The Politics of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

Over the weekend, Crimea voted to secede from Westernized Ukrainia to rejoin the Russian Federation and the U.S. relinquished its stewardship over the Internet.  These are both disquieting news stories.  But being mystery lovers and conspiracy theory addicts, we’re still wondering, over a week after it disappeared, what happened to Malaysian Air Flight MH370.

 

The disappearance of Flight 370 has raised questions about government authority to keep information from the people, the ability of our advanced technology, and why news organizations are loathe to introduce the possibility of Muslim motives.

 

The latest reports have turned their attention to the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah.  The pilot’s wife and three children moved out of the family home the day before the plane went missing.  According to U.K. Mail Online, “An image has emerged of the pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet wearing a T-shirt with a ‘Democracy is Dead’ slogan as it has been revealed he could have hijacked the plane in an anti-government protest.

 

Shah was said to be a “fanatical” supporter of the country’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – jailed for homosexuality just hours before the jet disappeared.  Capt. Shah was an “obsessive” supporter of Ibrahim. And hours before the doomed flight left Kuala Lumpur it is understood the 53-year-old Shah attended the controversial trial in which Ibrahim was jailed for five years.

 

“Campaigners say the politician, the key challenger to Malaysia’s ruling party, was the victim of a long-running smear campaign and had faced trumped-up charges.

 

“Police sources have confirmed that Shah was a vocal political activist – and fear that the court decision left him profoundly upset.  It was against this background that, seven hours later, he took control of a Boeing 777-200 bound for Beijing and carrying 238 passengers and crew.

 

“Yesterday, Malaysian police searched his house in the upmarket Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam, where he had installed a home-made flight simulator. But this newspaper can reveal that investigators had already spent much of last week examining two laptops removed from Shah’s home. One is believed to contain data from the simulator

 

“Confirming rising fears, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak announced yesterday that MH370 was deliberately steered off course after its communication system was switched off. He said it headed west over the Malaysian seaboard and could have flown for another seven hours on its fuel reserves.

 

“It is not yet clear where the plane was taken.  However, Mr. Razak said the most recent satellite data suggests the plane could have been making for one of two possible flight corridors. The search, involving 43 ships and 58 aircraft from 15 countries, switched from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.

 

“In another dramatic twist early Sunday Indian officials however, said the search was on hold until “fresh search areas” were defined by Malaysia. It is unclear what the reason was for the delay.

 

Data showing the number of plausible runways where the plane could have touched down – which need to be at least 5,000 feet – offer a baffling number of potential locations.

 

Malaysia has its origins in the Malay Kingdoms present in the area which, from the 18th century, became subject to the British Empire. The first British territories were known as the Straits Settlements, whose establishment was followed by the Malay kingdoms becoming British protectorates. The territories on Peninsular Malaysia were first unified as the Malayan Union in 1946. Malaya was restructured as the Federation of Malaya in 1948, and achieved independence on 31 August 1957. Malaya united with North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore on Sept. 16, 1963, with si being added to give the new country the name Malaysia. Less than two years later in 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation.

 

The country is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, which plays a large role in politics. The Malay constitution declares Islam the state religion while protecting freedom of religion. The government system is closely modelled on the Westminster parliamentary system and the legal system is based on common law. The head of state is the king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.  He is an elected monarch chosen from the hereditary rulers of the nine Malay states every five years. The head of government is the Prime Minister.

 

Since independence, Malaysia has had one of the best economic records in Asia, with GDP growing an average 6.5% for almost 50 years. The economy has traditionally been fueled by its natural resources, but is expanding in the sectors of science, tourism, commerce and medical tourism. Today, Malaysia has a newly-industrialized market economy, ranked third largest in Southeast Asia and 29th largest in the world.  It is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the East Asia Summit, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and a member of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

 

Evidence of modern human habitation in Malaysia dates back 40,000 years. In the Malay Peninsula, the first inhabitants are thought to be Negritos. Traders and settlers from India and China arrived as early as the 1st century AD, establishing trading ports and coastal towns in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Their presence resulted in strong Indian and Chinese influence on the local cultures, and the people of the Malay Peninsula adopted the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Sanskrit inscriptions appear as early as the 4th or 5th century. The Kingdom of Langkasuka arose around the 2nd century in the northern area of the Malay Peninsula, lasting until about the 15th century.  Between the 7th and 13th centuries, much of the southern Malay Peninsula was part of the maritime Srivijaya empire. After the fall of Srivijaya, the Majapahit empire had influence over most of Peninsular Malaysia and the Malay Archipelago. Islam began to spread among Malays in the 14th century.  In the early 15th century, Parmeswara, a prince of the former Srivijayan empire, founded the Malacca Sultanate, commonly considered the first independent state in the peninsula area. Malacca was an important commercial center during this time, attracting trade from around the region.

 

Executive power is vested in the Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister. The prime minister must be a member of the house of representatives, who in the opinion of the King, commands a majority in parliament. The cabinet is chosen from members of both houses of Parliament. The Prime Minister is both the head of cabinet and the head of government.  The incumbent, Najib Razak, appointed in 2009, is the sixth prime minister.

 

Malaysia’s legal system is based on English Common Law. Although the judiciary is theoretically independent, its independence has been called into question and the appointment of judges lacks accountability and transparency. The highest court in the judicial system is the Federal Court, followed by the Court of Appeal and two high counts, one for Peninsular Malaysia and one for East Malaysia. Malaysia also has a special court to hear cases brought by or against Royalty.  Separate from the civil courts are the Syariah Courts, which apply Shariah law to cases which involve Malaysian Muslims and run parallel to the secular court system. The Internal Security Act allows detention without trial, and the death penalty is in use for crimes such as drug trafficking.

 

Race is a significant force in politics, and many political parties are ethnically based.  Affirmative actions such as the New Economic Policy and the National Development Policy which superseded it, were implemented to advance the standing of the bumiputera, consisting of Malays and the indigenous tribes who are considered the original inhabitants of Malaysia, over non-bumiputera such as Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indians. These policies provide preferential treatment to bumiputera in employment, education, scholarships, business, and access to cheaper housing and assisted savings. However, it has generated greater interethnic resentment.  There is ongoing debate over whether the laws and society of Malaysia should reflect secular or Islamic principles. Islamic laws passed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party in state legislative assemblies have been blocked by the federal government.

 

The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion while making Islam the state religion. According to the Population and Housing Census 2010 figures, ethnicity and religious beliefs correlate highly. Approximately 61.3% of the population practice Islam, 19.8% practice Buddhism, 9.2% Christianity, 6.3% Hinduism and 1.3% practice Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions. 0.7% declared no religion and the remaining 1.4% practiced other religions or did not provide any information. Sunnis form the majority with non-denominational Muslims being the second largest group of Muslims at 18%.

 

All ethnic Malays (of some ancestry other than Malaysian) are considered Muslim by law of the Constitution. Statistics from the 2010 Census indicate that 83.6% of the Chinese population identify as Buddhist, with significant numbers of adherents following Taoism (3.4%) and Christianity (11.1%), along with small Hui-Muslim populations in areas like Penang.  The majority of the Indian population follows Hinduism (86.2%), with a significant minority identifying as Christians (6.0%) or Muslims (4.1%). Christianity is the predominant religion of the non-Malay bumiputera community (46.5%) with an additional 40.4% identifying as Muslims.

 

Muslims are obliged to follow the decisions of Syariah courts in matters concerning their religion. The Islamic judges are expected to follow the Shafi’I  legal school of Islam, which is the main madh’hab  of Malaysia. The jurisdiction of Sharia courts is limited to Muslims in matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, apostasy, religious conversion, and child custody among others. No other criminal or civil offences are under the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts, which have a similar hierarchy to the Civil Courts . Despite being the supreme courts of the land, the Civil Courts do not hear matters related to Islamic practices.

 

Malaysia’s main newspapers are owned by the government and political parties in the ruling coalition, although some major opposition parties also have their own, which are openly sold alongside regular newspapers. A divide exists between the media in the two halves of the country. Peninsular-based media gives low priority to news from the East, and often treats the eastern states as colonies of the Peninsula. The media have been blamed for increasing tension between Indonesia and Malaysia, and giving Malaysians a bad image of Indonesians.  The country has Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil dailies.

 

There is very little freedom of the press, leading to very little government accountability.  The government has previously tried to crack down on opposition papers before elections.  In 2007, a government agency issued a directive to all private television and radio stations to refrain from broadcasting speeches made by opposition leaders, a move condemned by politicians from the opposition Democratic Action Party.  Sabah, where all tabloids but one are independent of government control, has the freest press in Malaysia. Laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act have also been cited as curtailing freedom of expression.

 

So what about this Anwar Ibrahim whom Capt. Shah followed so closely that he actually attended the politician’s trial on charges of sodomy a day before Flight 370 was to take off?

 

From 1968 to 1971, as a student, Anwar was the president of National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students.  Around the same time, he was also the president of University of Malaya Malay Language Society, he was one of the pro tem committee of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) or Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, which he co-founded.  At the same time, he was elected as the 2nd President of the Malaysian Youth Council or Majlis Belia Malaysia (MBM).  In 1974, Anwar was arrested during student protests against rural poverty and hunger. This came as a report surfaced stating that a family died from starvation in a village in Baling, in the state of Kedah, despite the fact that it never happened.  However, the life of the rubber tappers in Baling was utterly depressed as the price of rubber dropped in 1974. He was imprisoned under the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, and spent 20 months in the Kamunting Detention Centre. From 1975 till 1982, he was representative for Asia Pacific of World Assembly of Muslim Youth under Sheikh Hassan Abdullah.

 

In 1982, Anwar, who was the founding leader and second president of a youth Islamic organization called  Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM), shocked his liberal supporters by joining the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), led by Mahathir bin Mohamad, who had become prime minister in 1981. He moved up the political ranks quickly: his first ministerial office was that of Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports in 1983.  After that, he headed the agriculture ministry in 1984 before becoming Minister of Education in 1986. By then, speculation was rife about Anwar’s ascent to the Deputy Prime Minister’s position as it was a commonly-occurring phenomenon in Malaysia for the Education Minister to assume the position of Deputy PM in the near future.

 

During his tenure as Education Minister, Anwar introduced numerous pro-Malay policies in the national school curriculum. One of his major changes was to rename the national language from Bahasa Malaysia to Bahasa Melayu. Non-Malays criticized this move as it would cause the younger generation to be detached from the national language, since they would attribute it to being something that belongs to the Malays and not to Malaysians. As the minister of education, Anwar was elected as the 25th President of UNESCO’s General Conference. In 1988, Anwar Ibrahim became the second President of the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

 

In 1991, Anwar was appointed Minister of Finance. During his tenure as Finance Minister his impact was immediate; Malaysia enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and economic growth. Shortly after becoming Finance Minister, Euromoney named him as a top four finance minister and in 1996, Asiamoney named him Finance Minister of the Year.  In the midst of the Asian Financial Crises of 1997, Anwar was hailed for guiding Malaysia through the period of instability. He backed free market principles and highlighted the issue of the proximity of business and politics in Malaysia.  He advocated greater accountability, refused to offer government bail-outs and instituted widespread spending cuts.  These prescriptions saved the Malaysian economy and earned Anwar many accolades, including the Asian of the Year from Newsweek International.  As a deputy prime minister and finance minister, in March 1998, Anwar Ibrahim was selected as the Chairman of the Development Committee of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund from March 1998 until September 1998.

 

In 1993, he became Mahathir’s Deputy Prime Minister after winning the Deputy Presidency of UMNO against Ghafar Baba. There is a report of Anwar using large cash payments to win support.  Anwar is alleged to have resorted to money politics to secure his position as deputy president of UMNO.  Even foreign journalists witnessed Anwar’s followers handing out packets of money to acquire support of UMNO division leaders. These followers were said to be working under Anwar’s instructions. Anwar was being groomed to succeed Mahathir as prime minister, and frequently alluded in public to his “son-father” relationship with Mahathir.  In early 1997, Mahathir appointed Anwar to be acting Prime Minister while he took a two-month holiday. Early in his political career, Anwar was a close ally of the then Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad but subsequently emerged as the most prominent critic of Mahathir’s government.

 

Towards the end of the 1990s, however, the relationship with Mahathir had begun to deteriorate, triggered by their conflicting views on governance. In Mahathir’s absence, Anwar had independently taken radical steps to improve the country’s governing mechanisms which were in direct conflict with Mahathir’s capitalist policies. Issues such as how Malaysia would respond to a financial crisis were often at the forefront of this conflict.

 

Anwar’s frontal attack against what he described as the widespread culture of nepotism and cronyism within UMNO (and the ruling coalition as a whole) angered Mahathir, as did his attempts to dismantle the protectionist policies that Mahathir had set up.  “Cronyism” was identified by Anwar as a major cause of corruption and misappropriation of funds in the country.

 

During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis Anwar, as finance minister, supported the International Monetary Fund (IMF) plan for recovery. He also instituted an austerity package that cut government spending by 18%, cut ministerial salaries and deferred major projects. “Mega projects,” despite being a cornerstone of Mahathir’s development strategy, were greatly curtailed.

 

Although many Malaysian companies faced bankruptcy, Anwar declared:  “There is no question of any bailout. The banks will be allowed to protect themselves and the government will not interfere.”  Anwar advocated a free-market approach to the crisis, including foreign investment and trade liberalization. Mahathir blamed currency speculators like George Soros and supported currency controls and tighter regulation of foreign investment.

 

In 1998, Newsweek magazine named Anwar the “Asian of the Year.”  However, in that year, matters between Anwar and Mahathir came to a head around the time of the quadrennial UMNO General Assembly. The Youth wing of UMNO, headed by Anwar’s associate Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, gave notice that it would initiate a debate on “cronyism and nepotism.”  At the General Assembly, a book, 50 Dalil Kenapa Anwar Tidak Boleh Jadi PM (“50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister”) was circulated containing graphic allegations as well as accusations of corruption against Anwar.  The book was written by Khalid Jafri, an ex-editor of the government-controlled newspaper Utusan Malaysia and former editor-in-chief of a failed magazine, Harian National. Anwar obtained a court injunction to prevent further distribution of the book and filed a lawsuit against the author for defamation.  Police charged the author of the book with malicious publishing of false news.  Among the allegations in the book was that Anwar is homosexual. The police were instructed to investigate the veracity of the claims. In what the Sydney Morning Herald termed a “blatantly political fix-up,” Anwar was arrested on  Sept. 20, 1998. He was subsequently charged with corruption for allegedly interfering with police investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct made against him. While he was in police custody in 1998, Anwar was beaten by the then Inspector General of Police, Rahim Noor. Rahim was subsequently found guilty of assault and jailed for two months in 2000.  He made a public apology to Anwar and paid undisclosed damages.

 

In April 1999, following a trial widely believed to be unfair, Anwar was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Two months later, he was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, which he was ordered to serve after he completed his six-year sentence for the sodomy case.  His trial and conviction were widely discredited by the international community. Amnesty International stated that the trial proceedings “exposed a pattern of political manipulation of key state institutions including the police, public prosecutor’s office and the judiciary.”  Many world leaders, including U.S. Vice President Al Gore, called for his release from prison. His conviction was overturned by the Malaysian Supreme Court and Anwar was finally released from solitary confinement on Sept. 2, 2004.  In July 2008, he was arrested over allegations he sodomized one of his male aides, but was acquitted of the charge in January 2012.  The presiding judge ruled that DNA evidence used in the case had been compromised.  However on March 7, 2014 (the day before Flight 370 took off), the appeals court overruled the High Court, reinstating the conviction. The decision came as Anwar was preparing to contest a by-election on March 23, 2014 which he was expected to win. The conviction prevented him from standing.  Human Rights Watch was critical of the decision saying it was politically motivated.

 

Shortly after Anwar was dismissed as deputy prime minister by the then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar and his supporters initiated the Reformasi movement.  It consisted of several mass demonstrations and rallies against the long-standing Barisan Nasional coalition government.

 

The target of the reformasi campaign was then Prime Minister Mahathir, who was perceived as corrupt and having stayed too long in office.  The legacy of the reformasi movement, however, was felt during Malaysia’s 2008 general election, in which the People’s Justice Party (PKR) led by Anwar Ibrahim won 31 parliamentary seats.  As a result of the electoral success of the PKR, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, and the Democratic Action Party coalition coalition, the Barisan Nasional government lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament.

 

At the 1998 APEC Summit in Kuala Lumpur, the Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, gave a speech supporting Anwar and the reformasi movement in front of the Prime Minister of Malaysia and other Asia-Pacific premiers.

 

Reformasi led to the formation of a new multiracial-based party named Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party). In 1999, a general election was held. The new Parti Keadilan Nasional, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, and Democratic Action Party formed a Barisan Alternatif  (Alternative Front), in a combined initiative to replace the standing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government. In August 2003, Parti Keadilan Nasional merged with Parti Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian’s People Party) to form Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) or People’s Justice Party headed by Wan Azizah as president. PKR made huge gains in the 2008 general election, winning 31 seats and becoming the largest opposition party in parliament.  On April 2008, PKR, PAS and DAP formed a new alliance named Pakatan Rakyat.

 

With the sodomy verdict partially overturned in 2004, Anwar was released from prison as he had already served his sentence for the corruption offence.  The original author of the book died in 2005 of complications from diabetes but not before the High Court found that he had committed libel and awarded Anwar millions of ringgit in compensation.

 

UMNO sees itself as Malay nationalist, moderate Islamist and fiscally conservative representing the Malays of Malaysia, although any Bumiputra (indigenous Malaysian, a category which includes people such as the non-Malay and usually non-Muslim Kadazan, Iban, Davak, etc. of East Malaysia) may join the party. UMNO is generally regarded as the “protector and champion of Malay supremacy, which states that Malays are the rulers of Malaysia or  “masters of this land,” as stated by former UMNO Youth Information Chief Azimi Daim in 2003. The party’s advocacy of the primacy of the rights of the Malays is sometimes viewed by non-Malays as coming at the expense of non-Malay rights.

 

But of late, many Malay politicians have strongly tried to revive the spirit of Malay nationalism and patriotism but with more emphasis on Malay unity and a return to Islamic doctrine as to counter PAS claimed that the party is the one and only Islamic party in the country. Among the politicians involved are Ibrahim Ali, member of Parliament from Pasir MAS, Zulkifli Noordin, Member of Parliament from Kulim Bandar Baru and Naseron Ismail, chairman of Waris PEKEMBAR, a support group within UMNO fold who wanted more changes in the leadership and for UMNO members to fully uphold its Constitution while struggle for the Malay rights and continuity.

 

Given this perspective and Shah’s political proclivities, one has to wonder whether Capt. Shah hijacked the plane in protest of Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest.  Were his passengers Chinese ethnic Malays who practiced one of the minority religions?  The statistics from Wikipedia indicate 83.6 percent of ethnic Chinese Malaysians practice Buddhism.  Since Ibrahim, while “fiscally conservative” was clearly a radical Muslim.

 

Some conspiracy theories suggest Shah was steering his jet towards Kazakhstan or Pakistan, with a cargo loaded with weapons.  But Pakistan is getting plenty of military hardware from the Russian Muslims.  Was he looking to load his plane up with weaponry?  Or was he bringing weaponry to a much needier Muslim group – the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Province of China?

 

How much anti-Chinese sentiment did Capt. Shah bear towards his passengers?  That the re-arrest of his political hero, preventing Ibrahim from participating in the March 25th elections, could influence Shah is practically indisputable.  However, preparation for such a hijacking would have taken more than a day’s planning.  Was he aware of the significance of the date?  Was it just coincidence that he (or someone else) apparently cut off communications at the Vietnamese air space?

 

Given the political background, it’s easy to see why the Malaysians have been reluctant to share information with the media.  At some point, if the northern route theory is correct, the airliner would have had to fly, for some hours, over China.  Yet China, to no one’s surprise, has not been forthcoming with any information.

 

Not so much as a ping.

 

 

 

 

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Published in: on March 17, 2014 at 1:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

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