Political Competition and a Missing Plane

Stock image of a MAS plane selected by Asian Currents

Today, Asian Currents published an op-ed I wrote on the Malaysian authorities’ behaviour in relation to MH370, and the relationship between this behaviour and the wider issue of public trust in the authorities after the contested 2013 election result. The full text is below.

Missing aircraft flies into the turbulence of Malaysian politics

BY

The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, writes AMRITA Malhi,  has become enmired in Malaysian politics.

On Saturday 8 March, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared.

The same weekend that the aircraft was reported missing, MP and opposition leader for the People’s Alliance coalition, Anwar Ibrahim, was sentenced to a second prison term for sodomy by the Court of Appeal. Anwar’s defence lawyer, fellow People’s Alliance MP Karpal Singh, was handed down a fine for sedition.

Both convictions are highly contentious: sodomy accusations have haunted Anwar for 15 years now, but there is no particular evidence that they are widely believed. Anwar’s history of being charged with the offence did not stop him from winning the popular vote in a general election nearly a year ago.

Yet even despite this historic election result—marking the first time the nearly 60-year-old National Front government failed to secure the popular vote—Anwar did not win government. The unequal weighting of rural seats against their urban counterparts in the Malaysian Parliament ensured that the National Front won the majority of seats. Malaysian politics has now taken on a hyper-competitive edge, as the National Front manoeuvres to respond to the very real possibility that it may not last indefinitely.

As a tactical defence against the federal government, Anwar announced that he would stand in last month’s by-election in Kajang, a seat in the state legislature for Selangor. One of three People’s Alliance-held states, Selangor is the wealthiest state in Malaysia, generating a quarter of the nation’s GDP. It is also the location of the multi-ethnic and heavily industrialised Kuala Lumpur–Kelang Valley urban conurbation. After Anwar announced his plan to run, the sodomy sentence appeared to have been hastened to disqualify him from doing so.

Building speculation

Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, stood instead and won comfortably, gaining 60 per cent of votes cast. Her move, too, was tactical. Azizah has previously contested and won parliamentary seats which she has later given up for Anwar when he has requalified to stand in a by-election. Azizah is also poised to win the position of President of the People’s Justice Party, the backbone of the People’s Alliance coalition. Indeed, speculation is building that her only competitor—her husband Anwar—is going to withdraw his candidacy; again, tactically, this move may be more prudent with his sodomy appeal hearing pending in the Federal Court. This is because the Malaysian Attorney-General, Abdul Gani Patail, has responded to Anwar’s appeal by lodging a cross-appeal, which seeks to increase Anwar’s penalty beyond the five years he faces now.

Custody of the black box is likely to emerge as a key Malaysian government priority as soon as it is located.

Lately, Abdul Gani has also been in London, in discussions as to which sovereign government will be able to claim custody of the aircraft’s black box if and when it is finally found. Currently, Australia, under retired Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, is leading the search and recovery mission. Yet the aircraft, a Boeing 777, is registered in Malaysia and owned by the Malaysian Airline System.

Custody of the black box is likely to emerge as a key Malaysian government priority as soon as it is located. It is likely to hold information that is essential to the authorities’ efforts to convince China that this crash has not been caused by its own administration failing to protect Chinese citizens onboard.

Likewise, it is likely to be crucial to stemming widespread mistrust in the government by the Malaysian voting public, around 54 per cent of whom believe the government is hiding information on the flight’s disappearance, according to a survey taken by the Merdeka Centre. An additional 20 per cent were not sure whether the government was being honest or not. This is the same voting public which, only last year, delivered the largest electoral blow to the government in the nation’s postcolonial history. It is also the same public which has taken to the lightly regulated internet in large numbers.

The Malaysian public also uses the internet to engage in debate and discussion—much of it highly critical of the government—and to subject the government to a loosely networked form of public scrutiny. Online media fora such as Malaysiakini’s website and Facebook page frequently host uncensored and irreverent comment sections. Now, that capacity for debate appears to be in the government-linked Utusan Melayu newspaper’s sights: it has openly criticised Malaysiakini’s comment section three times in the past week alone. Its remarks come after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad commented publicly that the internet would be censored if he became Prime Minister again.

Factional competition

Such speculation is unsurprising given many observers do not expect Prime Minister Najib Razak to survive long for after last year’s election result. Media sources have frequently pointed to factional competition within the United Malays National Organisation—the principal party inside the National Front—as the likely source for Najib’s demise. Other factional players are also present in this contest, including organisations that take up nationalistic causes which the National Front is said to ‘outsource’ to them—such as a group called Perkasa, and a constellation of NGOs whose memberships may really be subsets of UMNO.

MH370 is a new element in the contest. Pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a member of the People’s Justice Party, had built a flight simulator, which police have seized at his home. Media reports have claimed that police suspect him of deliberately switching off the aircraft’s communication systems, in line with Hishamuddin’s stated belief that the plane was taken off course by deliberate human action.

The People’s Justice Party has refuted a claim that Zaharie was a ‘political fanatic’ who might have been motivated by the Anwar court verdict. Yet the Inspector-General of Police has confirmed that investigations are being carried out under Section 130C of the penal code, which deals with hijacking, terrorism and sabotage. He has also cited the Security Measures (Special Offences) Act, related to security and public order, and the Aviation Offences Act. Data on the black box may be found to assist these investigations.

Claims of political motivations could begin to surface in connection with Zaharie and, by extension, the People’s Alliance and Anwar. Nevertheless, whatever moves his family and party members make to secure his position, it seems that coming months will force the pace of broader leadership development in the party he leads.

In this climate, it is extremely difficult to make any predictions, or to perpetuate a belief that Malaysian politics always follow the same old script. This is a changed, and changing, Malaysia; but nobody knows exactly how. Only two things are certain: right now, there is no longer a secure Malay Muslim electoral consensus operating in Malaysia; and, as a result, Malaysian politics are in a hyper-competitive phase whose novelty must be acknowledged.

First published by Asian Currents, bulletin of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.

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