civil service. That has included a glaring lack of proficiency in English in the early days of the crisis, before Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, cousin of premier Najib, took over as main government spokesperson.
That it took nearly a week for the government to admit that the global search including naval ships, surveillance planes and satellites for the massive jetliner should focus in areas other than the South China Sea has also raised questions about the military's basic operating procedures and surveillance capabilities.
Its apparent initial refusal to accept international assistance from countries with superior surveillance capacities have simultaneously revealed an obdurate nationalism, analysts say. On March 19, 11 days after the plane disappeared, Malaysian authorities made their first high-level request for American assistance in recovering data deleted from a flight simulator installed in one of the pilot's homes.
(Malaysian officials insist they have been sharing information and cooperating with global partners from the start.)
"What I would like to know is, with all our defense expenditure, why did our military not detect immediately the plane was flying back? That is the most crucial point," said a Penang-based business analyst who declined to be identified. "Based on our misinformation, we sent so many nations to the South China Sea in the first week, which was a major error."
To be sure, the bewildering circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the aircraft, including the apparent switching off or malfunctioning of the plane's communication devices, would have tested any government's mettle. But bumbling officials, conflicting accounts of what the primary radar actually showed, and lack of intra-agency coordination in the first week of the crisis has exposed the country's top leadership to unprecedented and unflattering global scrutiny.
It has since been learned that fisher folk situated on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula had lodged police reports of a low-flying aircraft on March 8. A news portal in the Maldives, about 3,000 kilometers west of the Malaysian peninsula in the Indian Ocean, reported on Tuesday that residents on a remote island witnessed a "low-flying jumbo jet." If accurate, the report would seem to confirm the plane's westward trajectory.
Other theories discounting possible hijacking or pilot sabotage scenarios have gained in currency in on-line forums. An "old pilot" writing on one Internet chat room played down the official theory of deliberate intervention and instead suggested that the westward turn back was consistent with a captain trying to head towards the nearest safe runway - perhaps Malaysia's northern Langkawi island, after a possible malfunction or fire on board the plane.
According to earlier reports, radar in Aceh, Indonesia and Hat Yai, Thailand failed to detect the plane, but ten days after the disappearance the Thai air force said its radar in southern Surat Thani province detected a plane over Butterworth on mainland Penang that had diverted from its original route.
China, which is known to have significant surveillance capabilities in the Indian Ocean region, has not yet indicated whether its satellites trained on the area detected the wayward plane. The majority of the passengers on the flight were Chinese nationals. The Chinese media and relatives of those onboard have been especially strident in their criticism of Malaysia's perceived incoherent response to the crisis.
Malaysian government officials have for decades faced a pliant domestic media that dutifully spin flattering reports about their policies and performance. Mainstream media journalists have often been content to publish government statements at face value and rarely probed deeper, especially if such investigations would potentially put the government in a poor light.
Now, official incoherence and obfuscation is being revealed in the press conference grillings of a more probing and persistent global media. Following that cute, the upstart domestic on-line media has grown more emboldened in reporting on the government's crisis management, while Malaysian netizens have liberally posted their own criticism of the government's performance.
"Our [former premier] Mahathir-inspired mediocrity for decades set us up for something like this," wrote one such critical commenter on a blog. "What you have is basically a national system in denial about excellence [for] meeting the demand of global standards - and it failed."
Others have drawn connections to a sharp drop in the country's rankings in international education assessments for mathematics and science - a decline that has persisted in recent years. Still others have pointed to endemic corruption and crony capitalism as the root of top level incompetence. The Economist magazine recently ranked Malaysia as number three in its crony-capitalism index, trailing only Hong Kong and Russia.
Ironically, the jumbo jet disappeared just hours after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was again convicted of sodomy (a crime in Muslim majority Malaysia) and sentenced to five years in prison. Anwar said he would appeal the decision, but it effectively disqualified him as a candidate for a crucial by-election on March 23, which would probably have seen him score a thumping win in Kajang in the central state of Selangor.
When Anwar was first arrested in 1998 under Mahathir Mohamad and later charged with alleged sodomy and corruption, it spawned a reform movement (reformasi) calling for political change and greater accountability in government. The Barisan Nasional-led government's mishandling of the plane's disappearance has demonstrated to many Malaysians just how little progress has since been made in those regards.
The government's perceived mismanagement of the crisis has exposed Najib's administration to waves of unflattering global scrutiny and raised questions of official competence that will endure long after the mystery of the missing jetliner is resolved. The political fallout could be immense and will only further erode the government's sinking credibility both at home and now also abroad.
Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.
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