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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 11:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 11:29pm

Missing plane drama puts spotlight back on Malaysian Grand Prix

Formula One race at Sepang circuit will come under unprecedented scrutiny

BIO

Tim Noonan has been crafting uniquely provocative columns for the SCMP and SMP for more than a decade. A native of Canada, he has over 20 years’ experience in Asia and has been a regular contributor to a number of prominent publications, including Time magazine, Forbes, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and The Independent.
 

It is certainly not the most high-profile race on the suddenly overcrowded Formula One calendar. But while it's not exactly Monaco, the Malaysia Grand Prix still offers some of the requisite F1 glamour and, however the significance of the event may be perceived outside of the country, it most definitely means a lot to Malaysia. Sporting or otherwise, it is the single most high-profile annual event held in the country.

And yet when the drivers are ready to roar out of the starting grid next Sunday at the Sepang International Circuit in front a global viewing audience, it's inevitable that many of those viewers will be asking how they can hold a big F1 carnival in Malaysia when they still haven't found the missing plane. On the surface it may seem somewhat insensitive, particularly as the aggrieved family members of the missing passengers and crew are being held hostage by the daily drama of the search, but the F1 tour has proven before that the show must go on. Unless something drastic happens in the next week, it's all systems go for the 16th edition of the Malaysia Grand Prix.

In 2011 the Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled because of ongoing and deadly protests. But with many of those issues still unresolved one year later, the race was back. In that context, cancelling the race in Malaysia because the timing may be somewhat insensitive is not going to happen. In fact at this stage, the Malaysian authorities would welcome any kind of distraction from the daily global scrutiny they are currently shrouded in. But if they think that the F1 media circus will descend on this place and write only racing stories they are sadly mistaken. Things will get only crazier in the next week or so and one can't help but feel not only for the victims of this tragic event but also their loved ones, who are now caught in the crossfire of the media onslaught.

All eyes will be on this year's event with global attention focused on Malaysia

When the first race was run back in 1999, it was something of a coup for Malaysia. None of their immediate neighbours was in on the gig and the only other race in Asia was in Japan. The brand new Sepang Circuit was hailed as one of the best by both drivers and fans. Today there are six races in Asia (including two in the Gulf region).

Perhaps the most devastating blow was when its southern neighbour Singapore started holding the very high-profile first night-time grand prix through the heart of the city in 2008. Once the gem on the southeast Asian sporting calendar, the Malaysia Grand Prix suddenly became something of an afterthought.

But rest assured, all eyes will be on this year's event with global attention focused on Malaysia like never before. The scrutiny Malaysian public officials are facing is unprecedented in a country where the ruling party has a hammerlock on the media. During another of the daily briefings this week on the status of Malaysia Air flight 370, acting transport minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein was stunned when French journalist Carrie Nooten asked him if the fact that he was the cousin of the prime minister meant he was "protected" despite, according to her and a growing number of pundits, making a number of mistakes in the investigation? Naturally the outrage amongst the compliant Malaysian media at the questioner was swift and harsh. Nooten's query was tantamount to the Spanish inquisition in a country rife with nepotism and lacking in transparency.

In many ways, the furore surrounding flight 370 has exposed not only the way things work in Malaysia but the way things work in Asia. The lack of co-operation among Malaysia and their neighbours in Thailand and Vietnam as well as China, where the majority of the passengers are from, is hardly a surprise considering the ongoing corruption and lack of transparency in those places. We live in Asia so we deal with it on a daily basis. But for many in the international media, this has been their first up close and personal look at how things operate in Malaysia, and to say the reaction has been unflattering would be an understatement.

The nepotism and cronyism that is rife in Malaysian politics is also endemic to the sporting associations in the country and goes a long way to explaining how a football-mad country of 30 million people is ranked only 141st in the world. Who knows what sort of bizarre twists the search for flight 370 will take within the next week? The only thing certain is that the global focus on Malaysia is about to get a whole lot more intense with the F1 circus coming to town this week.

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