Failing to manage MH370 crisis exposes leadership limit


The Malay Mail Online
March 12, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — Malaysia, aspiring to become a developed nation in six years, is finding that more than 50 years under one coalition and tight control over information is a mismatch for handling a rapidly growing crisis followed across the world.

China is calling on Malaysia to be more transparent as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak lets his cousin, Acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, be the face of the investigation into why a Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane vanished on March 8. It was en route to Beijing with 239 people on board. Investigators from at least nine countries are trying to locate the jet.

Najib’s United Malays National Organisation leads the coalition governing the Southeast Asian nation. Only in recent years has it seen a move toward competitive elections, in some districts, that put a premium on public speaking. The government’s lack of a clear message, compounded by a series of false leads on the plane’s whereabouts and questions on coordination, risks undermining its image internationally.

“They’re handling a huge global issue as if it was domestic politics,” said Clive Kessler, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who has analysed the nation’s politics for half a century.

“With the cause of the disappearance still unknown you can understand the need for discretion and caution but it’s being perceived in Malaysia and elsewhere in the region as a bid to hide the truth.”

‘Doesn’t Work’

Najib’s administration is sending the message that people should let the “government tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it, and not before,” Kessler said.

“That’s the way they’ve acted for generations and they are starting to find out it doesn’t work anymore.”

Many newspapers and television networks in Malaysia are controlled by the government directly or indirectly. And Najib, 60, has yet to make good on a pledge to replace the nation’s Sedition Act with legislation that would protect free speech while preventing incitement of religious or ethnic hatred. The law, which dates back to 1948 when Malaysia was under British control, mandates jail sentences of at least three years for words deemed seditious, including those that “excite dissatisfaction” against the government.

Government-controlled Malaysian Airlines said in a statement yesterday it would “continue to be transparent in communicating with the general public via the media” on all matters affecting Flight 370.

Stolen Passports

Nations searching for the plane had little to go on with no distress calls, emergency-beacon signals, bad weather or other signs why an airliner would lose touch in one of the safest phases of flight. The discovery that two passengers boarded the missing flight using stolen passports raised concern about Malaysia’s immigration security practices.

“The Malaysian side cannot shirk its responsibilities,” the Global Times, a Chinese government-controlled newspaper, said in an editorial on March 10. “The initial response from Malaysia was not swift enough. There are loopholes in the work of Malaysia Airlines and security authorities.”

Faced with pressure from families of the 153 Chinese nationals who were on the flight, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang for a second day yesterday noted the lack of progress in finding the Boeing Co. 777-200.

“We once again request and urge the Malaysia side to enhance and strengthen rescue and searching efforts,” Qin told reporters in Beijing.

Chinese Trade

“The Chinese government is under quite a lot of pressure,” said Xu Liping, senior fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Ordinary people in China feel the investigation “has not been professional.”

Broader ties between Malaysia and China probably won’t suffer, he said, citing a phone conversation between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Najib on March 8 about the missing flight. “This channel has been unimpeded.”

China accounted for RM8.262 billion of Malaysia’s exports in January, the second-largest amount after Singapore. Malaysia approved US$920 million (RM3 billion) of foreign investment from China in the manufacturing sector in 2013, up from US$646 million the year earlier, according to the Malaysian Investment Development Authority.

The Malaysia market has not shown much reaction this week to the missing plane, with the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index down 0.2 per cent this week.

Cautious Personality

It is understandable that Najib doesn’t want a high profile in this situation given his cautious personality, according to Joseph Liow, associate dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“He’s not one who would go to the front of the camera and do lots of chest thumping and wave the flag and all that without being certain that there’s substantive” progress in the investigation, he said.

“Hisham is very different from his cousin. He’s someone who is not uncomfortable with the limelight,” he said, referring to Hishammuddin.

Hishammuddin, 52, has been the acting minister since a general election last May. He is unable to formally take the role given internal coalition rules on which party takes particular posts in cabinet.

Other Asian leaders have faced questions for not reacting to crises immediately. Philippine President Benigno Aquino was criticized for taking two days to visit victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan last year. So was China’s former premier, Wen Jiabao, when he took more than two weeks to visit the site of the country’s worst snow storms in 50 years in 2008.

Delegating Tasks

In the US, President George W. Bush was criticised for his handling of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 after he remained on vacation as New Orleans flooded. He cut short the break by two days to survey the damage from the air, something he later said was a “huge mistake” since it made him look “detached and uncaring.”

Najib needs to assure Malaysians and the international community that his government is doing all it can, said Vishnu Varathan, an economist at Mizuho Bank Ltd. in Singapore.

“What could have been done was the prime minister delegating the transport secretary to locating the plane and assigning one other person in charge of investigating the security breach and another to handle international relations,” he said.

“It’s not easy to convey all that is happening in the background and the government needs to highlight these things.”

Airline Statement

Compounding the image that authorities in charge of the investigation are struggling to communicate effectively, Malaysian Airlines issued three versions of a press statement yesterday to correct several errors. One was a reference to an “expensive” rescue operation, which it meant to call “extensive.”

While he has remained silent on the details of the investigation, Najib postponed a trip to Mauritius, according to Malaysia’s state-run news service, Bernama. He also met the families of the crew from the missing plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, his press office said on Twitter on March 8.

“I assure you we are doing everything possible within our means,” Najib said on Twitter on March 9. “We thank you for your prayers, assistance and show of solidarity.”

Najib’s office directed queries on China’s concerns about the handling of the incident to authorities involved in the investigation.

‘Hisham’s Test’

Hishammuddin, who is also defense minister, was elected a vice president of UMNO in October, putting him in line to possibly succeed Najib. He is the nephew of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Najib’s father, Abdul Razak Hussein.

“It’s a lack of experience, anybody would be tested,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at Singapore Management University. “This is Hisham’s test, and Najib’s government’s test.”

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who led the country through the 1998 Asian financial crisis, “was a stronger leader,” said RSIS’s Liow.

Mahathir responded with capital controls when investors fled Asian economies during the crisis. He called billionaire financier George Soros a “moron” who was trying to destroy growth through speculative attacks on the currency. — Bloomberg
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  1. #1 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 11:03 am

    Of on paper MAS is under the MOT though the actual management of this company comes under the PM Office; hence all the mess and uncertainty exposed. Today, MOT, considered a senior portfolio is being managed by a bunch of jokers. It is a Ministry that doesn’t seem to know what is going on even with the fact that Malaysia has enjoyed the advantage of better infrastructure over 90% of the other Asian nations over the past 30 years but this is steadily being eroded because of the incompetency of this Ministry. Judging on the current scenario, it is just above Laos, Cambodia, and maybe Myanmar in term of pro-active and anticipation. The issue is how on earth does the Gomen allow such an important institution to slide to this level?? To make thing worse. the MOT is being led by an Acting Minister who already find it so hard to manage his own Ministry! Putting all these things together; one should not be surprised by all the shortcomings being exposed with the MH370 incident. I just wonder the future economic impact after this!

    • #2 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 12:39 pm

      If I don’t know what I am doing and you don’t know what you are doing, what do you think ?

      • #3 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 12:47 pm

        All the kakitangan will be doing their own things. How can you bloody allow beautiful passengers into the cockpit when taking off if there is proof of this ?

  2. #4 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 11:27 am

    The problem is Mahathir and his boot-lickers not only believes their way still works but INSISTS it does, it can be done better. The price of joining the global community, for doing business in demanding China market is this high – you can’t get away with compromised standards. None of Mahathir’s success is outside of domestic demand, almost all he has would dissappear if he had to fully meet such high standards.

  3. #5 by Di Shi Jiu on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 12:27 pm

    Without the traditional protection of a Government friendly media, Malaysian authorities are shown for what they are – bumbling incompetent fools who are deluded by their own beliefs of their grandeur.

    This is how one administers a nation which plans on being a developed nation in SIX YEARS time!!!

    No money can buy them out of this situation.

    No law can be passed to extricate themselves out of their in-competencies.

    No media spin can be published to hide the glaring deficiencies in their abilities.

    The Peter Principle reigns supreme.

  4. #6 by yhsiew on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 1:23 pm

    Poor handling of the missing MH307, frequent U-turns of decision making and frequent running of the country in auto-pilot mode by Najib’s administration have led the author set the theme of this posting.

    • #7 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 2:25 pm

      if the plane has successfully made a U turn and arrive in any airport, wouldn’t it be wonderful ?

  5. #8 by undertaker888 on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 2:05 pm

    Our leaders just want to get praises when kangkung price go down. Other then that don’t expect any leadership from them.

    If you don’t like it, go back tiongshan or Tamil Nadu.

  6. #9 by cinaindiamelayubersatu on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 - 3:57 pm

    kepimpinan?? kita ada pemimpin yang menipu. ditipu kita bulat bulat. puas cari merata rata – pasar basah kg cempaka, taman megah, taman sea, ss2, ttdi, tesco, giant semua tak ada ayam rm1. buntut ayam ke rm1 ooi si penipu…. ke ayam separuh mati ? ayam kena bom ????

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