Malaysia isn’t a place that regularly breaks into the international news cycle. Home to around 30 million people, it’s a country with a stable economy and a seemingly stable political structure that mostly keeps itself to itself.
In the past few weeks this situation has of course changed. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on 8 March has shone a spotlight on the country, its national carrier and its government, which is struggling to cope with both the lost plane and the subsequent questioning it now faces. As an authority that has held power since Malaysia’s independence from British rule in 1957, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is not a body accustomed to such accountability. So, while many outside Malaysia have expressed shock and anger towards the scrambled efforts of Hishammuddin Hussein – the country’s defence and acting transport minister – to address questions surrounding MH370, many Malaysians aren’t surprised at all.
Hishammuddin is a poster boy for Barisan Nasional, Malaysia’s ruling coalition of which the UMNO is a key part. Son of the country’s third prime minister, nephew of its second and cousin of Najib Razak – who is not only Malaysia’s current leader but also born of a similar political lineage as his cousin – Hishammuddin has long been considered a candidate for the country’s leadership. Such nepotism is present throughout most aspects of Malaysia’s political and economic framework but the governmental inefficiency which many Malaysians have become resigned to goes much deeper than simple family bias.
Malaysia’s political and social structure is underpinned by the notion of bumiputra – a Sanskrit word that translates to “son of the soil” and has held a key position in the country’s constitution since Malaysia’s independence. Making up around half of the country’s population, ethnic Malays (of which I am half) are the beneficiaries of these policies. From educational grants, investment opportunities, high-ranking jobs in business and important positions in government, a policy of affirmative action places Malays in powerful roles across all sectors. Devised as a method to grant power to native Malays following colonial preference for Chinese and Indian immigrant workers, bumiputra policies have contributed to an unaccountable, inward-looking government that promotes ethnicity over talent.
In the search for MH370, the international community is seeing behind the curtain into Malaysia’s inefficiencies. With much of its media state-owned and a poor press freedom rating, reporting in the country is highly controlled. And just a few days before the disappearance of the Beijing-bound plane, Anwar Ibrahim – a former Deputy Prime Minister and one of the country’s only recent, viable political opponents – was sentenced to five years in prison over a sodomy charge that was rushed through a Malaysian high court at unprecedented speed. Having run a campaign that put anti-affirmative action ideals at its core, Anwar’s opposition party dealt Barisan Nasional a huge blow in last year’s elections. And had he not been sentenced, Anwar would likely have won a state by-election yesterday that would have placed him as a chief minister. When not under the global spotlight, the Malaysian government does well to control its critics. Not afforded that position at the moment, the future is less clear than usual for Barisan Nasional.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle's Hong Kong bureau chief.