How the missing airline fiasco highlights Malaysia’s weak governance

MALAYSIA-CHINA-VIETNAM-MALAYSIAAIRLINES-TRANSPORT-ACCIDENT As the world nears the end of the second week of the mysterious saga of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with no firm explanation of how the flight disappeared on an otherwise routine trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the strains on Malaysia’s government are increasingly apparent — and the search to discover the fate of Flight 370 showcases the shortcomings of Malaysian governance.malaysia flag

It’s probably the first time that a global audience has taken much stock of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who came to power five years ago.  Najib, who is relatively more popular than the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) that he represents, has benefitted from robust economic growth since taking office in 2009, though he arguably remains in the shadow of longtime Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who continues to loom large over the country’s political affairs.

But Malaysian institutions have taken somewhat of a hit this month in its sometimes sluggish, something hesitant, sometimes contradictory efforts in the search for the missing flight.  Why, for example, did it take so long for the Malaysian government to admit that the airplane kept running for six hours after leaving Malaysian airspace?  Was the Malaysian government purposefully concealing satellite data?  Why didn’t Malaysian forces act immediately when the plane veered off course?  In the aftermath of the flight’s disappearance, has the government done everything it could be doing to coordinate with the US government, the Chinese government and other nations to facilitate the search?  With growing signs that the flight deliberately changed course toward the Indian Ocean, why did it take Malaysian authorities a week to investigate the pilots behind the cockpit?  And by the way, why did Malaysian immigration officials allow two passengers to board an international flight with stolen passports?

It’s not just the US media — the Chinese government has become increasingly critical and impatient of Malaysia’s efforts over the past week.  Chinese premier Li Keqiang pointedly demanded earlier this week that the Malaysian government provide more detailed information in  a ‘timely, accurate and comprehensive manner.’

To be fair, no country would be able to mount by itself the kind of search effort that it now appears will be necessary to locate a flight that could have crashed (or landed) anywhere from Kazakhstan to the middle of the Indian Ocean.  What’s more, any country would suffer the same kind of second-guessing that Malaysia is now facing.

But the errors highlight that there’s a lot that’s wrong with Malaysian governance.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) coalition — and its predecessor before 1973, the Perikatan (Alliance) — have controlled the Malaysian government since independence from British colonial rule in 1957.  

Over the past decade, the governing coalition has maintained its iron grip on Malaysian government, despite growing dissatisfaction with its performance and disapproval with the Barisan Nasional‘s anti-democratic tactics.

The Barisan Nasional has cynically divided the bumiputera, the country’s ethnic Malays, from the ethnic Chinese, the ethnic Indians and other groups within Malaysia.  The key to its success, stretching back to the New Economic Policy introduced in the 1970s and the more recent National Development Policy, are affirmative action programs and preferences for ethnic Malays across many different spheres of public life — part of the wider concept of ‘ketuanan Melayu‘ (Malay dominance) that motivate the BN’s policies.  The electoral bargain is that so long as ethnic Malay votes keep the BN in power, the BN will maintain a slate of policy preferences that benefit ethnic Malays — to the disadvantage of the ethnic Chinese, which play a disproportionately important role in the Malaysian economy.

But the ruling political elite have taken even more drastic steps to disrupt the normal political process.

Earlier this month, for example, as the world only began to take notice of the mysterious case of Flight 370, Malaysia’s courts were sentencing the top opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, to a five-year prison sentence on sodomy charges that his supporters (and plenty of international observers) argue are politically motivated.  The current trial follows his conviction on similar charges in 2000, though the Malaysian supreme court ultimately overturned the conviction, releasing Anwar from jail after four years.  A former deputy prime minister in the 1990s, Anwar was once the heir apparent to Mahathir — until their  falling-out in 1998 and despite international praise for Anwar’s handling of economic policy in guiding Malaysia through the Asian currency crisis of 1997-98.

After his release from prison in 2004, Anwar returned to politics and by 2008, he had united the Malaysian opposition into the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance).  Anwar led the opposition to its best-ever result against the Barisan Nasional in the 2008 general elections — the opposition’s performance was so strong that prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi resigned shortly thereafter.

Anwar improved on that showing last year.  In the May 2013 general electionPakatan Rakyat actually won more votes (50.87%) than the Barisan Nasional (47.38%).  Thanks to the incumbent advantages in drawing (essentially, gerrymandering) Malaysia’s electoral districts, Barisan Nasional nonetheless won more seats — 133 to just 89 for Pakatan Rakyat.  That’s in addition to credible allegations of fraud and other electoral irregularities, and the kind of intimidation that routinely subjects opposition leaders like Anwar to smear campaigns and legal problems.

Plenty of voters still supporter the Barisal Nasional and Najib, on the basis of the longstanding ethnic Malay preferences (despite Najib’s slogan of ‘1Malaysia’) and the basis of Malaysia’s economic strength.

Notwithstanding Malaysia’s GDP growth, the country exports a great deal to China, and it’s relatively exposed to a potential Chinese economic slowdown.  Moreover, far from the shining skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur, rural Malaysians still face chronic poverty.

Anwar most recently registered as a candidate in a local by-election, fueling speculation that he might become the menteri besar (chief minister) of the state of Selangor, which surrounds the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, and Putrajaya, the administrative capital.  Selangor is the most developed state in Malaysia, and it contributes nearly one-quarter of the country’s GDP.  Increasingly, it’s also become a Pakatan Rakyat stronghold, and the opposition has controlled the state government there since 2008.  As chief minister, Anwar would become an even more powerful foil to Najib, thereby making the most recent sodomy charges against him incredibly suspect.

In the past week, the Malaysian government has even tried to score   political points by linking premature connections of foul play to the Pakatan Rakyat when it announced that one of the pilots of Flight 370 was a ‘fanatic’ Anwar supporter.  Anwar has since admitted that the flight’s captain is not only a supporter, but a relative of his daughter-in-law.

None of which is incredibly reassuring about the ongoing effort to discover what happened to Flight 370.  As the search drags out into what will soon be its third week, the fallout from the Malaysian government’s missteps and the focus on Malaysia’s weak institutions and rule of law could sully its reputation among international investors, giving it an economic hangover for years to come.

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