Posted: 20 Mar 2014 01:05 AM PDT
At a coffee shop in Bangsar, an affluent Kuala Lumpur suburb, the lunchtime crowd gossips and checks the news on their smartphones. Making the rounds is a YouTube video in which a bomoh — a local shaman — and two acolytes, sitting on a "magic carpet" in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, perform a ritual to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing since March 8.
At any other time the video, a perfect example of Malaysian self-mockery, would be a good-natured affirmation of our eccentric shortcomings. But these aren't ordinary times. The search for Flight 370 has spotlighted the tensions beneath one of Asia's success stories, and the video is an uncomfortable reminder of Malaysia's troubled reality.
A British colony until 1957, Malaysia now has a G.D.P. per capita of over $10,000, roughly twice that of Thailand and three times that of Indonesia. Cesar Pelli's glorious Petronas Twin Towers, briefly the tallest buildings in the world, illuminate the Kuala Lumpur skyline. In the adjoining mall, Western luxury brands are peddled to a booming middle class. Malaysia Airlines, whose fleet boasts the gigantic Airbus A380 and is one of a handful of 5-star-rated airlines, is central to the branding of this "New Malaysia."
Yet confidence in our leadership is brittle, and it takes little for frustrations to boil over. A coalition known as Barisan Nasional, or BN, led by the United Malays National Organization (the country's ethnic-Malay governing party), has held power since independence, presiding over both economic growth and controversial policies that confer significant advantages in education, business and government on ethnic Malays, who make up some 60 percent of the population. The BN's dominance has prompted allegations of corruption, cronyism and complacency, particularly regarding government-owned companies, such as Malaysia Airlines, which posted losses of over $350 million in 2013. Kuala Lumpur and Penang have seen dramatic rises in crime over the past decade. Some critics fault the BN's policies for alienating minority groups and point to its seeming inability to manage a police force widely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual.
Support for the government is eroding, but critics say that attempts to effect change are frequently stifled. A day before Flight 370 disappeared, Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's opposition leader, was convicted on the rarely used charge of sodomy and sentenced to five years in prison. Many see the decision, which overturns a previous acquittal, as politically motivated. It leaves him ineligible to run in an approaching election in Selangor, the country's richest and most populous state, where victory would have afforded him considerable national influence.
Most people I speak to here acknowledge that an incident like the disappearance of Flight 370 is unprecedented and say they appreciate the monumental task facing the government. For many, however, the authorities' ponderous response and mishandling of information mirror the way Malaysia is run. The offhand, sometimes defensive nature of the early press conferences, coupled with occasional attacks on the foreign media, are widely perceived as the arrogance of a government unaccustomed to global attention and accountability.
In addition to showcasing the country's internal vulnerabilities, the disappearance of Flight 370 has underlined China's increasing influence on Malaysia. That two-thirds of the passengers on Flight 370 were Mainland Chinese underscores the strength of current ties.
The impact of China's economic rise is striking. Last October, a treaty signed by China's president, Xi Jinping, elevated relations between the two countries to a "comprehensive strategic partnership" aimed at increasing military cooperation and tripling bilateral trade to $160 billion by 2017. Today, China is Malaysia's largest trading partner; Malaysia is China's third most important Asian market after Japan and South Korea.
This is a marked reversal of the longstanding distrust of the People's Republic. From 1948 to 1960, Malaysia waged a bitter struggle with communist insurgents, many of them ethnic Chinese, and the conflict deepened racial tensions. Beijing, widely seen to be supporting the rebels, was regarded with suspicion as the specter of communism haunted relations long after the insurgency ended. Travel to China was restricted until the early 1990s.
These days the picture looks very different. Tourists from Mainland China are encouraged to come spend their cash in the shopping malls of Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Young Malaysian filmmakers are finding Chinese financing for their projects. Rich Malaysians are adding works by Chinese artists to their collections.
But some people fear Malaysia's handling of the Flight 370 tragedy will damage blossoming socioeconomic ties. Two days after the jetliner disappeared, the frustrated Chinese government tersely demanded that Malaysian authorities "step up their efforts" to find the missing plane. How China, caught between anger and grief, exerts its considerable influence in the days and weeks to come will hint at its long-term strategy in the region.
In Malaysia, the expression "Malaysia Boleh," which translates roughly to "Malaysia Can Do It," or "Go, Malaysia," is invoked to celebrate even the tiniest national achievement. It reflects a fragile self-confidence, revealing Malaysia's sense of itself as superficially advanced but secretly lacking. It tacitly acknowledges that skyscrapers and luxury malls cannot mask the gap between rich and poor (the widest in Southeast Asia), persistent ethnic tensions, a fraught democracy, and a wave of high-profile violent crimes.
Like many in Kuala Lumpur, I scrutinize every scrap of information relating to Flight 370. I am gripped by the story, not only because hundreds of lives are involved, but because of what its outcome will mean to perceptions of Malaysia. As Malaysia navigates this tragedy in the glare of the world's gaze, I anxiously await news of the plane and its passengers, and clues to the country's evolution in the years ahead.
Posted: 19 Mar 2014 09:00 PM PDT
Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the pilot of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, is not an extremist, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Wednesday.
“He supports our multi-racial coalition. He supports democratic reform. He is against any form of extremism,” Anwar said of Zaharie, whom he said he has met “on a number of occasions.” “And we take a very strong position in clamoring for change through constitutional and democratic means.”
Pilot was ‘against any form of extremism’
With frustratingly few answers about the fate of Flight 370 nearly two weeks after it disappeared, some have starting probing the possible political inclinations of crew members.
Anwar, who has been the target of ongoing attacks from the ruling government, constitutes the main Malaysian opposition.
Some have tried to tie Zaharie to Anwar as a family relation.
Anwar’s press secretary told CNN that Zaharie is the opposition leader’s – wait for it – son’s wife’s mother’s father’s brother’s son.
“What my daughter-in-law told me is that he is a family member, not too close, but she calls him ‘uncle,’ which is quite common here,” Anwar said. “But I know him… basically as a party activist.”
There have been reports in Malaysian media that just hours before the plane took off on March 8, Shah attended a hearing for Anwar, who was sentenced to five years in jail after a court overturned his 2012 acquittal on a sodomy charge.
“He was not in the court,” Anwar said. “He may have been outside in the premises of the court, because the court has a limited capacity. But from what I gather, from many of our colleagues, nobody actually saw him in the premises of the court.”
Could Zaharie have had a particularly strong reaction to the sentencing of the party leader to which he was a devotee?
Did pilot react to court ruling?
“I gathered later from many of his colleagues and from what is written about him that he was disturbed – many others were disturbed. I mean, we were shocked and appalled by the speed of the process of the court of appeal.”
“But I think that’s quite normal. I don’t think it’s something that would trigger a person of his expertise, caliber, to do any unwanted activity. I am absolutely certain of that.”
Most theories about the fate of Flight 370 now point to the plane turning back over the Malaysian peninsula after its initial heading northwest towards its final destination, Beijing.
Malaysian officials should have been able to detect the plane if it flew back west, Anwar said.
Malaysia radar ‘had the capability’
“When they procured that Radar Marconi system in that Northern corridor, I happened to be the finance minister,” he told Amanpour. “They had the capability to detect any flight from the west – or from the east to the west coast, from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.”
The Malaysian government has become the target of passionate anger from the families of the missing passengers, who have gotten few answers about the fate of their loved ones.
“I find it shocking that (the government officials) are not able, that they were not able, or they give some very scanty sort of information.”
“The problem is credibility of the leadership. They are culpable because there is a general perception that they are not opening up, that there is an opaque system at work.”
Malaysian officials have defended their handling of the crisis, stressing that the situation is unprecedented.
“This is not a normal investigation,” Hishammuddin Hussein, the country’s defense and transport minister, said last week.
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