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Can Malaysia Salvage Its Public Image?

Department of Civil Aviation Director General Azharuddin Abdul Rahman briefing reporters last week in Sepang, Malaysia

Photograph by Daniel Chan/AP Photo

Department of Civil Aviation Director General Azharuddin Abdul Rahman briefing reporters last week in Sepang, Malaysia

The Malaysian government probably has done more over the past week to undermine the international image of Malaysia than anyone in the country’s nearly 60 years as an independent nation.

For most of those six decades, until the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the country received little international attention. If Malaysia made the news at all, it tended to get relatively favorable notice as a peaceful, multiethnic nation that had enjoyed some of the strongest economic growth in Asia. The government capitalized on this image as a welcoming and wealthy nation with an effective tourism campaign, launched in the late 1990s, called “Malaysia Truly Asia.” This campaign helped make Malaysia a leading destination. (The latest tourism push, dubbed “Visit Malaysia Year,” included scores of events, a monkey mascot—and tragic headlines unrelated to the missing plane.)

The 10-day period since the mysterious disappearance of Flight 370 has seen the Malaysian government present to the world a concoction of false leads and conflicting answers, alongside seemingly evasive behavior. Nearly a week after the start of a multinational search off the waters off Malaysia’s east coast, the government revealed it had data suggesting the plane had flown in the other direction. Malaysia also released conflicting stories of when the plane’s communication with the ground was turned off, who turned it off, vague information as to who might be a suspect, and uncertain details about evidence collected.

Malaysia’s official spokespeople seem oblivious to the fact that the vanished plane is a global news story, and the hundreds of reporters who have descended upon Kuala Lumpur aren’t going to accept bland missives. At a recent briefing in Kuala Lumpur, a spokesman told reporters that the prime minister would be making a statement without taking any questions. When reporters pressed for more access, the reply came back: “Go watch a movie.”

Even the Chinese government, hardly a model of transparency, is spitting angry at Malaysian officials’ stalling and obfuscation. China’s deputy foreign minister last weekend blasted Malaysia’s response and insisted that Kuala Lumpur provide China, whose nationals comprised the majority of passengers on the plane, “more thorough and accurate information” about the flight and the current search efforts. Some Chinese officials privately have wondered whether Malaysia is being less than candid about how its armed forces did—or did not—track the plane so as not to give away details of Malaysia’s radar coverage of contested areas of the South China Sea.

As I wrote last week, Malaysian leaders’ poor response to the disappearance of Flight 370 isn’t that surprising. The country has been ruled by the same governing coalition since independence, its leaders normally shun independent journalists, and state-controlled domestic media rarely push top ministers to answer tough questions.

Can Malaysia turn it around, regaining the trust of neighboring states, the international community, aviation experts, and, most important, the relatives of passengers from the missing flight? It’s not impossible, and restoring trust will be critical for the multinational search effort to be successful. Kuala Lumpur needs to immediately—and I mean immediately—take several steps:

1. Malaysia’s government needs to speak with a single voice. Start by designating a senior minister—ideally, Prime Minister Najib tun Razak—as the primary point of information about the search for Flight 370. That senior minister would handle briefings of both press and officials from other countries and would not be contradicted by other ministers talking in public about the situation.

The designated minister would have daily question-and-answer sessions with reporters—and not only with the compliant domestic media. (The government-controlled New Straits Times recently published a story headlined, “Stop bashing [Malaysia’s] Search and Rescue efforts, says Swede FB user,” which featured quotes from an anonymous Swedish Facebook commentator impressed with the government’s response.) To take an example from a nearby country, Malaysian officials could review videos of the Philippine government’s lengthy Q&A sessions with reporters in the wake of last year’s Typhoon Haiyan.

2. Get over the dislike of open cooperation with Western governments. The attitude has been a characteristic of Malaysian politics since independence. Kuala Lumpur should allow foreign aviation and police agencies to cooperate with it in investigating the backgrounds of the passengers, crew, and pilots of the missing plane. So far, even as it claims it is cooperating with everyone, the Malaysian leadership has reportedly rejected extensive help from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, as well as from several other foreign agencies.

Malaysia’s police have a weak record of investigative work, partly because the police—like virtually every other part of the Malaysian government—are alleged to be highly politicized, stuffed with patronage jobs, and perceived as very corrupt. As a country with relatively little air traffic, compared to those with busier air hubs such as the U.K., China, or the U.S., Malaysia also has limited experience investigating any type of flight disaster, whether it’s a hijacking or a simple accident.

3. Disclose everything known about Flight 370 on the night of its disappearance. Kuala Lumpur needs to release to the public everything that was known about the flight as of March 8 by aircraft controllers, radar operators, and the Malaysian military. The government owes this to the families of the passengers. Some Malaysian officials apparently knew about the flight’s westward trajectory after the transponder was turned off. Yet the information remained concealed from the global public for nearly a week, sending searchers on a wild goose chase for seven days. That naturally raises questions as to whether Malaysia is concealing more details.

4. Stop trying to link the plane’s disappearance to domestic political opponents. It has come out that the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a supporter of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and may have attended one of the recent hearings in Anwar’s sodomy trial. Amnesty International has called Anwar’s recent jail sentence in the case a “blatant attempt to silence one of the opposition’s most important voices and bar him from participating in elections.”

Government leaders long have been obsessed with Anwar, whose opposition alliance has gotten closer and closer to winning a national election and ending the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s reign. Malaysian officials have been acting as if Shah’s support for Anwar’s opposition party is somehow shocking and disturbing—and potentially a sign that Shah may have taken over the plane and diverted or crashed it.

But how is the fact that the pilot was a supporter of Anwar relevant to the investigation? In the last national election, many urban Malaysians supported Anwar’s opposition alliance. If the pilot was suspicious because of his support for the opposition then so, too, are many urban Malaysians. What’s more, no supporters of Anwar, a mainstream and mild opposition politician, have ever been involved in terrorist attacks. And if the pilot really wanted to call attention to Anwar’s plight—the jailed candidate is already  well-known in international diplomatic circles—how would making the plane vanish help Malaysia’s opposition leader?

The pilot and co-pilot of the mysterious MH370 may indeed have shut off the transponder and hijacked or sabotaged the plane. Until Malaysian authorities reveal more and cooperate more effectively with real experts in investigation and aviation, we will be no closer to the answers. In fact, we might never know what happened to Flight 370, given the depth and remoteness of the Indian Ocean and the difficulties in searching for the plane.

What’s clear is that how the Malaysian government handles the continuing search in the coming weeks will cement how it—and the entire country of Malaysia—are regarded in history.

Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government.

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