When the world is gripped by an unfolding mystery such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, anxious for news of each new development, how should a government handle expectations?
Not the way the Malaysian government has acted this week, obviously. Confused, confusing, and contradictory statements from officials have drawn fire from relatives of the missing passengers, foreign journalists here, aviation experts, and the Chinese government.
“This is the worst disaster in our history; a close second is how it has been handled,” says Jahabar Sadiq, a co-founder of the Malaysian Insider online news portal.
That is not the way a small developing country wants to make its entrance onto the world media stage – especially when it is only 10 weeks into "Visit Malaysia" year, a bid to boost the tourist sector that is already the country's second-largest source of foreign exchange.
The authorities here have been overwhelmed by the baffling nature of the Boeing 777’s disappearance and by the international attention it has focused on them. “This situation is unprecedented,” said Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein on Thursday. “It is a very complex operation and it has not always been easy.”
"In the opening days there were difficulties working out how to coordinate this,” acknowledges one source close to the government who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “But the media response, completely condemning Malaysia, is unfair,” he complains.
On the ocean and in the air, as the search for the missing plane was extended west into the Indian Ocean Friday, Malaysia’s coordination of ships and planes from 13 countries has won praise from the United States, the source points out.
“I give them a lot of credit. They have done what I would call an exceptional job,” said Commander William Marks, spokesman for the US Navy 7th Fleet earlier this week. “They have a very well-organized plan.”
That is not the impression that Mr. Hishamuddin and his government colleagues have given to agonized relatives of the passengers or the hordes of journalists who have crammed daily press conferences.
Changing the message – constantly
One after another they have contradicted each other on key issues, such as when the plane last made contact and where it was at the time, whether passengers had checked in to the flight but not boarded, and whether the plane inexplicably turned around or headed west, away from its intended northeastern flight path, before it disappeared.
Officials insist that they have not been trying to hide anything, though Hishamuddin was evasive on Friday about whether the Malaysian government had been aware of apparent data pings to satellites that US officials have been reported as suggesting meant MH370 might have flown for several hours after its transponder was turned off or went dead.
A more likely explanation for the incoherent message that the Malaysian government has presented to the world, says Azmi Anshar, a commentator with the pro-government New Straits Times, is “turf protection” among different agencies trying to push themselves forward into the public eye.
As a parade of senior officials, including the head of the Department of Civil Aviation, the national police chief, the head of the immigration bureau, the head of the Air Force, and the CEO of Malaysia Airlines each offered his own version of developments, with no apparent central coordination, “it was a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth,” suggests Mr. Anshar.
“It reflects the inability of government agencies to work together,” argues James Chin, a professor at the Kuala Lumpur campus of Australia's Monash University. “They don’t talk to each other.”
The politics factor
Some local critics say the problem goes deeper, and blame the confusion on the nature of Malaysian politics.
The country has been ruled since independence in 1957 by the same party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), an ethnically-based party that has held onto political power by offering Malay citizens preferential treatment and government jobs while the Chinese minority largely dominates business life.
Running what Prof. Chin calls a “semi-authoritarian state,” UMNO has bolstered its grip on power, in the face of rising opposition, with draconian laws and control of most of the mainstream press.
Paternalistic government officials “are not used to hard questions,” says Mr. Sadiq, adding that reporters from his website and other independent sites that have sprung up to voice criticism of the authorities are sometimes barred from press conferences. “They think they can dictate everything and they are accustomed to journalists lapping up everything they say.”
“A Malaysian minister’s word is gospel,” adds Chin. “They are still dealing with the old system of television and newspapers that they could tell what to do.” That attitude, he says, is ill suited to a world where local social media are of growing importance and it has failed to stand up to the scrutiny of aggressive questioning by foreign reporters covering the MH370 mystery.
The experience of the past few days, says Sivarasa Rahsia, a member of parliament for the opposition Peoples Justice Party, “shows up the reality of how Malaysia is managed.” But even he, a vociferous critic of the government, shows a trace of sympathy for the authorities as they try to coordinate a massive international investigation and explain it to the world.
“They are realizing now that they have to be transparent and accurate,” he says. “But it is a mystery and quite a challenge. A lot of other countries would be stumped, too.”