Missing MH370: Crisis proves to be fodder for political squabble

Missing MH370: Crisis proves to be fodder for political squabble
Malaysia's Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.

KUALA LUMPUR - Despite public declarations that the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner is above politics, it all swings back to politics after all.

The Malaysian government held a special briefing for MPs on Monday - but only for those from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) - even as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim took potshots at Prime Minister Najib Razak's handling of the crisis.

On top of that, the senior pilot of Flight MH370, Mr Zaharie Ahmad Shah, has become a target after it turned out he was an opposition supporter and a distant relative of Datuk Seri Anwar's daughter-in-law.

It is another full-blown political squabble in Malaysia, with this crisis becoming the latest fodder for the bitter rivals to hit out at each other.

"In this toxic political environment, it is often about looking for points to score," said political analyst Ibrahim Suffian, who runs the Merdeka Centre, an independent pollster.

It did not take long for Malaysia's divisive domestic politics to intrude, despite some rare moments of unity in the early days after the Beijing-bound aircraft mysteriously disappeared on March 8.

As Malaysians followed the twists and turns of the search, they also came together in hoping and praying for a happy ending, signing banners around the city. But when Malaysian officials started giving conflicting updates, it triggered harsh criticism, with many blaming the BN's insular style of governance and its culture of secrecy for the chaos.

Last Sunday, the flames were fanned further by a report in the British Daily Mail tabloid that Mr Zaharie was a "political fanatic" and "vocal social activist", and that he had allegedly attended the court hearing which reversed Anwar's acquittal of sodomy. That was the same day the flight took off, and went missing.

Anwar acknowledged that Mr Zaharie was a distant relative and a party loyalist who does not hold any position in his Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

"But to politicise it is not right. We should respect the family's rights and pray for them instead of prosecuting him before the investigation is completed," he said.

While speaking at election rallies for the Kajang by-election last week, Anwar also criticised Datuk Seri Najib's handling of the crisis, saying it has tarnished Malaysia's international image.

"He does not know how to handle the matter," he was quoted as saying by a news website. "A nation in crisis needs strong leadership. The leadership failure here is what the whole world is watching now."

As the political sniping escalates, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called on Malaysians to rise beyond politics. At the daily press conference on Tuesday, he said: "The search for MH370 is bigger than politics. I urge all Malaysians to put our differences aside and unite during this difficult time."

But this appears easier said than done. That same day, the Transport Ministry held a briefing on the crisis for BN MPs, but refused to invite opposition MPs to attend.

This provoked opposition outrage.

Mr Ibrahim said the political squabbling is unlikely to end.

"People will want some explanation and closure. They will start to look to see how it could have been handled differently," he said. "People are seeking answers, and sometimes, someone to blame as well."

carolynh@sph.com.sg


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