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Does Malaysia deserve this trial by media?

April 24, 2014

(Published in The Malay Mail on 23 March 2014)

 

I’ve become quite incensed by the heavy criticism of Malaysia’s handling of the ill-fated Flight MH370. The international media, without exception, have thrown all manner of insults at Malaysia following the disappearance of its Boeing 777 plane, the latest being a patronizing request for it to hand over the investigation to another more competent authority.

 

Information not timely enough; confusing and contradictory press briefings; the incompetency of the government and its air force; not keeping the FBI in the picture; plague of errors and so on. If you didn’t know any better — think Fox News audiences across America — it would leave one wondering how this small friendly Asian country functions at all, let alone flies planes?

 

I want to know if Malaysia deserves this trial by media?

 

Let’s start by looking at the search for physical evidence. The absence of any trace of the plane and its 239 passengers and crew, which seemingly vanished into thin air on the 8 March, is baffling. Yesterday’s reports might, of course, change things. Australia has confirmed that it has located two objects in the south Indian Ocean which experts think are relevant to the search.

 

Referring to the satellite images obtained four days ago, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was careful to point out yesterday that: “It may turn out that they are not related to the search for MH370”.

 

It could be weeks before we know if these objects are the remains of MH370. And in the meantime, the torment and pain of the family and friends of those on board the plane will continue, unabated.

 

Next, what do we know about the cause of the incident? Again, we still seem to be in the realm of “possibilities”. The Malaysian government have eliminated mechanical failure as the cause, and the current hypothesis is the deliberate shutting down of the plane’s communication systems and change of flight path. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered searches of the homes of the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and his first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, who both appear to be under suspicion.

 

The possible motives are unclear. There’s speculation about the deleted files on a flight-simulator installed in the captain’s home. And I’ve read much in the UK press about the captain’s political leanings and connection with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, recently sentenced to five years in prison on the rarely used charge of sodomy. What either of these have to do in the context of a missing plane remains to be seen.

 

In fact, the only certainty we have right now according to experts from all corners of the world, is that this incident is “unprecedented” in the history of modern aviation.

 

Which is exactly why 26 countries are involved in this needle-in-a-haystack search spanning 25,000 miles from Central Asia to the south Indian Ocean. And why, everyman and his dog have offered their own version of events. Even the usually cautious BBC World News have reported some pretty outlandish theories on the disappearance including: “The plane has been stolen by terrorists to commit a 9/11 style atrocity. It has been landed safely, hidden or camouflaged, will be refuelled and fitted with a new transponder before taking off to attack a city.”

 

None of the above really answer my tricky question. But, in my quest for answers, there have been two opinions that have made an impression:

 

“Most expats you speak to would say that the standard government approach to things in everyday life is not always systematic…how this would translate to an unprecedented aviation event I can’t of course say, but it makes you wonder.” This is the view of an expat friend who’s been living and working in KL for the last seven years.

 

“Most people I speak to here (in KL) acknowledge…that the authorities’ ponderous response and mishandling of information mirror the way Malaysia is run. The offhand, sometimes defensive nature of the early press conferences, coupled with occasional attacks on the foreign media, are widely perceived as the arrogance of a government unaccustomed to global attention and accountability.” This is an excerpt of a thought-provoking yet balanced article by the Malaysian writer Tash Aw. It’s worth a read http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/opinion/flight-370-saps-malaysias-confidence.html?_r=0

 

To be honest, it feels churlish for me as an outsider, to express a view either-way. Rather, I see it as a moment of truth for those in power and leading Malaysia to its 2020 vision to take a serious look at the direction in which it is taking its vibrant and progressive country. Out of adversity comes opportunity: can there be a better time for soul-searching?

 

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