If times of crisis show the true mettle of a government, Malaysians must be wondering about their government’s response to missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
After decades of working with a tightly controlled media and, overwhelmingly, getting a very easy run, the Malaysian government has been asked to answer hard questions by unbowed journalists.
The Malaysian government is used to passing over issues without question, much less challenge, by local media (online media, such as Malaysiakini, is the exception). But over the past several days the struggling Malaysian government has been looking increasingly inept. It would be a laughing stock, but that this is no laughing matter.
At one level, government spokespeople have contradicted each other, often within hours, about the status of the plane, what could have happened to it and what the likely scenarios are. At another, more basic level, they appear wholly unable to gather clear and hard information and to present it coherently.
The government was initially slow to report that the plane was missing at all. It then took days to announce that military radar had determined that the plane had doubled back on its course.
Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (pictured), who has been the government’s public face on the issue, said that his handling of the MH370 issue was “above politics”. Yet the government has “outed” opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim by saying that he is related (distantly, by marriage) to the pilot of the missing plane, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. The implication is that there was some connection between the plane’s disappearance and the government’s trumped-up sodomy conviction against the opposition leader.
Yet when French journalist Carrie Nooten asked Hishammuddin if he was being protected for his incompetence as a result of being the cousin of the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, she received a barrage of criticism from the pro-government Star newspaper.
Hishammuddin has been criticised internationally for saying the police had gone to the home of the pilot of the missing plane, even though they did not go to the pilot’s home until several days after the acting minister made this statement. He also raised doubts about the plane’s communications systems being switched off, even though that information had been confirmed.
The Chinese government is also dismayed by the Malaysian government’s inability to provide timely information. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the delay “smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information”.
When a foreign journalist on Monday asked about criticism over slow and confused information, Hishammuddin said it was baseless. “I have got a lot of feedback saying we’ve been very responsible in our actions,” he said, then went on the attack: “It’s very irresponsible of you to say that.”
The government is also refusing to share what information it has about the missing plane with the opposition. Opposition members were not invited to an update briefing on the investigation on Tuesday, yet government parliamentarians were invited. A government MP told the opposition they should not question the minister’s “prerogative” on the matter of invitations. He said opposition MPs had not been invited because they would release the information via social media.
In an information vacuum, and fuelled by the government’s ill-informed ramblings, rumour and speculation has taken the place of hard information.
The Malaysia media has recently reported everything from the plane having burst into flames mid-flight, crashed in the ocean, been hijacked by the crew or others, landed on a remote airstrip, flown in the shadow of another plane, and being seen over the Maldives. Even that doyen of accurate reporting, Rupert Murdoch, has been twittering into the void:
The Malaysian government’s incompetence is now playing out as an election issue in a byelection in the town of Kajang in Selangor state on Malaysia’s central west coast. Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah, is a PKR (People’s Justice Party) candidate in that election. Kajang is currently held by the PKR.
In its five decades in power, assisted by rigging electoral boundaries, the Malaysian government has rarely been held to account, much less scrutiny. It is not used to addressing questions directly or, sometimes, honestly. However in recent years its grip on power has weakened.
The MH370 crisis has shown how sclerotic the otherwise comfortable Malaysian government has become.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University