By Connor Phillips.
The world typically has little reason to pay attention to Malaysia. This Southeast Asian nation of 30 million people, which stretches from the Malay Peninsula across the South China Sea to the island of Borneo, is fortunate enough to have escaped from the earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons that have struck the region over the past several years. No accident of geography, however, can save a nation from manmade disasters. And so the attention of the Western world has fixated on this unique country in the wake of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 shortly after it took off from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital) en route to Beijing. While the mystery of what happened to Flight 370 might never be solved, the saga is shedding light on an institution that also has been relatively free of outside scrutiny for decades: Malaysia’s government.
Since it gained independence from Britain in 1957, Malaya (the “si” was added after the Bornean territories joined in 1963) has been ruled by the same political coalition. Formerly the Alliance Party and now known as the National Front (Barisan Nasional), it is a grouping of parties representing Malaysia’s major ethnic groups, most prominently the native Malays, ethnic Chinese, and ethnic Indians. The BN has been dominant for so long that Malaysian politics in large part consists of its own backroom infighting. With most of the nation’s media outlets being owned by the government or member parties of the BN, it is not accustomed to being challenged.
It is also notoriously secretive: both the government and Malaysian Airlines (which is government-owned) have held back information about Flight 370, and what information they do disclose is often inaccurate and self-contradictory. Not only has the BN’s clumsy handling of the situation hampered search-and-rescue efforts, but it has also added to the anguish of the passengers’ loved ones. In response to criticism, Hishammuddin Hussein, the defense minister and acting transportation minister, has asserted that “I have got a lot of feedback saying we have been very responsible in our actions,” paternalistically chiding accusations of a botched response as “irresponsible” despite the fact that practically the only person on record praising the Malaysian government is an anonymous Facebook user in Sweden.
The BN’s autocracy reached a peak during the rule of Malaysia’s most influential prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003). Although he successfully overcame most opposition including Malaysia’s numerous royal families and the judiciary, a more potent threat came from within his own ranks. As the Asian financial crisis of 1998 struck Malaysia, the finance minister Anwar Ibrahim won plaudits from the international community for his astute crisis management. Soon, Anwar’s profile was on the rise, and he began challenging Mahathir’s leadership. In response, a book began to circulate among the ranks of their party entitled 50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister, containing a series of bizarre and graphic accusations of sexual indiscretions on Anwar’s part. On the basis of this suspect work, Mahathir dismissed Anwar, who found himself accused of sodomy and corruption and sentenced to fifteen years in jail.
Instead of discrediting Anwar, however, the sodomy charges completely backfired, making the BN seem to be the autocratic aggressors and Anwar the victim of an insidious campaign of persecution. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, took his seat in Parliament and began the long, hard slog of putting together a viable political opposition. Meanwhile, Anwar found himself going from one courtroom to another, winning exoneration as the government’s weak cases unraveled only to find himself confronted by a new prosecution each time. In the process, however, he and Wan Azizah managed to unite the different ethnic and religious groups of Malaysia into a rainbow coalition that pressed for less corruption and equal opportunity for all while the BN continued to cater to ethnic Malaysian interests. The turning point finally came in 2013, when the BN lost the first election in its history. Gerrymandered voting districts meant that the BN’s majority in Parliament was preserved; however, its days were clearly numbered.
The Anwar saga intruded into the disappearance of Flight 370 in a dramatic way when the claim emerged that the plane’s pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a “political fanatic” and supporter of Anwar. The obvious implication is that he intentionally downed the plane in a gesture of political protest at the latest indignity dealt the long-suffering opposition leader—the overturn of his acquittal on yet another sodomy charge the day before the flight disappeared. The government has only fanned the flames of speculation by selectively releasing tidbits about the ongoing investigation that imply that Zaharie is the prime suspect. While it seems convincing on the surface, this claim is likely completely false. Zaharie is actually an in-law of Anwar’s, characterized by those know him as only casually political. Moreover, Anwar’s latest legal setback was treated “almost as a victory” by many present at the trial, as they confidently predicted another backlash against the BN that could finally allow their party to gain power. Hardly the sort of event to send someone over the edge.
Without the blame-the-pilot explanation, however, the question of what happened to Flight 370 still remains unresolved. The BN is evidently hoping that either the plane will never be found or Zaharie will be labeled as at fault so they can pin the entire disaster on Anwar. If recent events are any guide, it is fighting a losing battle. The eyes of the world are now on the government of Malaysia, including that of its neighbor China, which is very concerned about the fate of the many Chinese citizens on Flight 370 and livid at the government’s bumbling response. As much as the BN might have been able to act with impunity before the international media came to town, it will now find its ability to do so severely circumscribed. It looks like the Malaysian government’s luck may at last be running out.