26 March 2014

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The Washington Post

IF YOU are perplexed by Monday’s announcement on the missing Malaysian airliner, no wonder. Prime Minister Najib Razak declared that the flight “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean, and the state-owned airline said that “we have to assume beyond a reasonable doubt” that the plane went down in the ocean, far off its course to Beijing. Both announcements were vague; neither said much about why or how.

From the moment the plane went missing, the Malaysian government has been ham-handed in its dealings with grieving families and the global glare of attention. It delayed for hours saying anything after the plane first vanished, and over the next few weeks much of the information it disseminated was conflicting, wrong or misleading.

Such a bizarre disaster would be difficult for any government to deal with, and a fair amount of uncertainty and confusion is expected. But the Malaysian government has shown signs of a deeper malaise that comes from a half century of rule without challenge or transparency. When the prime minister was about to make a statement recently, his spokesperson told reporters there would be no questions. According to Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, when reporters pressed for more access, the reply came back: “Go watch a movie.” When China, no champion of transparency, complains — as it did recently, asking for “more thorough and accurate information” from Malaysia — you know the depth of the problem.

Malaysia, ruled by the same governing coalition since independence, has enjoyed strong economic growth, and we had hopes before last year’s election that, if the vote was free and fair, the country would be on a path toward a more competitive democracy. Mr. Najib has taken steps toward modernization and reform, but the election fell short. Mr. Najib’s coalition won a majority of seats in Parliament largely through gerrymandered districts, while the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim won a popular majority and disputed the outcome. Clearly there is rising popular discontent with corruption, authoritarianism and ethnic favoritism of the ruling powers.

It is especially disturbing that the government has renewed its politically motivated prosecution of Mr. Anwar on dubious charges of sodomy in order to sideline him from politics. On March 7, he was sentenced to five years in prison by a court, overturning a 2012 acquittal. The move had the effect of removing him from eligibility to run in an important by-election. The use of the sodomy charge is shameful and archaic, but as Graeme Reid of Human Rights Watch pointed out this month in Foreign Policy, if upheld, it could effectively remove Mr. Anwar from politics for 10?years. Malaysia should not tolerate this brazen manipulation.

It is entirely premature to say what happened to the airplane. But it is not too early for Malaysia’s rulers to draw lessons from their unsteady performance of recent weeks and commit themselves to transparency and openness. Their alternative is not working.

 

26 March 2014

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Malaysiakini

Pakatan Rakyat akan mengusulkan rasa kurang senang mereka dengan badan kehakiman di Parlimen tidak lama lagi dan akan mendesak Speaker Dewan Rakyat, Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia untuk menyatakan pendiriannya.

Ketua Pembangkang, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim berkata pihaknya akan meperincikan cara untuk membawa perkara itu ke Parlimen susulan keputusan kes Liwat II dan sabitan kes hasutan MP Gelugor, Karpal singh baru-baru ini.

“Ke mana lagi kita mahu pergi jika bukan Parlimen? Ke jalan raya?” kata Anwar pada sidang media di lobi Parlimen hari ini.

Beliau turut menuduh yang badan kehakiman kini semakin bersikap perkauman dan tidak melindungi hak golongan minoriti.

“Seolah-olahnya seperti ada pertandingan dalam badan kehakiman untuk melihat siapa yang lebih pro-Umno.

“Pertandingan ini membunuh kehakiman,” katanya.

26 March 2014

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Malaysiakini

To the casual political observer, two facts from the recent Kajang by-election would have stood out.

Firstly, the turnout decreased from 88 percent in GE13 to 72 percent. Secondly, the majority of victory decreased from 6,824 in GE13 to 5,379 – a drop of 1,445 votes.

On the surface, these results may seem like a negative reflection on Pakatan Rakyat’s and specifically PKR’s campaign as part of the ‘Kajang Move’. But a more careful analysis of the results reveals important findings that are positive for Pakatan, moving forward.

Pakatan increased its popular vote from 56.8 percent to 59.7 percent, a 2.9 percent increase. While this increase may not seem significant, one has to take into account that the lower turnout most likely decreased Pakatan’s popular vote.

Most of those who did not vote for a variety of reasons – did not return from outstation, it was the start of the school holidays, and thought that the outcome was already decided – would have been Pakatan voters, especially the younger voters whose turnout decreased more than the older voters (more on this later).

Secondly, Pakatan won in 14 out of 16 polling stations (not including postal and early votes) in the by-election compared with 12 out of 16 polling stations in GE13.

In Sungai Sekamat, a 78 percent Malay polling station, Pakatan turned a 239-vote deficit into a 45-vote majority. In Taman Delima, a 74 percent Malay polling station, Pakatan turned a 123-vote deficit into a three-vote majority.

Even in the remaining two polling stations which Pakatan lost – Sungai Kantan and Batu 10 Cheras – the deficit was reduced from 420 to 225 and from 157 to 151 respectively (See table below).

Secondly, Pakatan managed to increase its share of Malay votes from 35 percent in GE13 to 46 percent in the by-election.

This 11 percent increase is no mean feat, considering the continued attempts to perpetuate a climate of religious and racial intolerance by certain groups in Malaysia such as Perkasa, as well those who sacrificed a chicken and gave a reward of RM1,200 to anyone who slapped Teresa Kok, MP for Seputeh, over her‘Onederful Malaysia’ YouTube video.

While Pakatan’s support among the Chinese did fall from 80 percent to 75 percent, this can largely be explained in terms of the lower turnout, especially among younger and likely pro-Pakatan supporters. As long as BN cannot overcome its negative image among younger Chinese voters, its deficit among this group of voters is likely to remain significant.

The Indian vote is harder to estimate. Given the small percentage of Indian voters, it is likely that Pakatan’s support among the Indians increased slightly from 60 percent to 65 percent, looking at the results from the polling stations with more than 15 percent Indian voters.

Greater support from young voters

Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, is the increase in Pakatan’s support among the youth.

For the unfamiliar, voters cast their votes according to polling streams or ‘saluran’. They are arranged according to age, with the older voters in saluran 1 and the younger voters in the later saluran.

The average vote won by Pakatan in the final polling stream or saluran for each polling station increased by seven percent, from 59 percent in GE13 to 66 percent. In comparison, the average vote won by Pakatan in the first polling stream or saluran – the saluran with the oldest voters – for each polling station remained the same at 49 percent.

What this means is that the increase in the support for Pakatan from 57 percent in GE13 to 60 percent in the by-election came mostly from the younger voters.

At the same time, the turnout rate among the youth saluran fell from 87 percent to 69 percent, an 18 percent fall. In comparison, the turnout rate among the oldest voters – the first saluran – fell from 83 percent to 73 percent, only a 10 percent fall. What this means is that if the turnout rate among the younger voters had fallen by a smaller amount, Pakatan’s support as well as majority would have increased.

This is significant because the youth vote – the final polling stream – has always been the most liable to swing to either side. This is why BN poured so much resources into youth-related programmes and branding activities such as 1M4U and the 1Malaysia Youth Fund.

If the Kajang by-election is a bellwether for a larger trend nationwide, then it heralds well for Pakatan.

The older voters who are more likely to be BN diehard supporters are slowly but surely being replaced by younger voters whose political allegiance is not certain.

They will be more influenced by issues which will hurt BN and help Pakatan – cost of living increases especially with the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST), high profile corruption cases, abuses of power, Bersih and electoral reform, environmental concerns, just to name a few.

They are also more likely to be swayed by social media that will compensate for the effects of BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia) cash handouts.

Challenges for Pakatan remain

The challenges for Pakatan to increase its vote share are still significant. Pakatan has to find ways to motivate younger people to register and to turn out to vote. Pakatan has to minimise its infighting so as to not turn off potential supporters.

It has to continue to showcase Penang and Selangor as models of governance in contrast to what BN is doing in Putrajaya. Pakatan has to increase its effectiveness as a check and balance on the BN government at the federal level and in the BN governed states. It must also strengthen its leadership at the local level, especially in the marginal seats and states.

This work is ongoing. And while the Kajang by-elections may not have been as decisive of a victory as Pakatan would have wanted, the underlying trends do point positively for Pakatan moving forward towards the next general election.

(Only data from 14 out of 16 polling stations were used because two polling stations only had two polling streams or saluran.)

26 March 2014

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TMI

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (pic) said today that Pakatan Rakyat will raise issues of judicial misconduct in Parliament next week, following concerns over the impartiality of judges.

The opposition leader voiced his concerns over the conduct of former judges and a series of judgments that he claimed was contrary to the rule of law and principles.

“Pakatan Rakyat will have to make a forceful stand on the misconduct of the judiciary. We insist that Parliament be more assertive and do not use the standard line that there is a separation of powers,” he said at a press conference at Parliament.

nwar’s remarks came following the appointment of former Chief Justice Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad as the chairman of National Unity Front, an organisation linked to Malay rights group Perkasa.

He also vowed to defend the rights of the Malays and Muslims “within the boundaries of law”.

25 March 2014

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I offer my deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the
239 passengers and crew of flight MH370 which has been announced by
the Prime Minister to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean.

There are no words to describe their pain, anguish and sorrow in the
face of this tragedy and all concerned must give them full support and
assistance in the days and months ahead no matter what it takes. Not
only should the media give them space and privacy but the authorities,
in their investigation, should show the greatest consideration to the
grieving families of the crew members.

Efforts to find the wreckage must be continued. That must remain the
priority even as many questions remain unanswered. The people, in
particular, the families and loved ones have a right to know all the
information and evidence concerning the crash particularly as to why
the government is certain, beyond reasonable doubt, that flight MH370
has crashed in the Indian Ocean.

Anwar Ibrahim

25th March 2014

25 March 2014

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Al Jazeera

The Myanmar government denies the latest report on violence against the Rohingya minority.

When news broke in mid-January this year of an alleged massacre of ethnic Rohingya Muslims near the town of Maungdaw in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, it elicited widespread international concern.

Shortly after the story made headlines in international media, spokesmen for the government of Myanmar, by contrast, issued a different account of the events denying that anyone had been killed.

Questions remain as to why or how they arrived at such a conclusion so quickly.

Following this, a number of NGOs and monitor groups released statements on the incident: The United NationsHuman Rights Watch and Fortify Rights augmented earlier press pieces on the reported slaughter, all of which strongly indicated that dozens had been killed, while the local police did not attempt to prevent the attack.

Around this time, the medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) independently corroborated claims of violence by publicly stating that they had treated people from the affected village of Du Chee Yar Tan.

These concurring reports from respected NGOs and media outlets stood sharply at odds with Myanmar’s hastily-issued and persisting living in denial rhetoric.

Shortly after this incident, MSF were expelled from the country; a suspension that was later revised to include Rakhine state only.

A farcical inquiry

In March, the final and most complete of three inquiries ordered by the Myanmar government in the wake of the alleged attack was released. Many had hoped that it would provide a balanced assessment of the available evidence, prefiguring a modification of Naypyidaw’s standpoint.

This, however, was not the case: In a manner reminiscent of the findings of Sri Lanka’s self-commissioned and heavily criticised“Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” report, the paper’s conclusions conveniently all but endorsed the position maintained from the beginning by the government.

While the investigators firmly denied doing the government’s bidding, however, when one reads the commission’s report, it appears to be so permeated with anti-Rohingya bias and methodological flaws.

In the report, which was distributed among NGOs and was not made available online, de facto opinion polls were cited as evidence and Rohingya testimony was used selectively . For example, the report’s authors refer to Rohingya statements approvingly when assessing the veracity of the claims related to the killing of the Rakhine policeman, but dismiss them when dealing with allegations of the slaughter of their brethren.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the report, beyond what some may consider its almost confessional symmetry with the stance of the government, are some of its recommendations. They read more like an attempt to license authoritarian practices than advance transparency or human rights.

One of the suggestions made is that the media and NGOs be unilaterally made to abide by “operational procedures” set by the government – by implication including how they report on such incidents – and that “firm and effective action” be taken against those that violate such impositions.

There are reasonable grounds to fear that if implemented, such measures could be used as a pretext to expel NGOs that speak out in similar circumstances in the future, or even grant the government effective veto power on statements by international groups.

Another striking recommendation was the security forces in Rakhine State be provided with training and equipment in order to better deploy “psychological warfare” in similar situations – evidently not for the benefit of any putative victims in such circumstances.

Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, an organisation which also investigated the incident, described the report in scathing terms. He contended that the inquiry’s paper represented a “surprisingly crude cover up” of the events near Maungdaw, noting also that “following the violence, the village was cordoned off for an extended period of time and important questions remain about the location of bodies”.

“The commission’s self-imposed methodology required physical evidence of dead bodies to even suggest killings may have taken place. That’s a conveniently high evidentiary threshold, basically allowing the government to call into question the UN report… Entire firsthand testimonies from Rohingya were discounted for lack of evidence or because alleged victims names weren’t on the household registries,” he added.

Given the above, for anyone to suggest that the issues related to Du Chee Yar Tan have been “dealt with” by the government, would be intellectually dishonest in the extreme.

But this should surprise no one: In order to judge Naypyidaw’s interest in the human rights of the Rohingya, one has to simply review its response to damning evidence of such crimes over the past 12 months.

When Human Rights Watch accused state agencies of complicity in crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at the Rohingya in 2013, the president simply dismissed the accusations against security forces and the military as a “smear campaign”. When protesters against the Letpadaung copper mine were burnt with white phosphorous by the police in Northern Myanmar in 2012, impunity reigned in the aftermath.

Most recently, when careful analysis of leaked government documents by Fortify Rights proved beyond doubt that Naypyidaw is backing the persecution of the minority as part of long-standing government policy, a spokesman for the president contemptuously responded ”we never pay attention to organisations such as Fortify Rights, which openly lobby for the Bengalis”.

The government of Myanmar refers to Rohingya as “Bengalis”, in accordance with its official depiction of the group as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, who entered the country during the British colonial era. Such a stance is at variance with evidence that strongly indicates that the group have a far longer history in the country.

Official silence

Meanwhile, for the Rohingya, life is only getting worse. Now that MSF has gone, according to sources in the press and reliable contacts on the ground with whom I have spoken, so have all emergency services. This is no small matter, and its consequences are being felt already. According to the New York Times150 people have already died, including 20 women in childbirth – and more will inevitably die, as MSF torturously negotiates some way to return.

As the plight of the minority continues to worsen, moving with a trajectory that appears deeply ominous, it remains an issue that those ultimately responsible – the government of Myanmar – have hardly been taken to task about by politicians from Muslim nations. Turkey, perhaps the best respondent to the crisis, has been rather mild in its criticism of the government.

Members of ASEAN, with influence over the country, are perhaps the most culpable of neglect in this regard.

As a consequence, this friendless and highly imperilled minority are made even more hopeless, to the shame of those who can and should be doing more. This begs the question: How much worse do things have to get before appropriate pressure is placed on Myanmar by the Muslim world?

It is a question that may yet be answered in the grimmest fashion.

25 March 2014

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Yahoo! News

A summary of the questions answered, and still pending, about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Monday announcement:

WHAT WE KNOW

THE PLANE CRASHED: Najib said satellite data showed the flight “ended in the southern Indian Ocean,” confirming that the Boeing 777 that disappeared more than two weeks ago went down in a remote corner of the ocean, “far from any possible landing sites.”

ITS LAST POSITION: A British company calculated satellite data obtained from the remote area of the ocean, using analysis never before used in an aviation investigation of this kind, and pinpointed the last spot the flight was seen in the air was in the middle of the ocean west of Perth, Australia.

NO SURVIVORS: Najib left little doubt that all 239 crew and passengers had perished in the crash; the father of an aviation engineer on the flight said, “we accept the news of the tragedy. It is fate.”

QUESTIONS REMAIN

WHO AND HOW: Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next. Authorities are considering the possibilities including terrorism, sabotage, catastrophic mechanical failure or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.

WHAT’S FLOATING IN THE OCEAN: The prime minister didn’t address whether investigators had confirmed floating objects in the ocean and images captured by several countries’ search parties, including that of France and China, were debris from the plane.

25 March 2014

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Yahoo! News

Have the Malaysians finally stopped trashing the pilots?

After 16 days of trying to give their own spin to the few facts available about the pilots of Flight MH370, the authorities in Kuala Lumpur have changed the narrative in a significant way.

First came the statement by officials Sunday that the Boeing 777’s change of course was programmed into its computers after, and not before, the last voice message from the cockpit was received. Now a later development, first reported by CNN, indicates that after the course change the airplane descended to 12,000 feet.

The sourcing of these statements remains obscure, but the fact that they were made public suggests an acknowledgement that the timeline no longer supports the implied complicity of the pilots in some kind of criminal act. On the contrary, a picture is emerging of the pilots not only struggling to save the 777 but going through precisely the steps they should in an emergency….

First, change to a heading that would take them to the nearest available runway in Vietnam and Malaysia able to handle the airplane;

Second, precipitate fall in altitude from the cruise height of 36,000 feet that would be consistent with the pilots responding to the effects of either a loss of cabin pressure or the consequences of smoke or toxic fumes in the cabin—in those circumstances it would be essential to get down to below 10,000 feet. In the case of cabin pressure, it would be done to stabilize the cabin atmosphere and in the case of smoke, it would be urgent to get on the ground as fast as possible.

Let us recall the original picture carefully assembled by a series of statements by the Malaysian authorities:

It began with assertions that the two systems the airplane depended on to maintain its contact with the ground—the transponder that received and transmitted its position and the system called ACARS that sent bursts of data every 30 minutes about its vital functions—had been switched off.

Suggesting that there was something sinister about disabling the ACARS made no sense. It was not a surveillance device that could betray intrusion or malpractice on the flight deck. Disabling the transponder, on the other hand, would be consistent with deliberately wanting to render the 777 untraceable, but it would not have made it invisible to the radar coverage of the area, civilian and military.

Something more than semantics was involved in the way the Malaysians set up this picture—“switched off” unambiguously implies direct action, “disabled”—another term used—is more of a weasel word that can leave you wondering whether the action was accidental or by design.

Then came stories about the 777 taking a bizarre and erratic course—beginning with a sudden ascent to 45,000 feet and then a rapid descent—no matter that because the 777 was still heavy with fuel it would have struggled to reach even 38,000 feet and that at 45,000 feet, well outside its safe flight envelope, it would have been uncontrollable. All of this was part of planting the idea that such a bizarre trajectory was designed to evade radar—as if the 777 had suddenly gained the agility of a fighter rather than an airliner weighing 330 tons. Even a rapid descent has been painted, absurdly, as a “low and quiet” run under the radar.

Then there were the more personal inferences. The captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was an active supporter of the Malaysian political opposition. True. So you make a convincing political statement on behalf of more liberal causes by disappearing an airplane full of people? Sinister, right?

The captain had a home-built flight simulator. True. Home simulators vary from being basically a video game to replay great air battles of World War II to far more sophisticated equipment able to give a fairly realistic test of flying skills (the simulators used for airline pilot training and refresher courses are far more formidable and include motion and aural emergencies). Captain Shah, like other dedicated professionals, was known as a guy who liked to promote the skills of his craft.

The Malaysians staged very public raids on Captain Shah’s home and took away the simulator, sustaining their narrative that something damning had been hidden. Then it turned out that some items had been deleted from the hard drive and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been called in to investigate. Even fishier was the implication. Reaching a risible height of paranoia, one commentator actually suggested that, given the 777’s erratic course, Captain Shah—with more than 18,000 hours flying airliners—had been practicing left turns on his simulator.

What has come of all of this? Zilch.

Here’s another perspective—the story of what happened on the flight deck of Air France 447 before it disappeared into the ocean in 2009.

French air crash investigators were able to reconstruct the final minutes in the cockpit of the Airbus A330. There were three pilots on that flight: Captain Marc Dubois, First Officer David Robert, and a far less experienced pilot, Pierre-Cedric Bonin. Bonin was flying the airplane at the time when its flight control computers suddenly quit, requiring him to take over.

Captain Dubois was in the cabin, not on the flight deck, even though he knew that the A330 was flying through a band of severe thunder storms generating a great deal of turbulence. Nonetheless, first officer Robert had the most hours flying an A330, 4,479 (Captain Dubois had 1,700 hours) and Robert was sitting alongside the rookie Bonin who had only 807 hours on A330s.

By the time Dubois got back into the cockpit it was too late to save the airplane—neither Robert nor Bonin had taken the steps necessary to avoid a high-speed stall. They could have saved the airplane but they didn’t.

Imagine where the speculation could have taken this scenario—a captain not in the cockpit at the time of an emergency, French no less! Back in first class!  Champagne! Flight attendants!

Yet there is an important difference here—Malaysia Flight MH370 was less than an hour out of Kuala Lumpur and just beginning its cruise when whatever happened caused it to change course. Air France Flight 447 was already three hours out over the Atlantic and it was perfectly normal for a captain to have left the cockpit by that time, greet some VIP passengers and to trust his very experienced first officer to handle the airplane. (First officers do most of the flying anyway).

Captain Shah and his much younger and far less experienced first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, will never be able personally to answer for the fate of their airplane. Dead men cannot defend themselves. But right now none of the scant facts (frequently contradictory, sometimes withdrawn, often suspect) released justify the way they have been traduced.

25 March 2014

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TMI

Malaysia mourned flight MH370 last night when it was proved that the Malaysia Airlines jet with 239 people on board ended up in the Indian Ocean after it went missing on the way to Beijing on March 8.

As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak put it succinctly, it had been a heart-breaking few weeks after the Boeing 777-200ER (9M-MRO) vanished.

Perhaps this is the time for grieving and reflection on what has been dubbed as an “unprecedented aviation mystery” that has transfixed the world the past 17 days.

Where the confusion and lack of information had made so many clutch to rumour, innuendo, speculation and far-fetched theories and dreams about the fate of the 11-year-old jet, its 227 passengers and 12 crew members.

Was it a rogue crew? Was it a fire? Was it hijack? Was it slow decompression? What was it actually that turned a routine red-eye flight into a modern-day mystery equalling Amelia Earhart’s missing Pacific Ocean adventure?

We might know when the plane’s black box is found and analysed.

But make no mistake, there will be a time when Malaysians and the world community must demand for a thorough and honest appraisal on the circumstances surrounding flight MH370.

And we Malaysians will be derelict in our duty to the passengers and crew and their loved ones if we allow the Najib government to close the book on this sad episode without a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) or public inquiry.

For more than two weeks, we have hoped and prayed for a miracle. And in some small way, we have become family members of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, the Gomes clan, the Nari household, the 154 Chinese passengers, the Iranian immigrant and others on board the plane.

All religious and racial divisions – put in place by politicians and emphasised by politicians –have been forgotten since MH370 went missing on March 8.

For more than two weeks, we have witnessed the best and worst of Malaysia.

The best: the empathy, outpouring of love towards those who lost their lives and those they left behind.

The worst: the mediocrity of Malaysia’s government agencies; the abysmal decline of competence and the command of English at the highest levels of government.

We have also become Malaysia Airlines, our loss-making flag carrier that went all the way to take care of the families and loved ones of MH370′s passengers and crew members.

Military personnel and experts from nearly 30 countries have become a part of us in the search for the missing plane since March 8.

So, if the government truly respects the lives lost and the help given to Malaysia, then Putrajaya must convene an RCI on the crash that has become the world’s focus.

After all, Najib last night said that two factors under pinned the investigation into MH370:  commitment to openness and respect for the families of the passengers.

The families need to know. The government needs to know. And we need to know all the circumstances surrounding flight MH370 from the moment it left Kuala Lumpur until it ended up in the Indian Ocean.

20 March 2014

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The New York Times

At a coffee shop in Bangsar, an affluent Kuala Lumpur suburb, the lunchtime crowd gossips and checks the news on their smartphones. Making the rounds is a YouTube video in which a bomoh — a local shaman — and two acolytes, sitting on a “magic carpet” in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, perform a ritual to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing since March 8.

At any other time the video, a perfect example of Malaysian self-mockery, would be a good-natured affirmation of our eccentric shortcomings. But these aren’t ordinary times. The search for Flight 370 has spotlighted the tensions beneath one of Asia’s success stories, and the video is an uncomfortable reminder of Malaysia’s troubled reality.

A British colony until 1957, Malaysia now has a G.D.P. per capita of over $10,000, roughly twice that of Thailand and three times that of Indonesia. Cesar Pelli’s glorious Petronas Twin Towers, briefly the tallest buildings in the world, illuminate the Kuala Lumpur skyline. In the adjoining mall, Western luxury brands are peddled to a booming middle class. Malaysia Airlines, whose fleet boasts the gigantic Airbus A380 and is one of a handful of 5-star-rated airlines, is central to the branding of this “New Malaysia.”

Yet confidence in our leadership is brittle, and it takes little for frustrations to boil over. A coalition known as Barisan Nasional, or BN, led by the United Malays National Organization (the country’s ethnic-Malay governing party), has held power since independence, presiding over both economic growth and controversial policies that confer significant advantages in education, business and government on ethnic Malays, who make up some 60 percent of the population. The BN’s dominance has prompted allegations of corruption, cronyism and complacency, particularly regarding government-owned companies, such as Malaysia Airlines, which posted losses of over $350 million in 2013. Kuala Lumpur and Penang have seen dramatic rises in crime over the past decade. Some critics fault the BN’s policies for alienating minority groups and point to its seeming inability to manage a police force widely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual.

Support for the government is eroding, but critics say that attempts to effect change are frequently stifled. A day before Flight 370 disappeared, Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader, was convicted on the rarely used charge of sodomy and sentenced to five years in prison. Many see the decision, which overturns a previous acquittal, as politically motivated. It leaves him ineligible to run in an approaching election in Selangor, the country’s richest and most populous state, where victory would have afforded him considerable national influence.

Most people I speak to here acknowledge that an incident like the disappearance of Flight 370 is unprecedented and say they appreciate the monumental task facing the government. For many, however, the authorities’ ponderous response and mishandling of information mirror the way Malaysia is run. The offhand, sometimes defensive nature of the early press conferences, coupled with occasional attacks on the foreign media, are widely perceived as the arrogance of a government unaccustomed to global attention and accountability.

In addition to showcasing the country’s internal vulnerabilities, the disappearance of Flight 370 has underlined China’s increasing influence on Malaysia. That two-thirds of the passengers on Flight 370 were Mainland Chinese underscores the strength of current ties.

The impact of China’s economic rise is striking. Last October, a treaty signed by China’s president, Xi Jinping, elevated relations between the two countries to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” aimed at increasing military cooperation and tripling bilateral trade to $160 billion by 2017. Today, China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner; Malaysia is China’s third most important Asian market after Japan and South Korea.

This is a marked reversal of the longstanding distrust of the People’s Republic. From 1948 to 1960, Malaysia waged a bitter struggle with communist insurgents, many of them ethnic Chinese, and the conflict deepened racial tensions. Beijing, widely seen to be supporting the rebels, was regarded with suspicion as the specter of communism haunted relations long after the insurgency ended. Travel to China was restricted until the early 1990s.

These days the picture looks very different. Tourists from Mainland China are encouraged to come spend their cash in the shopping malls of Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Young Malaysian filmmakers are finding Chinese financing for their projects. Rich Malaysians are adding works by Chinese artists to their collections.

But some people fear Malaysia’s handling of the Flight 370 tragedy will damage blossoming socioeconomic ties. Two days after the jetliner disappeared, the frustrated Chinese government tersely demanded that Malaysian authorities “step up their efforts” to find the missing plane. How China, caught between anger and grief, exerts its considerable influence in the days and weeks to come will hint at its long-term strategy in the region.

In Malaysia, the expression “Malaysia Boleh,” which translates roughly to “Malaysia Can Do It,” or “Go, Malaysia,” is invoked to celebrate even the tiniest national achievement. It reflects a fragile self-confidence, revealing Malaysia’s sense of itself as superficially advanced but secretly lacking. It tacitly acknowledges that skyscrapers and luxury malls cannot mask the gap between rich and poor (the widest in Southeast Asia), persistent ethnic tensions, a fraught democracy, and a wave of high-profile violent crimes.

Like many in Kuala Lumpur, I scrutinize every scrap of information relating to Flight 370. I am gripped by the story, not only because hundreds of lives are involved, but because of what its outcome will mean to perceptions of Malaysia. As Malaysia navigates this tragedy in the glare of the world’s gaze, I anxiously await news of the plane and its passengers, and clues to the country’s evolution in the years ahead.

20 March 2014

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Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the pilot of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, is not an extremist, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Wednesday.

“He supports our multi-racial coalition. He supports democratic reform. He is against any form of extremism,” Anwar said of Zaharie, whom he said he has met “on a number of occasions.” “And we take a very strong position in clamoring for change through constitutional and democratic means.”

Pilot was ‘against any form of extremism’

With frustratingly few answers about the fate of Flight 370 nearly two weeks after it disappeared, some have starting probing the possible political inclinations of crew members.

Anwar, who has been the target of ongoing attacks from the ruling government, constitutes the main Malaysian opposition.

Some have tried to tie Zaharie to Anwar as a family relation.

Anwar’s press secretary told CNN that Zaharie is the opposition leader’s – wait for it – son’s wife’s mother’s father’s brother’s son.

“What my daughter-in-law told me is that he is a family member, not too close, but she calls him ‘uncle,’ which is quite common here,” Anwar said. “But I know him… basically as a party activist.”

There have been reports in Malaysian media that just hours before the plane took off on March 8, Shah attended a hearing for Anwar, who was sentenced to five years in jail after a court overturned his 2012 acquittal on a sodomy charge.

“He was not in the court,” Anwar said. “He may have been outside in the premises of the court, because the court has a limited capacity. But from what I gather, from many of our colleagues, nobody actually saw him in the premises of the court.”

Could Zaharie have had a particularly strong reaction to the sentencing of the party leader to which he was a devotee?

Did pilot react to court ruling?

“I gathered later from many of his colleagues and from what is written about him that he was disturbed – many others were disturbed. I mean, we were shocked and appalled by the speed of the process of the court of appeal.”

“But I think that’s quite normal. I don’t think it’s something that would trigger a person of his expertise, caliber, to do any unwanted activity. I am absolutely certain of that.”

Most theories about the fate of Flight 370 now point to the plane turning back over the Malaysian peninsula after its initial heading northwest towards its final destination, Beijing.

Malaysian officials should have been able to detect the plane if it flew back west, Anwar said.

Malaysia radar ‘had the capability’

“When they procured that Radar Marconi system in that Northern corridor, I happened to be the finance minister,” he told Amanpour. “They had the capability to detect any flight from the west – or from the east to the west coast, from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.”

The Malaysian government has become the target of passionate anger from the families of the missing passengers, who have gotten few answers about the fate of their loved ones.

“I find it shocking that (the government officials) are not able, that they were not able, or they give some very scanty sort of information.”

“The problem is credibility of the leadership. They are culpable because there is a general perception that they are not opening up, that there is an opaque system at work.”

Malaysian officials have defended their handling of the crisis, stressing that the situation is unprecedented.

“This is not a normal investigation,” Hishammuddin Hussein, the country’s defense and transport minister, said last week.

19 March 2014

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