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Originally published March 12, 2014 at 7:40 PM | Page modified March 12, 2014 at 9:02 PM

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Malaysia’s crisis exposes leaders not used to being questioned

Worldwide bafflement at the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has challenged the country’s paternalistic political culture.


The New York Times

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SEPANG, Malaysia — Malaysia’s governing elite has clung to power without interruption since independence from Britain almost six decades ago through a combination of tight control of information, intimidation of the opposition and, until recently, robust economic growth.

But worldwide bafflement at the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has challenged the country’s paternalistic political culture and exposed its coddled leaders to the withering judgments of critics from around the world.

Civilian and military leaders Wednesday revealed that they had known for the past five days, but did not publicly disclose, that military radar had picked up signals of what may have been the missing aircraft. It appeared to be flying on a westerly course sharply off its intended flight path to Beijing.

It was only under a barrage of intense questioning Wednesday from a room packed with reporters who had arrived from many countries that officials acknowledged that the last recorded radar-plot point showed the jet flying in the direction of the Indian Ocean — and at a cruising altitude, suggesting it could have flown much farther.

That raised the question of why the information had not been released earlier.

“The world is finally feeling the frustration that we’ve been experiencing for years,” said Lee Ee May, a management consultant and a former aide to a Malaysian opposition politician.

Lee said she was embarrassed when the country’s defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, the scion of a powerful political family, rejected a reporter’s assertion Wednesday that the search for the airplane had been disorderly.

“There is only confusion if you want to see it as confusion,” Hishammuddin said at a news conference.

“They have never faced pressure to perform like this,” Lee said. “But now international eyes are on them, and they have nowhere to hide.”

For a relatively prosperous country of 30 million people that is less well known internationally than neighboring countries like Thailand and Singapore, the government’s confused efforts at finding the missing jetliner are an awkward and undesired appearance on the world stage.

The crisis has led to introspection about why the government has appeared uncoordinated and unable to pin down seemingly basic facts about the missing flight.

Malaysia has had little experience with handling a crisis on this scale. It is also an ethnically polarized society where talent often does not rise to the top of government because of patronage politics within the ruling party and a system of ethnic preferences that discourages or blocks the country’s minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, from government service.

Ethnic Malays, who make up about half of the population, hold nearly all top government positions and receive a host of government preferences because of their status as “sons of the soil.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak has let his cousin, Hishammuddin, be the face of the investigation. Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) leads the government. Only in recent years has it seen a move toward more competitive elections. Many newspapers and television networks are controlled by the government directly or indirectly.

Najib, 60, has yet to make good on a pledge to replace the nation’s Sedition Act, which dates back to 1948 when Malaysia was under British control. It mandates jail sentences of at least three years for words deemed seditious, including those that “excite dissatisfaction” against the government.

Hishammuddin, who is also transportation 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.

The day before Flight 370 disappeared, the leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, was sentenced to five years under a sodomy law that is hardly ever enforced. Critics called the case an effort to block the opposition as the governing party’s popularity is waning. On Tuesday, a court convicted Karpal Singh, another opposition politician, under the sedition law.

“Malaysians have come to accept that their leaders don’t answer questions,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, the former head of the Malaysian Bar Council. “When you are not seriously challenged in any meaningful way, of course you get complacent and comfortable.”

Ibrahim Suffian, the director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling company, says the response to the crisis has underlined a lack of precision both in government and the society overall.

“There’s a tolerance for a lack of attentiveness to detail,” he said. “You have a tendency of not asking so much and not expecting so much.”

The crisis also highlighted a lack of competence in government that Ibrahim said was related to a deference to authority and reluctance to take initiative. “There’s always been a kind of wait-for-instructions-from-the-top attitude,” he said.

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