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Spotlight falls on Malaysia's acting transport minister again as criticisms mount

Published on Mar 27, 2014 12:23 AM

KUALA LUMPUR - Earlier on Wednesday, Malaysia's deputy defence minister told Parliament why the Royal Malaysian Air Force had failed to act on the fateful flight MH370 when it turned back and re-crossed the Malay Peninsula.

"We felt the turn back was by a friendly aircraft and the directive had come from the control tower," Mr Abdul Rahim Bakri was quoted as saying by Malaysiakini.

But when defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein was asked to comment on it at a daily press briefing later the same day, he was caught unprepared.

"Can you confirm that the air force didn't react to the MAS turnaround because they thought Subang (control tower) had ordered it?" asked a journalist.

"Sorry?" the minister asked for the question to be repeated before he answered: "No, I cannot confirm that."

There were other contradictions. On March 13, Mr Hishammuddin, who has been helming most of the press conferences in Kuala Lumpur as acting transport minister since the Malaysia Airlines jet vanished on March 8, dismissed reports that MH370 might have flown for some time after its last transmission of engine performance as "inaccurate".

But two days later, Malaysia premier Najib Razak confirmed that the plane had operated for some seven hours after making its last contact with air traffic controllers.

Such contradictions are likely to fuel more doubts over his credibility, some academics have noted.

"For Hishammuddin this is indeed another massive setback for his political career," said Dr Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, an assistant professor and coordinator of the Malaysia programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"He failed to show leadership in this current issue. In a party where strong leadership is essential, this might spell the end of his political career," Dr Nawab told Bloomberg.

Mr Hishammuddin's standing in his party, United Malays National Organisation (Umno) of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, was already challenged in last year's internal party election. He narrowly won the last of the three vice-president seats in Umno's internal polls, but some believed that another contender Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad, could have made a better vice-president.

Mr Hishammuddin's close ties to the ruling elites have also contributed to corrosive doubts about his competency among some observers. A French journalist, for one, has asked the minister to confirm if he was "protected" as the prime minister's cousin at the March 18 press briefing.

The 52-year-old is the son of Malaysia's third prime minister Hussein Onn, and the cousin of current prime minister Najib Razak.

"People are trying to find somebody to blame," said Mr Ahmad Rafdi Endut, senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia. "Given that he's the minister in charge of finding this airplane, people easily pinpoint his weaknesses.

"I believe he's doing as best as he could," the analyst told Bloomberg.

Nevertheless, Mr Hishammuddin's good sense and friendliness have won him compliments. He addressed many journalists by their names at the press briefings, and remained unfazed when confronted with a multitude of tough questions.

Mr Razali Ibrahim, deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Department, told Bloomberg that most party members agreed that Mr Hishammuddin has been handling the crisis well.

Malaysia's low-cost carrier AirAsia's boss Tony Fernandez also took to Twitter on March 23 to praise the minister for being "transparent" and "ever present".

"Seen lots in the aviation industry in my 12 years. This is unprecedented. @HishammuddinH2O must be given praise for his untiring efforts," Mr Fernandez wrote.