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MH370 and its political repercussions

Published on Jun 6, 2014 3:32 PM
A man stands in front of a billboard in support of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 as Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have a meeting at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 23, 2014. It is now three months since MH370 disappeared from both civilian and military radar. -- PHOTO: AFP

It is now three months since MH370 disappeared from both civilian and military radar.   News about the flight's disappearance is still heard, but only every now and then.  The Malaysian government used to hold daily briefings for the press.  That too is no longer the case.  The flight is certainly still remembered, but not as prominently as before.

It is now well known that the flight diverted from its path within hours of departing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014, heading to Beijing.  It was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, from 14 different countries.

Although the flight was from Kuala Lumpur, there were only 50 Malaysians on board.  Two thirds of the passengers were Chinese citizens.  So it is not surprising that the incident strained diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China.

In fact, the relationship was tested to the extent that Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak felt necessary to appease Beijing. During an official visit to Beijing last month, he repeatedly emphasised the importance of China to Malaysia, and went on to praise China for providing support for the MH370 search effort.

The search is the biggest in aviation history.  At least 26 countries have provided assistance in various forms.  This is unprecedented in Malaysian, and probably world, history.  Never before have so many countries worked together in this fashion.

But MH370's impact should not be examined just at the level of regional and international politics.  Its disappearance has implications for Malaysian domestic politics too.

The most obvious political victim of the tragedy is opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his party, the PKR.  Anwar was supposed to contest a by-election in the state of Selangor on March 23, 2014.  If he won, he would have become the state's Chief Minister.  But on March 7, Malaysia's Court of Appeal decided to overturn Anwar's acquittal from his 2012 sodomy charges, and handed him a five year jail sentence instead.  The verdict meant that Anwar could not run in the by-election.

Immediately after the verdict, his supporters started talking about holding nationwide protests.  But MH370's disappearance just a day after the verdict meant that anyone organising protest rallies risk being labelled inconsiderate.  Thus, there was no serious backlash against the government, despite the many questions raised about the way the judges conducted the appeal process.

Maybe I am being rather insensitive in saying this, but, there is also actually a winner in this tragedy.  That winner is Hishammuddin Hussein. He is one of the three vice-presidents of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) party. He is also Malaysia's Defence Minister and acting Minister of Transport.

Mr Hishammuddin was previously the Home Affairs Minister.  He was made Defence Minister and acting Transport Minister after the May 2013 general elections.  Another Umno vice president, Zahid Hamidi, took over as Home Minister. And he soon became popular among Malay nationalists for his strong views on race and religion.

Mr Hishammuddin's star was gradually dimming in the aftermath of the general elections, while Mr Zahid was being talked about as a potential contender for Umno's deputy presidency and therefore deputy Prime Minister.

But MH370 catapulted Mr Hishammuddin back to the limelight.  Suddenly he was in the news every day and night, handling an issue that was extremely important for Malaysia's international reputation.  

Admittedly there have been times when he should have handled things better.  Some people even accused the Malaysian government of trying to cover up certain facts and not being sufficiently transparent.  Mr Hishammuddin received the brunt of those criticisms.

Compared to international benchmarks, perhaps some aspects of these criticisms were fair.  But compared to the standards of a typical Malaysian politician, Mr Hishammuddin was actually doing very well.  Most of the time he was calm, composed and measured in his responses to reporters.  And he was much more open and transparent than other ministers have been recently.

People started to compare Mr Hishammuddin with Mr Zahid. Mr  Zahid is definitely a high-profile Malay street fighter. But some observers have questioned the extent to which he has the personality to make a good deputy prime minister who could eventually become prime minister.    

Compared to Mr Hishammuddin's performance when faced with difficult questions on MH370, Mr Zahid's star suddenly does not look that bright anymore.

This is particularly important because there is a silent, and yet unverified, rumour that Mr Muhyiddin Yassin, the current deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president, is thinking about retiring from active politics before the next general election.  If the deputy presidency of Umno becomes vacant, the two most obvious contestants would be Mr Zahid and Mr Hishammuddin.

Mr Hishammuddin was re-elected as Umno vice president in October 2013 with the lowest number of votes among the three VPs.  Mr Zahid won the most votes, almost twice that of Mr Hishammuddin.  But Mr Hishammuddin is now building a reputation as an astute leader that can be trusted to speak for Malaysia in the international arena.

Therefore it is not surprising that many Umno observers are quietly asking if the MH370 tragedy could eliminate Mr Zahid's lead in Umno in favour of Mr Hishammuddin.  Only time will tell.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of Malaysia's Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (