Malaysia’s missing-plane crisis has exposed the shortcomings of a ruling regime already wrestling with a rapidly shrinking support base, fierce racial divisions and international criticism of its tough handling of political opponents.
The same government has ruled since Malaysia’s birth in 1957, and political observers said its much-criticised response to the jet drama is symptomatic of years of institutional atrophy under an ethnic Malay elite known for cronyism.
Analysts said rancour over the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and its 239 people, two-thirds of whom were Chinese, could also complicate plans to draw closer to China -- Malaysia’s biggest trading partner and a growing source of tourist revenue.
“The general level of Malaysian political performance, competence and adequacy has plummeted,” said Clive Kessler, a Malaysia politics researcher at the University of New South Wales, who cites a “long, slow, protracted crisis of governance” over the past decade.
Experts stress that any country would struggle to cope with the plane’s baffling disappearance on March 8, and Malaysia denies mishandling it.
But allegations of incompetence and evasiveness have clearly unsettled the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) government.
Not used to being challenged
Barisan is unused to being challenged by Malaysia’s meek, state-dominated press and has basked in decades of admiration of Malaysia as an economically successful melting pot, despite longstanding criticism over policies that discriminate against non-Malay minorities.
But ashen-faced officials have been subjected to daily grillings by combative foreign media in daily briefings in sometimes tense scenes beamed live in Malaysia and around the world.
“This is not a good look for Malaysia. I do think that the Barisan government has done some serious damage to its international reputation,” said Michael Barr, an Asian politics expert at Australia’s Flinders University.
The affair also has trained attention on Barisan’s bruising political tactics, particularly its treatment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar, who accuses the government of hurling false criminal charges against him in a bid to halt the stunning recent successes of his opposition alliance, was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to five years in jail just hours before MH370 took off.
The verdict, denounced by rights groups and questioned by Washington, was dragged into the MH370 media glare after it was revealed that the flight’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a member of Anwar’s political party.
“With an international audience watching, this is showing that what (Malaysia’s government) thinks is acceptable here, is not at all tolerable by international standards,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics analyst at Singapore Management University.
Barisan is routinely rapped by anti-graft groups for widespread corruption and cronyism -- Transport and Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, the government’s face on MH370, is the cousin of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Even China’s opaque Communist Party leadership has criticised Malaysia’s perceived lack of transparency, while Chinese relatives of passengers angrily allege a cover-up.
Pragmatic Beijing is unlikely to upset mutually beneficial trade links, but the plane drama will certainly cause economic worry in Malaysia, said Welsh.
Exports to China have become critical to maintaining the growth Barisan banks on for support.
Bilateral trade has soared - up 11.8 per cent last year to US$106 billion, according to Chinese figures. Najib and China’s President Xi Jinping last year pledged still-cosier ties and targeted US$160 billion in trade by 2017.
The flow of Chinese tourists to Malaysia also has accelerated, hitting 1.8 million last year, up 15 per cent on-year, behind only Singaporean and Indonesian visitors.
“This will require a significant effort to rebuild Malaysia’s credibility abroad,” Welsh said of the potential economic impact.
“Once you lose it, it takes time to win back.”
The crisis comes at a bad time for the mild-mannered Najib, who launched a reform drive three years ago in a failed bid to shore up voter support. That has been abandoned under pressure from conservatives in his ruling party, and Najib appears weakened.
Malaysian voters have deserted Barisan at an accelerating pace over corruption, rule of law concerns, and a sense of drift.
Anwar’s opposition won more votes than Barisan in May last year elections but the ruling coalition retained parliament thanks to seat allocations that favour its rural Malay base.
In particular, Malaysia’s sizable Chinese community - whose industriousness is a critical component of growth - increasingly chafe under a decades-old system of preferences for Malays.
Racial tensions also have flared in recent months over disputes between the Muslim majority and Christian minority.
Analysts said Barisan could turn things around by successfully appealing to national unity amid the crisis - especially if the plane is found.
Hishammuddin outlined that hope Friday, saying the MH370 situation “cuts across race, cuts across religion and now it cuts across boundaries amongst Malaysians.”