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Crisis in Malaysia

Residents of the state are used to their leaders not answering questions

Crisis in Malaysia

The global perplexity about the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 led to the fact that the country's paternalistic political culture and its pampered leaders appeared before a scathing condemnation of critics from around the world.

Thanks to a combination of control over information, intimidation of the opposition and, until recently, stable economic growth, the ruling elite of Malaysia has been in power without a break for almost six decades (starting with the liberation of the British).

The situation changed when 8 March, taking off from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, lost a Malaysian Airlines plane. High-ranking civilian and military officials confirmed that they had known, but had not made the data public, for four days, according to which the military radar had received a signal, the source of which could be the missing plane. Apparently, he was heading west, strongly deviating from the planned course for Beijing.

If the radar readings spotted the missing plane, this could mean a radical rethinking of previous versions. And only under a hail of questions from foreign reporters, the country's authorities admitted that the last point on the radar showed the plane's course in the direction of the Indian Ocean - and at a cruising altitude, which could mean that it flew a long distance. This raises the question of why this information was released so late.

"The world is finally feeling the frustration we have experienced for years," said Li Yi Mei, a management consultant and former assistant to opposition Malaysian politician.

Ms. Li reported that she was perplexed when Malaysia's Defense Minister Hishamudin Hussein, a descendant of an influential political dynasty, rejected the reporter's assertion that the search for the missing plane was erratic.

“This is a mess only if you view it as a mess,” Hishamudin said at a press conference held before world reporters.

Mainly devoid of natural disasters and other disasters, Malaysia does not have much experience in countering crises of this magnitude. The society in the country is divided along ethnic lines, and, as a rule, talented people do not reach the heights of power due to nepotism in the ruling party and the system of national preferences, which discourages the hunt for public service or blocks such an opportunity for national minorities, especially Chinese and Hindus .

Ethnic Malays, who make up about half of the population, retain virtually all top government posts and receive many benefits from it because of their status as "sons of the earth."

Authoritarian laws help maintain the power of the ruling party - the United Malay National Organization - and keep the opposition gaining strength.

The day before the MN370 flight disappeared, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced to five years in prison under the law on homosexuality, which is almost never used. Critics have considered this case an attempt to stop the strengthening of the opposition, while the popularity of the ruling party is waning. Almost immediately after this, the court condemned another opposition politician, Karpal Singh, under the law of incitement to insurrection, which was adopted in colonial times.

"We call it persecution, not accusation," said Ambig Sreenevasan, a lawyer and former head of the Lawyers' Council of Malaysia.

Ms. Ambiga stressed that the government is accustomed to receiving its own, and the crisis that has occurred due to the missing plane makes officials accountable to the public, which is a novelty for them.

"Malaysians are used to the fact that their leaders do not answer questions," she said. "When no one challenges you, of course, you are complacent and calm."

For a fairly prosperous country with 30 million inhabitants, which is less well known abroad than its neighbors Thailand and Singapore, the government's convulsive attempts to find the missing plane is an embarrassing and undesirable appearance on the world stage.

The government looks uncoordinated and unable to declare even the basic facts about the disappeared flight. The authorities insisted three days that the baggage was removed from the plane before departure, because five registered passengers were not on board. However, the head of the police later announced that it was a lie: all registered passengers boarded the plane. There were no explanations for these contradictions.

The director of the Merdeka Center, an independent public opinion research company, Ibrahim Sufian, said that the response to the crisis had underlined the lack of clarity in the functioning of the government and in society as a whole.

"There is tolerance for the lack of attention to detail," he stressed. "We have a tendency that we do not ask many questions - and we do not expect serious results."

The crisis also revealed a lack of competence in the government. He, according to Mr. Ibrahim, is connected with respect for power and unwillingness to take the initiative into their own hands. "We always had an attitude" I'd better wait for instructions from above, "he said.

However, among the critics about the search and rescue operation, there are voices saying that the disappearance of the aircraft was so unusual that probably no government in the world would be ready for it.

“This is almost a unique situation,” said economist Ramon Navaratnam, a Harvard-educated economist, a former senior government official.

Now the Malaysian authorities are stuck in an unenviable position, listening to many questions and having only a few answers.

“They have never experienced such pressure,” Ms. Li summed up. “And now, when the whole world is looking at them, they have nowhere to hide.”

Thomas Fuller, The New York Times

Translated by Mikhail Botvinnik exclusively for

Ps Recently, the authorities of the country reported that, most likely, the liner fell in the southern part of the Indian Ocean. None of those who were on board survived. The search for debris is still ongoing.

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