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Malaysia 2014: Reforms and challenges in the year of flight MH370

  1. Introduction

In 2014, Malaysian politics were largely determined by the general election of the year before, in which Prime Minister Najib Razak’s governing alliance, the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN), led by Najib Razak’s party, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO, or United Malays National Organisation), finally achieved a majority.

Yet despite its victory, the BN faced some serious challenges. The first of them was the matter of the popular vote. The Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance, PR), an electoral coalition of three opposition parties, won 50.7% of the popular vote against 47.38% won by the BN.[1] The second challenge was the deepening rural-urban split. Whereas the former tended to vote for the opposition, the latter tended to support the ruling alliance. Third, there was another gap highlighted by the 2013 elections that was potentially even more divisive: ethnicity. The ethnic Malay majority (the Bumiputera or «sons of the soil») solidly supported the BN, but the economically powerful minorities in Malaysia, particularly the Chinese, were now solidly anti-BN.[2] In a country where 73% of the population lives in towns,[3] and where the minority communities’ dislike of the BN government is steadily growing, only two factors allowed the BN to retain the majority of seats in the federal parliament: the distribution of parliamentary seats, which are heavily weighted towards rural, as opposed to urban, areas, and the growing importance of Eastern Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah), whose major regional parties are aligned with the BN.

With the votes of the rural Bumiputera and the support from the regional parties in Eastern Malaysia, the BN was able to win 133 seats, which were 22 more than the «magic number» necessary to rule in a parliament of 222 seats.[4] Although the election provided Najib with electoral legitimacy, protests arose from the opposition and from many civil society organizations, particularly in Kuala Lumpur. The protestors not only denounced the electoral system, but alleged electoral fraud and refused to accept the election results. Although these allegations could not be conclusively proven, they made the political situation extremely tense during the second half of 2013.

As a result of all of this, many Malaysians have lost faith in the political system. Although the first-past-the-post electoral system can easily lead to a disconnect between the popular vote and the seats won, in Malaysia, UMNO-dominated governments have caused this disconnect to occur more frequently by gerrymandering electoral boundaries.

The 2013 election also exacerbated ethnic divisions within Malaysia. For example, in the rural Malay heartland, the BN consciously branded itself as pro-Malay, and by extension, anti-minority. It seemed to be shaking off its commitment to ethnic harmony that had, in the wake of the bloody ethnic riots of the late-1960s, led the UNMO, in an attempt to mollify ethnic minority opinion, to form the BN in the first place.

This situation was not helped by the poor electoral showing of the ethnic Chinese parties within the BN. Increasingly frequent and vociferous anti-Chinese remarks now began to appear in Malay-language newspapers that actively supported the UMNO. Even Prime Minister Razak made no bones about blaming the Chinese for the BN’s electoral shortfall. Stoking ethnic politics in this way does not bode well for Malaysian political stability, as it might well revive tensions that have been dormant for the last 40 years or more. Besides the fallout of the 2013 election, in 2014, Malaysian politics was marked by the reemergence of the Anwar Ibrahim affair. The Kuala Lumpur Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal of the leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, on the charge of sodomy. Curiously, and conveniently for the BN, this decision came just as Anwar was about to contest an important by-election on 23 March. An Anwar victory would have paved the way for him to become the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Selangor, thus giving him a power base in the richest state of Peninsular Malaysia, which was already an opposition stronghold.

Yet even this was almost immediately upstaged by breaking news of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. While the whole MH370 incident is beyond the remit of this article, we must deal with it in passing, because it has had a considerable impact on Malaysia, both internally, and in the world arena. But first, let us examine the Malaysian economy in 2014.

  1. The Economy: robust growth and reforms

The forecast for the Malaysian economy in the year 2014 was good, and the growth registered for the period was surprisingly high, particularly in the first two quarters. The Malaysian GDP grew at a rate of 6.2% in the first quarter, and the second quarter registered even higher growth – 6.4%.[5]Among Southeast Asian economies, Malaysia tied the Philippines for the highest growth in the second quarter of the year.[6] Third quarter growth, though lower, was still respectable, at 5.6%.[7]The Malaysian Central Bank thus predicted a growth between 5.5 and 6.0% for the whole of 2014 and between 5.0 and 6.0% for 2015. However, some independent observers think that this prediction is too optimistic. One of these experts, Michael Wan, of Credit Suisse in Singapore, said: «Our expectation is that [in] 2015 [the Malaysian] GDP will continue to disappoint the consensus. We are calling for a below consensus number of 4.8 percent next year».[8]

The good economic results of the previous years had a positive impact on the Malaysian economy as a whole. Decisions such as the removal of fuel subsidies, the pending roll-out of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the introduction of new social safety nets allowed more spending, which promoted sustainable and equitable medium-term growth. While private domestic demand is expected to remain strong, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said the country would need «steadfast implementation» of some structural reforms to achieve high-income status by 2020.[9]On the whole, in recent years, the Malaysian economy has done relatively well, despite the global crisis.

Malaysia’s increasing national debt, however, concerned the Razak government. The national debt reached 53% of GDP in 2012, the highest level in 18 years.[10] In 2013, a central government program meant to reduce the debt was not completely successful, and Malaysian debt remained high, oscillating between 52 to 55% of GDP.[11] Meanwhile, in 2013, the deficit went down from 4.5% to 3.9%, in accordance with the government target. The goal was to further reduce the deficit to 3.5% or less in 2014 and to 3% in 2015, before achieving a balanced budget by 2020. Malaysia’s tax and subsidization reforms point to the likelihood of more deficit reduction in the coming years, an outcome that was not foreseen just a year ago.

The debt problem is partially due to the state’s unproductive and mainly politically-driven expenses, such as farm subsidies. However, the main problem is the narrow tax base. In October 2014, Razak announced that a new goods and services tax (GST), which had been debated by the Malaysian political élite since 1992, was going to be implemented by April 2015. This tax, initially set at 6%, is intended to modernize Malaysia’s tax system, thus sending a strong signal to international ratings agencies, such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. Najib announced the GST in the 2014 budget.

Under the current system, oil royalties and income tax payments make up the bulk of the annual federal revenue, accounting for 30% and 58%, respectively. The recent plummeting of oil prices has been a major cause of concern for Kuala Lumpur. There have been increasing calls for tax reforms aimed at reducing Malaysia’s dependency on fickle oil prices. Impelling these calls are some gloomy forecasts predicting the depletion of the country’s oil and gas reserves within a few years. Compounding this problem is the statistic that, out of a Malaysian workforce of about 12 million, only 14% (1.7 million) pay income tax. Of course, this points to a thriving ‘black’ economy, which is estimated to account for between 25% and 30% of the GDP.[12] It is hoped that the GST will help to broaden the government’s tax base as the economy expands. In addition, export items will be exempted from the GST, so that they can remain competitive in the international market.

Malaysian economic analysts are not generally in favor of the government’s projected increasing reliance on a regressive measure like the GST. This is because the income disparity between the rich and the poor in Malaysia is one of the highest in the world. Where 0 represents perfect equality and 1 represents perfect inequality, Malaysia ranked as high as 0.46 in 2012. This made Malaysia 36th in the world for inequality and first in Asia.[13]

The 2015 budget, which was unveiled on 10 October 2014, will be the last one under the 10th five-year-plan. It is seen as very important for paving the way to the next – or 11th – five-year plan. There is a lot riding on the 11th plan, because, by its completion in 2020, Kuala Lumpur hopes the country will join the ranks of the developed world. The Najib government also plans to reduce the overall bill for subsidies and cash assistance by 7% from RM (Malaysian Ringgit) 40.6 billion to RM 37.7 billion in 2015.[14] The IMF has repeatedly requested this cut. Furthermore, Najib announced that the bulk of the tax surplus generated by the introduction of the GST (RM 4.9 billion on a total balance of 5.6 billion) will be used for assistance and welfare programs aimed at poverty reduction. The government thus intends to mitigate the regressive nature of the new GST. Such a program is not new. In 2012, Najib launched «1Malaysia People’s Aid», which distributed RM 500 million to families earning less than RM 3000 monthly.[15] In February 2013, a revised scheme, 1Malaysia People’s Aid 2.0, was implemented, which aimed to distribute more than RM 2.5 billion to 5.7 million Malaysians.[16] These schemes, seen as an election ploy, constituted Najib’s attempt to lessen the impact of the rising cost of living on lower income Malaysians.

These programs are not without their critics. One of the most trenchant is the eminence grise of the Najib government: none other than former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. To Mahathir, the schemes are ultimately unproductive, because they do nothing to equip people with the skills that could help them to look after themselves.[17] Progressive and non-Malay sectors have also criticized Najib’s pro-poor policies. They claim that 1Malaysia and the other connected schemes are just a way of distributing money to the UMNO’s potential electors.[18] Because most Malaysian poor people live in overwhelmingly Malay rural areas, these policies mostly favor the UMNO’s main vote bank. The states that stand to gain the most from the 1Malaysia People’s Aid policy are the two poorest – Sabah and Sarawak. Yet these states have become essential for the Najib government’s survival. The urban poor of the states of Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Perak, however, have not benefited from 1Malaysia People’s Aid and have increasingly voted against the BN. The fact that most of them are ethically Indian or Chinese only heightens the ethnic divide in Malaysian politics.[19]

As has been already alluded to in this article, there has recently been a significant ramping-up of tension between the ethnic and religious communities in Malaysia. Bluntly put, the ethnic Malay majority is actively pursuing xenophobic policies. To quote a 2014 investigative report by the news network Al-Jazeera:

«Race and religion are used on a daily basis to rupture the relationships between the three ethnic groups. Today, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, there is very little intermingling between Malays, Indians and Chinese. The country now has Malay teachers telling their third, fourth and fifth generation Malaysian-born Chinese and Indian students to go back to where their forefathers came from and as time goes by, the Chinese and Indians are finding themselves increasingly politically and economically crowded out of their home».[20]

  1. The Judiciary vs. Anwar Ibrahim: the never-ending saga

Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Malaysian opposition, has been fighting charges of sodomy and corruption for more than 16 years. Once considered the rising star of Malaysia’s most influential political party, the UNMO, Anwar served as Finance Minister from 1991 to 1998 and was the deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998. Thereafter, he began a political struggle against then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. Due to his popularity among many sectors of Malaysian society, such as the urban middle class and minorities, Anwar represented a serious challenge to the undisputed power of the UMNO and its leader, Mahathir. This is why Mahathir engineered Anwar’s expulsion from the UMNO in 1998. Soon after his expulsion from the UMNO, Anwar Ibrahim was charged with the serious offences of corruption and sodomy. Many in Malaysia felt that these allegations were part of a UMNO plan to persecute Anwar.[21] The case triggered much criticism against Mahathir’s Government, both internally and abroad. Soon after his dismissal from the government and from the party, Anwar found himself in jail. He was later convicted and sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment for corruption and to another 6 years for having had sex with a male (homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia). He spent 5 years in jail before an appeal court in 2004 partially overturned the sentence for sodomy. Anwar was free. However, his corruption conviction stipulated that he be banned from politics for an additional five years. Eventually, in 2008, he was able to return to the political arena. But now, he faced new allegations.

During his years of imprisonment and banishment from active politics, Anwar became the icon of a protest movement named Reformasi, which demanded that the institutional and political system of the country be substantially reformed. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, launched a new party, the National Justice Partywhich later became the People’s Justice Party (PKR). She contested the 1999 election, while her husband was in jail, and was able to retain the seat formerly held by him. After the formation of a broad coalition of opposition parties, the People’s Alliance or People’s Pact (Pakatan Rakyat, PR), she was able to run in the 2008 election before her husband returned to active politics.

On 29 June 2008, an allegation of sodomy was once again moved against Anwar Ibrahim, when his former aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, lodged a police report claiming that Anwar had sodomized him. Anwar emphatically denied the accusation and claimed that it was undoubtedly a government attempt to discredit and humiliate him, thereby removing him from the leadership of the opposition and trying to put a dent in PR’s growing popularity.[22] During the trial that followed, Anwar’s legal team produced medical reports discrediting the prosecution’s case, and these were sufficient to acquit Anwar. Finally free from legal proceedings, Anwar was now able to run in the 2013 general election as a prime ministerial candidate. With Anwar at the helm, the PR obtained the majority of the popular vote. But unfortunately, this did not translate into a majority of parliamentary seats. After the election results were announced, Anwar refused to acknowledge them and led a huge and loud, but ultimately ineffective, protest movement.

The most recent event in Anwar’s ongoing tribulations occurred in March 2014. At the time, Anwar was contesting a by-election in Kajang in Selangor state.[23] The ‘Kajang move’ was Anwar’s attempt to get elected to the Selangor state parliament. A successful bid could, Anwar felt, open up the possibility for him to become Selangor’s Menteri Besar, thereby replacing the current Menteri, Khalid Ibrahim, who was a PKR member, and Anwar’s political rival. During this campaign, however, Anwar disavowed the idea of replacing Khalid, going so far as to say that the PR was proud of Khalid’s sound and «frugal» administration of Selangor.[24]

But ill-luck dogged Anwar: On 7 March 2014, the Kuala Lumpur Court of Appeal overturned Anwar’s acquittal on the sodomy charge, and in the subsequent re-trial, convicted him again to a five-year prison term. According to the Court of Appeal, the judgement of the High Court was invalid, as it had unjustly excluded DNA samples taken from the aide allegedly sodomized by Anwar.

Anwar immediately appealed the sentence and avoided jail by posting a RM 10,000 bail. He also told the press in no uncertain terms that the re-trial was politically-motivated.[25] After the judges predictably convicted Anwar, he shouted at them: «You have got want you wanted».[26]

The guilty verdict provoked the predictable criticism by the Malaysian opposition. Soon after, Anwar and his wife launched the Reformasi 2.0 protests to decry the use of justice for political ends in Malaysia. Despite its initial popularity, this protest has had a more limited impact than in the past.

Internationally, as well, Anwar’s conviction has been met with skepticism. According to Phil Robertson, the Deputy Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, the trial was «politically-motivated…[and] all about  knocking Anwar Ibrahim out of politics and the government was prepared to do whatever it took to make that happen».[27] Robertson added: «Anwar and his family appear [to be] caught in a never-ending nightmare of his political adversaries’ making, with the courts [acting] as the instrument of his political execution. It’s truly a dark day for the Malaysian judiciary which has shown itself incapable of standing up straight when national political issues are in play in cases before them».[28] Former US Vice President Al Gore, who, on many occasions, had criticized the never-ending judiciary case against Anwar, now wrote an article sharply critical of this latest conviction. According to him:

«It is extremely disturbing that the government of Malaysia – by continuing to press this case beyond the bounds of reason, let alone the bounds of justice – has used the courts to short-circuit the political process. […] By behaving in the manner it did, the court has, of course, invited speculation by reasonable friends of Malaysia in the rest of the world that its independence of judgment and judicial temperament have been influenced by political fear of, and intimidation by, the individuals now in control of executive power in Kuala Lumpur».[29]

The appeal hearing, initially scheduled for 28 October 2014, was then postponed indefinitely. On 7 November, Chief Justice Tun Arifin bin Zakaria said: «In view of the facts submitted, we will require some time. We will postpone to a date to be fixed».[30] In the meantime, however, Malaysia is in a state of uncertainty.

  1. The Kajang move and the future of the opposition

The Anwar case has huge ramifications for the Malaysian political opposition – the PR. This is due as much to its internal dynamics as to the continued persecution of its leader. The PR is an odd alliance of three parties representing different classes and having differing visions for the future of the country. Anwar’s PKR has a mostly urban and educated Malay following. The PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), on the other hand, is an Islamist Party with a strongly conservative base, and the DAP (Democratic Action Party) has a secular and Chinese following. Until now, Anwar’s charisma and his legal troubles have kept these parties together, despite their differences. However, their divisions are increasing. After the March sentence, Anwar was sidelined again, abruptly halting the ‘Kajang move’. This led to political infighting within the PR coalition in Selangor. Eventually, the PKR was able to put forward Wan Azizah as the PR candidate in the Kajang by-election, which she won with a majority of 5,379. In August, the Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim, of Selangor, was sacked by his own party due to corruption allegations. Khalid, with the support of the Sultan of Selangor, who is constitutionally the chief of the State, tried to resist this move. But Khalid was finally forced to resign on 26 August 2014. At that point, the PKR and the DAP proposed that Wan Azizah should be the next Menteri Besar. The Sultan resisted this move and was supported by the Islamist PAS. Eventually, the Sultan decided to appoint Azmin Ali, a PKR representative with PAS support. Azmin was also able to secure DAP support and duly became the new Selangor Menteri Besar.

This was a definite setback for Anwar, because it stymied his effort to gain the Selangor’s highest seat for his wife. More importantly, the outcome of the Kajang move highlighted problems within the PR, especially the increasing tensions between its constituent parties – the PAS, the DAP and the PKR. The PAS was not at all comfortable with the Kajang move, ostensibly because of its dislike of dynastic politics, but more probably, because it was uncomfortable that the PR’s candidate was a relatively liberal Muslim woman – Wan Azizah.[31]

Internally, the PAS has faced some serious issues. While it has a modernist leadership, the PAS depends on a conservative base. Moreover, this powerbase is concentrated in the northeastern states of mainland Malaysia. The party has governed Kelantan state since 1971, which has a mainly Malay population which is 95% Muslim.[32] Many laws enacted by the PAS government in Kelantan have been openly based on local interpretations of the sharia’a. These moves have been strongly resisted by the state’s ethnic minorities, especially the Chinese, as well as by secular parties, such as the DAP. Shari’a-type laws were also introduced in the years 2008-13 by the PAS-led PR government of Kedah state. The PAS’s coalition partners criticized these moves, and the ensuing disunity between them most probably led to the PK’s defeat in the 2013 State elections, which brought the BN back to power. The Chinese and Indian voters, who mainly support the DAP, are becoming increasingly worried about the rising Islamisation in Malaysian society.

However, the major fracture affecting the PR Pakatan Rakyat seems to be within the PAS itself, not only in Kelantan, but in Malaysia as a whole. After joining hands with the DAP and the PKR in the 2008 general elections, the fissures within the party came into the open. During the 2011 party convention, Mohamad Sabu, a moderate candidate considered close to Anwar, successfully challenged the conservative, ulama-backed leader, Nasharudin Isa. This lessened the rift between the PAS and the other two parties in the PR. Sabu also tried to attract the non-Muslim vote in the 2013 general elections. However, the divisions re-emerged after the Kajang episode. The new leadership has come under heavy fire from the conservative wing of the party and is in danger of losing part of the PAS’s traditionally rural support for the UMNO, which is mounting a concerted effort to win the Muslim vote.

A confirmation of Anwar’s conviction will probably signal the end of his political career, as he will be 77 by the time he can re-enter politics. Therefore, it is only natural that PR politicians are now jockeying for position, anticipating a leadership race in the event of Anwar’s eclipse as the chief of the opposition.

  1. The strange case of flight MH370: political and diplomatic consequences

Like it or not, anyone who wants to analyze 2014 in Malaysian politics cannot ignore an event, that, at first sight, does not appear to be political at all. This is the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. It vanished on the night of 8 March 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. At the time, the disappearance was headline news worldwide, and the fact that, even now, almost a full year later, there is no sign of it, only compounds the mystery. The MH370 affair has also severely dented the international image that Malaysia was trying to promote as a fast-growing and efficient country. Moreover, it exposed some of the inefficiencies of Malaysia’s administration, such as the lack of transparency in its institutional and political set-up, as well as the absence of an efficient official communication strategy. It also gave rise to many disturbing doubts about the political system as a whole. Although, given the absolute mystery that surrounds the case, no clear-cut convincing explanation of what happened has yet been formulated, the whole episode gave way to a general mood of suspicion and accusations, both internally and abroad. At the domestic level, the issue exacerbated the climate of conflict and suspicion that had been generated by the Anwar saga. At the international level, it has proven embarrassing to the Malaysian government, and it has caused diplomatic tension with China, since many of MH370’s passengers were Chinese. Moreover, the rumour-mill has been working overtime, giving rise to media stories that the disappearance is somehow linked to Islamist terrorism.

What we know is this: The plane took off at 00:41 Malaysian time on 8 March 2014. For the first half an hour of its flight to Beijing, radar recorded nothing wrong in MH370’s flight-path, nor in its altitude. At around 1:08, MH370’s flight deck acknowledged their handover from Kuala Lumpur radar to the Ho Chi Minh Area Control Centre (ACC). This was the last verbal contact they recorded.[33] The flight crew was now expected to contact the ACC in Ho Chi Minh City as the aircraft passed into Vietnamese airspace. But contact was never made. An attempt to contact the Malaysian airliner through the International Distress Frequency System yielded only a mumbled, indistinct answer.[34] Many calls were then made from different Air Traffic Control Units from 2:39 am until 7:13 am. All went unanswered, but were recorded by communication satellites. Kuala Lumpur radar recorded the last ‘normal’ signal from MH370 at 1:21 am. Then, the flight disappeared from Malaysian civil radar. At around the same time, the flight was recorded missing by Ho Chi Minh City radar. Air traffic control radar relies on signals emanating from an airplane’s transponder. After 1:21, no more signals came from MH370’s transponder.[35] This meant that MH370’s transponder had either malfunctioned or had been deliberately switched off.

Military radar, which does not rely on transponder signals, now joined in the search. This indicated that, soon after losing contact with civil air traffic control, the plane had turned sharply westward. It passed over Penang Island at a much lower altitude than when it had lost civil radar contact.[36]The last tracking of the flight by Malaysian military radar traced it back to the Malacca Strait around 200 Nautical Miles (370 km) off of the coast northwest of Penang. After that, only Thai radar could track the flight for a short period. This confirmed that it was headed northwest, on a completely different route from its flight-plan. Probably, flight MH370 ventured over Sumatra, although Indonesian authorities deny tracking the plane at any stage.[37]

At 7:24 am on 8 March 2014, after many futile attempts by air traffic controllers of Vietnam, Cambodia, and even China, to locate the missing jet, Malaysian Airlines issued a statement to the media saying that contact with MH370 had been lost at 2:40 am, Malaysian time.[38] The search was then resumed.

Only on March 24th, after 16 days of unsuccessful searching, did Malaysian authorities admit that the flight was now considered lost and that all passengers and crew on board MH370 were presumed dead. Prime Minister Najib Razak now issued a short statement to the media,[39] and Malaysian Airlines sent a text message offering condolences to the victims’ families.

At the beginning of April, after searching over a wide and watery area from the Anadaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal to western Australia, the multinational search effort – which, by then, had became the largest and most expensive in history – eventually limited their focus to a 60,000 km2search area in the Southern Indian Ocean, around 1,200 km west of Australia. In this area – which had been identified through an analysis of the possible flight paths – four unconfirmed signals were detected by some ships between 6 and 8 of April, after which the airplane’s distress beacon’s batteries were likely to have been dead. The underwater search of this area began on 5 October 2014 and was planned to last up to 12 months, at an estimated cost of around 41 million Euros. Up to the time of this writing, no trace of MH370 has been found.

In the days following MH370’s disappearance, the international community and the Malaysian government feared that it had been hijacked by Islamist terrorists who intended to either hold it for ransom or utilize it in a 9/11-style attack. However, by the third week of March, these scenarios became untenable. The airplane was nowhere to be found, and the Malaysian authorities went on record contending that it had surely crashed, and that there were no survivors. Nevertheless, the hijacking hypothesis, backed by several international media outlets, refused to entirely die. According to some hypotheses, the flight might have crashed after a fight on board between an indefinite number of hijackers and the crew members or the passengers. Some theorized that the plane might have gone down as a result of an on-board struggle between passengers and terrorist hijackers, such as that which had occurred on 9/11 on United Airlines 93, which had crashed in Shankville, Pennsylvania before it reached its intended target. The news that two passengers on MH370 were travelling on passports stolen in Thailand seemed to lend credence to this theory.[40]Later, it was discovered that the two passengers in question were actually two Iranians who had entered Malaysia using valid Iranian passports at the end of February. The authorities concluded that the two were probably asylum-seekers. Interpol was quick to rule out the possibility that these two Iranians were involved in any terroristic operation.[41]

Later, Malaysian authorities checked the backgrounds of all of the passengers, and similar screenings were conducted by US and Chinese authorities. American involvement in the investigation was probably motivated by the fear that the eventual target of terrorists might be a US military installation, such as Diego Garcia, or other American targets in South East Asia or elsewhere. Involvement by some radical Afghani or Pakistani Jihadi outfits was quickly ruled out. At the same time, the Chinese Government announced on 18 March that it had checked all of the Chinese citizens on flight MH370 and had not found anyone who might possibly have been a member of a terrorist group, such as the Uyghur separatists.

Although no evidence that terrorism caused the flight’s disappearance was uncovered, media sensationalism and other in-depth investigations had a definite impact on Malaysian politics, as well as on Malaysian society as a whole The simple fact that some of the passengers could use fake or stolen passports to board an aircraft in Kuala Lumpur generated sharp criticism from the Malaysian opposition and from within the Malaysian Government as well. Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi criticized border officials for allowing the two Iranian passengers with fake passports to pass through security check-points.[42] On the other hand, he engaged in a verbal debate with the Interpol chief over the use of a new Database System. Zahid suggested in parliament that the Interpol database was too slow to work with Malaysian systems, a statement that drew an unusually sharp rebuke from Interpol.[43] Apart from political mud-slinging and the Malaysian Government’s deep embarrassment over the evident flaws in the security system, the hijacking-by-passengers theory was dismissed. The same happened to the hypothesis of a simple malfunction or breakdown. After all, the airliner had continued to fly for several hours after the communication interruption, and there was evidence that the transponder had been deliberately switched off and that the route had deliberately been changed.

Investigators now began to work on a different theory, that MH370’s flight crew was involved. The pilot and co-pilot, in particular, were now subjected to in-depth investigations. The personal lives of the two men, their personal relations, political orientations, and psychological states were subjected to a fine-toothed-comb probe. A new theory, that the pilot or co-pilot had suffered a mental melt-down that had provoked either suicidal feelings or terrorist thoughts now came to the fore. The focus here was especially on the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah. The police searched Zaharie’s house and interrogated his family members and friends. His financial records were seized. In his house, the police found a flight simulator. It was analyzed in-depth by the Malaysian Police, and then sent to the US to be investigated by a team of experts. Although the media claimed that some significant new evidence would be found,[44] nothing unusual ever emerged. Some sources insinuated that Zaharie had committed suicide for personal reasons. These allegations were strongly rejected by Zaharie’s family. Nevertheless, the police could not rule out that a suicidal tendency motivated by personal reasons might lead to an extreme act.

When it was discovered that Zaharie was a staunch Anwar supporter, the Malaysian media hotly debated whether Anwar might have another hypothesis to explain Zaharie’s possible deliberate and suicidal hijacking of MH370. At the beginning, this theory – based only on the simple proximity between the High Court verdict on Anwar Ibrahim and the disappearance of flight MH370 – was later strengthened by the fact that it was discovered that Zaharie Shah was a supporter of Anwar. Zaharie was described as fanatical in his support of Anwar’s PKR, and rumors were circulated that he had been deeply upset by the verdict which overturned Anwar’s acquittal. Later on, it was found that he was well known in party circles and was a close friend of the party vice-president, Sivarasa Rasiah. Speculation circulated that Zaharie’s intent was to down the plane as an extreme act of protest against Anwar’s conviction. Government members and the Malay pro-UMNO press cunningly fuelled these speculations.

This suddenly changed the situation for Anwar. Since the beginning of the story, Anwar had been very sharp in criticizing the government’s work. He had attacked the home minister for the failure of passport controls after the story of the Italian and Austrian fake passports had become public. Then, he criticized the Government for the lack of information and for the failure in its communication strategies. But later, in an interview, he went as far as to insinuate possible Government involvement in the disappearance of the aircraft. Anwar literally said: «[T]he Government knows more than us» because Malaysia has «one of the most sophisticated radar» systems in the world. Then, he stated: «They are privy to most of these missing bits of information critical to our understanding of this mysterious disappearance of MH370», adding that «the realm of possibilities is so vague, I mean, anything can have happened», and «[w]hether they [the authorities] are complicit in a terrorist act, I’m not in a position to comment».[45] These statements understandably caused a storm to break out against Anwar, with politicians belonging to the ruling majority and Malaysian press journalists accusing him of trying to manipulate the truth and exploit the tragedy for political reasons. An anonymous source close to Government was reported by ‘The Telegraph’ as stating: «The international media response, completely condemning Malaysia, is unfair. It’s been partly orchestrated by Malaysia’s opposition».[46] Anwar called for an international committee to take charge of the investigation «to save the image of the country and to save the country»[47].

After details emerged on Zaharie’s political affiliation, Anwar was suddenly forced to move into a defensive posture. At the beginning, he denied having ever met Zaharie. But later, he was forced to admit that he had met Zaharie many times. Anwar tried to hide the fact that the Captain of flight MH370 was a relative of his daughter-in-law. After one day, however, evidence of the relationship emerged, and Anwar admitted the family ties.[48] In a statement on 18 March, he wrote an article on his blog dismissing claims that Zaharie’s political affiliation and family ties had had an influence on the plane’s disappearance.[49] However, media close to the Government continued to ride this hypothesis. The attack on Anwar, especially at a time when he was politically vulnerable, insinuated that his inflammatory speech after the verdict condemning him might have influenced one of his supporters to commit a major terrorist act. In this case, at least a portion of the responsibility has been placed on Anwar.

On 23 June, an official Malaysian police investigation of the disappearance of the aircraft identified the captain as the prime suspect and proved that human intervention was involved. These conclusions, however, were not based on any firm ground, as the black box of the aircraft had not been found, and it probably never will be. Accordingly, there is no proof of Captain Zaharie’s role in the incident, but only hypotheses.

Apart from these speculations, the case of MH370 affected the political debate in Malaysia in another way. The day after the court’s verdict against Anwar, the opposition was getting ready to organize large-scale protests. Then, the news that the Malaysian Airways plane had disappeared put a halt to it. According to Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs: «The opposition was certainly planning to capitalize on the verdict against Anwar. But obviously with the disappearance of the plane, that derailed everything. It made Anwar completely disappear from the media».[50]

What has been clear since the beginning of this story was that it was a big setback for Malaysia at a diplomatic level. It was evident from the start that the Malaysian government and the airline released imprecise, inaccurate and incomplete information on the incident. Malaysian authorities were highly criticized by the international media for releasing contradictory information.[51] The lack of transparency was perceived as particularly stinging by Chinese authorities, mainly because 152 passengers of the total of 239 on board of the aircraft were Chinese citizens. Criticism was expressed on many occasions by the Chinese official Xinhua News Agency, and later, by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Xie Hangsheng. On 25 March, Chinese president Xi Jinping said he was planning to send a special envoy to Malaysia to consult with the local authorities over some unclear issues relating to the missing airplane.[52]

Relatives of the Chinese victims organized protests in Beijing in front of the Malaysian embassy on the same day, and they started a call for a boycott of Malaysian goods, demanding more transparency from the Malaysian government and demanding an official explanation of the poor initial handling of the disaster. The boycott was successful. In the following weeks, Malaysia registered a 50% drop in Chinese tourists, while bookings of Chinese citizens on Malaysian Airlines went down by 60%, resulting in a big financial loss for the company. Ironically, 2014 was the ‘Malaysian China Friendship Year’, designed to celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Tensions were still evident in May, when Najib visited Beijing to commemorate the anniversary. Chinese social media sharply criticized Najib’s decision not to visit any family members of the missing flight’s passengers. Even Chinese officials, who officially praised the ‘friendship’ between the two countries during Najib’s visit, found it necessary in their speeches to press Malaysia to continue to search for the truth regarding the missing airplane.

Notwithstanding, even during the chaotic search for flight MH370, China tempered the impact of the incident on China-Malaysia relations. Despite the domestic furor over the issue, Beijing ultimately limited its official response to a delay in the transfer of two giant pandas to a Malaysian zoo. Later, the Chinese Ambassador in Malaysia tried to minimize the impact of the MH370 case on Sino-Malaysian relations, saying: «[The ] radical and irresponsible opinions (of the Chinese relatives) [did] not represent the views of [the] Chinese people and the Chinese government».[53]At the same time, the Ambassador criticized the Western press for having «published false news, stoked conflict and even spread rumors»[54] to create problems in Sino-Malaysian relations.

The fact is that Malaysia is considered an important strategic partner in Beijing’s dialogue with ASEAN. Furthermore, China has a territorial dispute with Malaysia, similar to those Beijing has with other South East Asian countries. The Southern Spratly Islands are an archipelago of around 700 non-populated islands and atolls off of Borneo’s coastline, which are claimed by both China and Malaysia in a dispute that also involves Vietnam and the Philippines. In March 2013, four Chinese warships held an amphibious exercise in the waters near the islands. Kuala Lumpur reacted with an official protest to Beijing. In February 2014, the Chinese navy sent three other warships to exercise in the same place.[55] This was a kind of wake up call for Malaysia. Since then, Malaysia has begun a dialogue with the Philippines and Vietnam over the disputes in the South China Sea. Even so, Kuala Lumpur has no interest in fuelling the conflict with China over these islands. As a multi-racial State, Malaysia does not want to increase the ethnic gulf within its own population, at least not for an international issue. Furthermore, China is a powerful and important trade partner. Malaysia’s political elite has not yet been willing to completely abandon its traditional friendly approach to China, especially if there are economic benefits involved.

However, the MH370 affair seems to have put some changes in the bilateral Kuala Lumpur-Beijing relationship into motion. In April, at the apex of the MH370 diplomatic rift with China, Barack Obama visited Malaysia, receiving a very warm welcome. The American president signed an accord with Najib that elevated the American relationship with Malaysia to a «comprehensive strategic partnership», the same status given to China in 2013. At the same time, it must be borne in mind that Malaysia is one of the 12 countries that are involved in the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) negotiation, a treaty proposed by the US in a clear attempt to limit Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific area.[56] In any case, a slow change of alignment in Malaysian foreign policy had probably begun to take place before the MH370 tragedy. Signals of a new partnership with Japan also emerged during the two visits to Kuala Lumpur of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013. Indeed, the increasing Chinese presence in the South China Sea and Chinese claims over the Spratly Islands had possibly worried Kuala Lumpur long before the disappearance of the aircraft. In fact, if Malaysian foreign policy is going to change, this obviously will not happen because of flight MH370. Nevertheless, the MH370 affair has generated diplomatic rifts and has placed Malaysia at the centre of such a highly politicized issue that some media have described the whole sequence of events as the «geopolitics of MH370».[57]

The case of MH370 has slowly disappeared from the headlines, as another tragedy occurred to a Malaysian Airlines flight. This was the case of flight MH17, which crashed in Eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Although no clear-cut and undeniable evidence has surfaced related to the dynamics of the event, it is at least clear that the crash was not brought about by either a mechanical failure or a human error. In fact, the Western press immediately espoused the thesis that the plane had been shot down by an air missile that was probably launched by pro-Russian separatists. However, as noted above, at least up to the time when these lines were written, no undeniable evidence supporting this thesis has ever surfaced. The incident created a diplomatic rift between Malaysia and Russia. Also, the fact that Malaysia received solidarity from all over the world helped public opinion worldwide to be diverted from Malaysia’s dismal image of faults and reticence over flight MH370.

Il 2014 è stato un anno molto particolare per la Malaysia. Il governo di Najib Razak, confermato nelle elezioni politiche del 2013, nonostante la consistente erosione del consenso popolare si è apprestato ad affrontare le riforme a lungo ventilate e rimandate negli ultimi anni, prima fra tutte l’introduzione di una Goods and Service Tax. Nel 2015 l’economia malaysiana à cresciuta a ritmo sostenuto ed il deficit si è ridotto come previsto dal governo negli obiettivi enunciati nel 2013. L’opposizione, al contrario, dopo il grande sforzo che l’aveva portata nel 2013 ad ottenere la maggioranza del voto popolare ma a perdere comunque le elezioni per via dell’iniqua struttura delle circoscrizioni elettorali, si è dovuta confrontare con le crescenti divisioni al suo interno. Queste hanno trovato espressione in particolare nella sostituzione del Menteri Besar (primo ministro) dell’importante stato del Selangor, frutto di un aspro conflitto interno tra le sue diverse anime, conflitto in cui sono prepotentemente emerse le divisioni presenti in uno schieramento composito e potenzialmente disunito.

Due episodi hanno però contribuito in modo decisivo a caratterizzare il 2015 in Malaysia, verificatisi a distanza di meno di 24 ore l’uno dall’altro. Il 7 marzo 2014 l’Alta Corte di Kuala Lumpur ha annullato l’assoluzione di Anwar Ibrahim nel famigerato caso che lo vedeva accusato di sodomia. La decisione in questione prospetta la possibilità che le porte del carcere si riaprano per il principale leader dell’opposizione, scrivendo un nuovo capitolo nella saga apparentemente senza fine che lo vede contrapposto da anni alla magistratura. Nelle prime ore del giorno 8 marzo 2014, un aereo della Malaysian Airlines, impegnato nell’espletare il volo MH370, è misteriosamente e improvvisamente scomparso dai radar, suscitando apprensione in tutto il mondo. Dopo alcuni giorni, le autorità hanno dichiarato che il velivolo era certamente precipitato e che passeggeri ed equipaggio erano da considerarsi tutti deceduti. L’intera vicenda è subito apparsa misteriosa quanto inquietante. Da più parti si sono levate forti critiche e dubbi per la gestione da parte delle autorità malaysiane dell’intera vicenda. Il caso del volo MH370 ha aperto contrasti diplomatici in particolare con la Cina ed ha avuto ripercussioni anche nel dibattito politico interno, andando a surriscaldare un clima politico già arroventato dalla sentenza sul caso Anwar Ibrahim. L’intera vicenda ha aperto la strada a sospetti, dietrologie e accuse, ma ha anche sviato in modo decisivo l’attenzione dell’opinione pubblica dalla vicenda personale e politica di Anwar.

 

[1] Stefano Caldirola, ‘La Malaysia in bilico: Najib Tun Razak alla prova delle elezioni’, Asia Maior2013, p. 249.

[2] Ibid., p. 253.

[3] World Bank, Data on World’s Urban Population(http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS).

[4] Stefano Caldirola, ‘La Malaysia in bilico: Najib Tun Razak alla prova delle elezioni’, p. 249.

[5] Chong Pooi Koon, ‘Malaysia economic growth unexpectedly accelerates on exports’, Bloomberg, 15 August 2014 (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-15/malaysia-s-economic-growth-unexpectedly-accelerates-on-exports.html).

[6] ‘News analysis: Malaysia top emerging Asian economies in 2nd quarter growth’, Philstar, 29 August 2014 (http://www.philstar.com/business/2014/08/29/1363446/news-analysis-phl-malaysia-top-emerging-asian-economies-2nd-quarter).

[7] ‘Malaysia’s growth slows to 5.6% in the third quarter’, CNBC On Line, 14 November 2014 (http://www.cnbc.com/id/102184981#).

[8] Ibid.

[9] MIDA (Malaysia Investment Development Authority), ‘IMF: Malaysia’s growth prospects remain strong’, 12 December 2014 (http://www.mida.gov.my/home/2324/news/imf-malaysia%E2%80%99s-growth-prospects-remain-strong).

[10] G. Sivalingam, The Deficit Dilemma in Malaysia, Singapore: ISES, 2012, p. 1.

[11] Government of Malaysia, Debt Clock (http://www.nationaldebtclocks.org/debtclock/malaysia).

[12] Isabelle Lai, ‘Challenges of a new tax regime’, The Star, 20 September 2014.

[13] ‘Malaysia’s income distribution inequality still high’, The Star, 3 August 2013.

[14] ‘Income tax and corporate tax reduced. Budget 2015 highlights’, The Malaysian Insider, 10 October 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ‘Mahathir: No need to continue BR1M in Budget 2014’, ABN News, 20 October 2013.

[18] Philippa Steward, ‘Malaysia: race, politics and representation’, Al Jazeera English Edition, 27 April 2013.

[19] Stefano Caldirola, ‘La Malaysia in bilico: Najib Tun Razak alla prova delle elezioni’, pp. 253-255.

[20] Zarina Banu, ‘Malaysia Airlines: Catalyst for political change?’, Al Jazeera On Line, 26 March 2014 (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/03/malaysia-airlines-catalyst-pol-2014326114154815905.html).

[21] Mark Trowell, Sodomy II. The Trial of Anwar Ibrahim, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International, 2012.

[22] ‘Interview with Anwar Ibrahim’, The Diplomat, 9 September 2009.

[23] This campaign was made possible by the resignation of a member of the State Assembly, Lee Chin Cheh, from Anwar’s party, the PKR.

[24] ‘Kajang movement: Anwar fails to tell all’, Free Malaysia Today, 4 February 2014 (http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2014/02/04/kajang-move-anwar-fails-to-tell-all).

[25] Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Anwar Ibrahim sodomy acquittal overturned’, The Sidney Morning Herald, 7 March 2014.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ida Lim, ‘Pakatan MPs, HRW claim sodomy conviction aimed at Anwar’s career’, The Malay Mail Online, 7 March 2014.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Al Gore, ‘Statement regarding Anwar Ibrahim’, Huffington Post, 10 March 2014.

[30] ‘No verdict yet on Anwar’s appeal as court reserves judgement’, The Malaysian Insider, 7 November 2014 (http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/no-verdict-on-anwars-appeal-as-court-reserves-judgment).

[31] Mohammed N.M. Osman, Oh Ei Sun and Afif Pasuni, ‘The Selangor Chief Minister Crisis and the Future of Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’, Rajaratnam School of International Studies Online Journal, October 2014, § 1 (http://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NL141007_Malaysia_Update.pdf).

[32] This is the largest Muslim majority in the country. Department of Statistics, Government of Malaysia, 2010, p. 13 (http://www.statistics.gov.my).

[33] Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, ‘Preliminary report on missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’, CNN On Line edition, 1 May 2014 (http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/world/malaysia-flight-documents).

[34] ‘Pilot: I established contact with plane’, New Straits Times, 9 March 2014.

[35] David Cenciotti, ‘What we know and what we don’t about the mysterious Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappearance’, The Aviationist, 3 April 2014.

[36] Michael Forsythe and Michael Smith, ‘Radar suggests jet shifted path more than once’, The New York Times, 14 March 2014.

[37] Daniel Satcey, ‘Investigators to re-examine clues in missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370’, Wall Street Journal, 1 May 2014.

[38] Later, in another statement, Malaysian Airlines admitted that the actual time of the disappearance of MH370 was 1:21, Malaysian Airlines, ‘Media Statement’, 8 March 2014, 7:30 AM (http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/ksd-maintenance/DarkSites.html).

[39] ‘Using a type of analysis never before used in an investigation of this sort… Inmarsat and the AAIB have concluded that MH370 flew along the southern corridor, and that its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth. This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites. It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean’. Najib Razak, March 24 2014, 10 PM (Malaysian Time)

(http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/24/mh370-chinese-plane-spots-white-objects-live-updates).

[40] Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Fake passports on Malaysia Airlines flight reveal flaw in airline safety’, The Sidney Morning Herald, 10 March 2014.

[41] Alice Budisatrijo and Richard Westcott, ‘Malaysia Airlines MH370: Stolen passports no terror link’, BBC News On Line edition, 11 March 2014 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-26525281).

[42] Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Fake passports on Malaysia Airlines flight reveal flaw in airline safety’, The Sidney Morning Herald, 10 March 2014.

[43] ‘Malaysia digs deeper into airport security, people aboard flight 370’, Wall Street Journal, 30 March 2014.

[44] Michael Sheridan, ‘Suspicion falls again on Malaysian Airlines flight 370’s Captain Zaharie Shah’, The Australian, 22 June 2014.

[45] Barney Henderson, ‘MH370 Malaysia Airlines: Anwar Ibrahim says government purposefully concealing information’, The Telegraph, 3 April 2014.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Adrian Wan, ‘U-turn as Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim admits MH370 pilot is in-law’s relative’, South China Morning Post, 18 March 2014.

[49] Ibid.

[50] ‘Why the Malaysian government’s problems go way deeper than the handling of MH 370’, The Washington Post, 24 April 2014.

[51] Simon Denyer, ‘Contradictory statements from Malaysia over missing airliner perplex, infuriate’, The Washington Post, 12 March 2014.

[52] ‘China sending special envoy to Malaysia over MH370’, Xinhuanet.com, 25 March 2015.

[53] Supriya Jha, ‘Developments over Malaysian jet search: as it happened’, Zee New, 3 April 2014 (http://zeenews.in’dia.com/news/world/developments-over-malaysian-jet-search-as-it-happened_922001.html).

[54] Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Police investigate possible poisoning of food on missing plane’, The Sidney Morning Herald, 3 April 2014.

[55] Felix Chang, ‘Comparative Southeast Asian Military Modernization’, The ASAN Forum On Line Journal, 1 October 2014 (part one) (http://www.theasanforum.org/comparative-southeast-asian-military-modernization-1).

[56] See Ministry of International Trade and Industry of Malaysia web site for deep Malaysian commitments in the TPP agreement. ‘Brief on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Tpp)’, no date (http://www.miti.gov.my).

[57] ‘The geopolitics of MH370, having bashed Malaysia over the missing flight, China is now making up’, The Economist, 10 May 2014.

 

Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples

THE RISE OF ASIA 2021 – CALL FOR PAPERS

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