By Justin Ong and Boo Su-Lyn
The Malay Mail Online
March 21, 2014
KUALA LUMPUR, March 21 — When Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared on March 8, the world poured out its sympathy to Malaysia.
The disappearance of a Boeing 777-200ER — considered one of the safest planes in aviation history — with 239 passengers onboard captured the world’s attention and the media obliged, with news outlets arriving in droves to cover the tragedy.
The first faces that the world saw of Malaysia was that of MAS chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya and Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) director-general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman.
From the offset, Azharuddin appeared uncomfortable in front of cameras, speaking with apprehension palpable to those watching.
As hours turned into days and with no signs of the plane, however, sympathy gave way to frustration and attention slowly turned from Malaysia’s loss of a passenger plane to its handling of the search.
Under the unforgiving glare of the assembled international and local media, whose reports were played again and again on 24-hour news channels and shared globally on social media sites to be further dissected, Malaysia’s well-coiffed image on the international stage began to be picked apart.
More focus began to fall on the words coming from Malaysia’s representatives.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reportedly expressed disbelief that Immigration officials allowed two men with “Asian features” to board MH370 using passports stolen from an Italian and Austrian.
This later proved incorrect, with Azharuddin choosing to use Italian national footballer Mario Balotelli to help illustrate the point.
Azharuddin also fell foul to clarifications from the police, who revealed that the five passengers the DCA chief said checked in but never boarded MH370 never existed; every passenger booked for the flight was onboard.
Coming to the DCA chief’s defence, Cabinet minister Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim said Azharuddin’s inconsistencies was only a secondary issue and accused the media of asking unnecessary questions of the official.
It was not until acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein came on to anchor Malaysia’s communications with the press that a cohesiveness began to show.
“Hishammuddin has done very well. But there were bungles by the director-general of the DCA, comments from the [Inspector-General of Police] and generals of armed forces — these people are not trained to deal with the media,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), told The Malay Mail Online.
On March 9, the military let slip that it saw MH370 fly west across the peninsula, but quickly denied the reports that followed, the first of what was a series of contradictions over the events surrounding MH370.
From then until Malaysia decided to confirm vital pieces of information — that the plane flew for hours longer than first known and in a direction completely away from the South China Sea where rescuers had searched for a week — what little details about the information appeared to come from the West.
As a result, Malaysia was alleged to be withholding information and being opaque by the rest of the world, including a most unlikely accuser in China.
“The government should just tell what it knows, what it does not know, and its plan of action to deal with the issue,” Arnold Puyok, a lecturer with the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, said when contacted by The Malay Mail Online.
Malaysia argued that it would irresponsible to release such data without corroborating as it did with various national agencies, notably the aviation authorities from the US and the UK.
Ibrahim Suffian of independent pollster Merdeka Centre noted that this might also have been the source of Malaysia’s problems.
“Given that the Malaysian authorities are also dependent on external parties abroad for technical assistance and that there is probably also investigation efforts by other countries, it is possible for leaks or scoops by journalists outside the country,” said Ibrahim.
Wan Saiful agreed on the need to verify data before disseminating it to the public, and said the problem lay with the amount of time it took to confirm the information.
In the midst of the national crisis that is MH370, the government said the issue was “bigger than politics”.
Yet it chose not to brief all lawmakers in Parliament. Instead, an event was held at a local hotel for the Barisan Nasional Backbenchers Club (BNBBC) to brief MPs from the ruling coalition on the timeline surrounding the plane’s disappearance, leading to vociferous complaints from those in the opposition Pakatan Rakyat pact.
Wan Saiful and Puyok said the government should have set aside partisanship in this instance, with the latter saying the government could not handle the issue alone.
But Ibrahim pointed out BN’s response was likely the result of its mistrust of the opposition, as well as the strain it was already under trying to manage the media. He suggested it was trying to cut down on the “spin” that could be used to attack the administration.
“I think the authorities are wary in dealing with the opposition because they can’t control how the information they pass on will be used by these PR MPs,” he said.
Foreign reports that linked Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to the plane’s disappearance through pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s membership in PKR and familial ties to the opposition leader — the aviator is a distant relative of Anwar’s daughter-in-law — also led to suspicions that the authorities were behind the connection.
Despite calls to set aside politics, the IDEAS chief pointed out that supporters of Umno, the lynchpin of the ruling coalition, have jumped on the opportunity to attack Anwar over the link.
Although Malaysia’s image has taken a battering on the world stage, the observers said the administration could still learn vital lessons on how to manage perceptions, including the importance of being open.
“[The government] did make some miscues in its initial handling but since then it has done relatively well in trying to be transparent and forthcoming in the information provided to the public,” Lim said.
Misgivings aside, Wan Saiful was optimistic about what Malaysia would take away from the saga of MH370.
“I think we’re learning on how to deal with issues like this. There’s a degree of increasing maturity…
The bigger lesson is for our political parties to make their members become a lot more sensible,” he said.