The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the Malaysian government’s problems go way deeper than the handling of MH370

Hishamuddin Hussein, Malaysia's acting transport minister, and Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, give one of their many news conferences on MH370. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

The Malaysian government’s reputation has taken a beating during the last three weeks, as the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight has veered from one dead end to another. To outsiders, the country’s leadership has been maddeningly opaque and slow to take action, especially during the early days when the plane first disappeared.

But for some Malaysians, seeing their leaders holding almost daily news conferences to answer questions from reporters has been a pleasant surprise -- and something they're definitely not used to seeing.

“It’s a shame it takes a plane crash to make our government open and transparent,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Kuala Lumpur-based think tank, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. “What we’re seeing is a significant improvement from before.”

Of course, compared to international standards, Malaysia still has a long way to go, said Wan Saiful.

Such are the lowered expectations of the leadership coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), which has been in power basically since the country achieved independence from Britain in 1957. For years, the ruling group has been marked by aggressive quotas favoring ethnic Malays for top posts in government over Chinese Malaysians and Indians, who make up nearly one-quarter and 7 percent of the population, respectively. In fact, Malaysia has a long history of ugly ethnic tensions. A series of race riots in the early 1960s were so violent that they led in part to the expulsion of Singapore, with its Chinese ethnic majority, from the federation of Malaysia in 1965.

For years now, an opposition coalition led by the charismatic leader Anwar Ibrahim has tried to change the status quo.

And this is where things get interesting: MH370 vanished at a critical moment in Malaysian politics, a fact that has been obscured by the bizarre story of the plane's disappearance.

The evening before MH370 disappeared, a Malaysian court overturned a 2012 acquittal of Anwar on sodomy charges and sentenced him to prison for five years. The move, which supporters found brazen even by Malaysian standards, was unusual. It came late in the evening on a Friday, just weeks before Anwar was supposed to run in an important by-election. Human Rights Watch has called the legal case against Anwar "politically motivated persecution."

The court ruling on March 7 was a major blow to Anwar and his supporters. "How fast it happened, the severity," said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, a state assemblyman from Selangor, a wealthy state that surrounds the capital, Kuala Lumpur. "Many Malaysians were in deep shock."

Because of the court ruling, Anwar was unable to remain a candidate in the strategically critical March 23 by-election. If Anwar had been able to run, he would have been poised to become chief minister of Selangor, giving him a prominent perch from which to exert even more pressure on the ruling party. "It would have been very, very significant," said Nik Nazmi, who is also a former communications director for Anwar's party, the People's Justice Party, also known as PKR.

The day after the court ruling, supporters were getting ready to organize large-scale protests and rallies. And then the plane vanished.

“The opposition was certainly planning to capitalize on the verdict against Anwar,” said Wan Saiful. “But obviously with the disappearance of the plane, that derailed everything. It made Anwar completely disappear from the media.”

As the country's attention shifted to the plane, there were still echoes of the Anwar story. Some articles reported that the pilot of MH370, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a supporter of Anwar, was at the March 7 hearing, although no evidence has emerged confirming that. Regardless, Zaharie is a perfect person through which to understand Malaysia's politics. He is the prototypical supporter of the opposition party these days: urban-dwelling, educated, middle class, and tired of both the ruling party’s perceived corruption and the country's racialized politics. A growing number of people like him are exactly why the country's leadership has been increasingly on the defensive in recent elections.

Yet media reports, especially in the British media, have featured mysterious leaks portraying Zaharie as "fanatical," or cast suspicion on why he owned a home flight simulator. At one point, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that "evidence is consistent with someone acting deliberately from inside the plane."

These stories emerged in the earlier stages of the plane crisis, and have basically disappeared since then. But opposition supporters and others note that even while no one knows what happened to MH370, the damage to Zaharie's reputation has been done.

"Whoever leaked that information must have some sensibilities about political realities in Malaysia," said Wan Saifal.

And it's not just Anwar's troubles that have been overshadowed by the mysterious plane. Last week, a damning report by a group of nongovernmental organizations cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of last year’s general election, in which the ruling party lost the popular vote in its worst-ever showing. Because of the country's parliamentary system, Barisan Nasional still retained power. But the results enraged Anwar and other opposition supporters who thought they detected fraud.

The new report largely confirms their view.

“The Tribunal, having approached its task with an open mind, has found itself compelled to reach a conclusion that there were multiple failings in the way GE13 [the general election] was conducted, and that virtually every tenet of a fair election was violated at some place and at some time,” said the report by the People's Tribunal, which was set up by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, a group of nongovernmental organizations with the goal of reforming Malaysia’s electoral system.

The researchers also concluded that “had these elections been conducted properly the outcome would have been very different.”

A sample of the problems:

-- People were registered to vote in places where they did not live, in some cases being assigned polling places that were more than a three-hour drive from their residences. The problem of registering voters in the wrong place is so rampant that in 2003, the report says, it was estimated that 2.8 million out of 9 million registered voters were not registered in the correct constituency.

-- Polls closed many hours earlier than scheduled in areas with strong support for the opposition. In one location, witnesses reported that the polls were open for only three hours, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. “According to one witness … the polling station was closed sharp at 11 a.m. even though there was a long queue and some electors had already had their names verified on the register,” said the report.

-- Early voting ballots were frequently “lost” if they were for the “wrong” party.

-- Communities were promised benefits from the government if they voted in a certain way. If they didn't, there were threats that programs and services would be taken away.

-- Votes for opposition candidates went missing. One losing candidate, according to the report, showed evidence there were 1,605 missing votes in his constituency. He lost by only 460 votes. “It is notable that most of the evidence was of measures intended to benefit BN candidates,” wrote the report's authors.

Like Anwar's court decision, the report has received little notice compared to MH370.

The missing plane, by pushing aside bigger political stories, has for a moment united Malaysia, a country so often split along ethnic and political lines.  Many people feel defensive in the face of sharply critical reviews from foreign media of the government's performance.

“It’s an us versus them situation," said Wan Saiful.

But that level of comity is unlikely to last. The plane is merely a temporary diversion from Malaysia's bigger issues. And whether or not the search for MH370 ever yields answers, this strange story has cast a large spotlight on Malaysia's government as it tries to prove to the world -- and to its own people -- that it can be trusted.