Flight MH370

Malaysia Airlines flight 370

Malaysian aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman the butt of criticism

Missing flight 370 has thrust little-known Malaysian bureaucrat Azharuddin Abdul Rahman into front line of a crisis, and he's struggled

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 5:13am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 3:03pm

The past week has been the toughest of Azharuddin Abdul Rahman's hitherto unremarkable career as Malaysia's civil aviation chief.

Once virtually unknown even in his own home country, Azharuddin was thrust into the international spotlight with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. He is leading the multinational search for the plane, which vanished without a trace eight days ago with 239 people aboard.

The Malaysian government officials who meander in and out of the search's media centre seem to know little about Azharuddin, other than that he worked as an air-traffic controller and rose up the ranks to become the chief of the Department of Civil Aviation. But they all agree on one thing: He's now in an unenviable position.

Besides facing the wrath of the missing passengers' family members, Azharuddin has been inundated with criticism from the international community and his own countrymen, who have grown infuriated by a week of confusing and contradictory statements about the search.

The toughest part of his routine has been the daily press conference at the media centre at Sama Sama Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

Faced with a barrage of increasingly hostile questions from the world's press, Azharuddin's introduction to media relations has been a baptism of fire.

His inexperience shone through when he made a bizarre reference to Italian footballer Mario Balotelli, as he tried to correct reports that two passengers travelling on stolen Italian and Austrian passports had looked "Asian".

These false reports led many to wonder how immigration officers in Kuala Lumpur had allowed Asian-looking men to go through customs using European passports.

When prompted on Monday to describe the pair's appearances based on CCTV footage, Azharuddin said: "Do you know a footballer by the name of [Balotelli]? He's an Italian. Do you know what he looks like?"

A reporter then asked: "Is he black?" The aviation minister replied: "Yes."

Balotelli is black, born to Ghanaian parents in Italy. Azharuddin was, however clumsily, trying to make a sensible point: that the colour of one's skin has no bearing on nationality.

But the damage was done, and the baffling analogy was reported to worldwide ridicule.

On another occasion, when asked about the widening search area and why certain areas were being looked at, he said enigmatically: "There are some things I can tell you, and some things I can't."

Azharuddin said he did not have time to grant an interview. However, other government officials defended a man they respect and whom they feel has been unfairly portrayed as incompetent by the foreign media.

"The stress is unimaginable," said one government official. "You have no idea what he's going through, no idea of the kind of things he has to deal with before he meets you [reporters]."

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said there was no communications structure when the search began.

Such a structure could have helped provide clear and non-contradictory information; it was only established "two or three" days after the search began, the official said. But even with this system supposedly in place, mixed messages continued to flow, apparently reflecting a lack of co-ordination between various players.

"You have one side [a government agency] saying one thing, and then you have people from the airlines saying another thing, and then you have someone from the army saying another thing, and you might have someone else say something else," the official said. "Then, you have the media speculating, so how is he [Azharuddin] supposed to do his job properly if other people give him the wrong information?"

The official also alluded to other parties wanting to seize the spotlight and refusing to play second fiddle to Azharuddin. However, he refused to elaborate.

Some members of the local media said it was unfair that Malaysia as a whole was being criticised over the lack of information about the search.

"I think this is the first time Malaysian citizens are aware who Azharuddin is," said local TV news presenter Shadila Abdul Malek. "Before this incident, even I had no idea who he was. I think he is doing his best, but I think there's something they are not telling us and that is probably because of security reasons.

"They should bring more of the media along to witness the search-and-rescue operations, so they can see how tough it is, and how it is not easy to find something in the sea," she said.

Another local journalist covering the search said the world's media had been too quick to judge Malaysia harshly.

"There are so many countries involved in the search mission. So, do they mean all the countries are useless since they can't find the plane? Even the US is involved," he said. "Do they know how hard the people involved in the mission are working? You have no idea until you go and see for yourself, OK?"

The director general of the Department of Information, Haji Ibrahim Abdul Rahman, also defended Malaysia's efforts.

" There was some conflicting information initially but now things have been streamlined," Ibrahim said. " From what we know, we can see the co-ordinated effort, and officials from the US and UK have commended the Department of Civil Aviation's efforts."

One Transport Ministry official said the human tragedy was being lost amid recriminations.

"It's not easy. Which country can ever be prepared for this? The people from MAS, they had friends and colleagues working as crew on the flight," he said. "You think we don't want to find out where the plane is? We are doing everything we can, but you cannot just keep pointing at one or two mistakes."

As pressure over the search mounted, some questioned why Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was not more prominent in the effort.

From last Wednesday, the lead role in the daily press briefings was taken by the prime minister's cousin, Hishammuddin Hussein, who is acting transport minister and defence minister.

Yet Hishammuddin's handling of the media has sometimes been just as cryptic as Azharuddin's.

When one reporter asked about confusion over misinformation regarding the search, Hishammuddin said: " It's only confusion it you want it to be seen as confusion."

Although the fate of the Boeing jet remains a hazy mystery, Malaysia's seeming inability to handle international scrutiny is devastatingly clear.