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One year later, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is still Malaysia’s biggest story, dominating front pages when even the smallest new details emerge. That’s with good reason. The missing flight, and the Malaysian government’s controversial early responses to it, have had a staggering impact on the country. Politically, diplomatically, and economically, Malaysia is vastly different than it was a year ago.
Transparency at the top. For more than 50 years, Malaysia has been ruled by the same governing coalition, one with a reputation for lacking transparency and scorning media scrutiny. Its inexperience dealing with the press became apparent in the hours and then days following MH370’s disappearance. Senior Malaysian officials held meetings with international journalists during which they were evasive, contradictory, and even condescending. At a March 10 presser, for example, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, the Defense Minister, petulantly answered one question by snapping: “You are talking to a defense minister and acting transport minister. I wouldn’t know.”
For those were covering Malaysia for the first time, such evasions made it seem that Malaysia might be hiding something it knew about the disappearance. The scathing criticism that followed in the international press was an embarrassment for most Malaysians.
The blowback was immediate, especially on Facebook and other social media, where Malaysians expressed astonishment and anger at their government’s seeming incompetence. The Malaysian government surely recognized this as a potential threat: 10 months earlier, the young, middle-class urban Malaysians who dominate social media were the voters responsible for handing Malaysia’s ruling coalition an unexpected loss in the popular vote of the May 2013 general election. (The coalition held onto power because of the way that parliamentary seats are apportioned.)
The government heeded the online anger, and quickly became more forthcoming about what exactly it did and did not know about MH370 — including unflattering revelations about Malaysia’s slow initial response to the disaster. This marked an almost unprecedented degree of transparency and public accountability for the Malaysian government. And that was only a prelude to the government’s quick and coherent response to the downing of MH17 over Ukraine several months later.
More importantly, Malaysia’s independent media and political opposition were energized by the government’s sudden responsiveness. MH370 was proof that enough pressure (combined with international shaming) could bring at least some transparency to Malaysian politics and governance. In the year since the disappearance, independent media and Malaysia’s opposition have been much more aggressive in their questioning of the government. And they’ve produced real results, including a long-sought audit of a Malaysian government development fund plagued by allegations of financial mismanagement.
Pivot to the U.S. Of the 227 passengers on MH370, 153 were Chinese. In the days and weeks after the disappearance, China’s official media criticized the Malaysian government’s efforts and attitude. At the same time, it permitted families of Chinese victims to publicly berate the Malaysian ambassador and — in otherwise protest-free Beijing — allowed them to hold a rowdy demonstration outside of the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing.
In Malaysia, popular sympathy for the Chinese quickly gave way to online revulsion and a public rebuke from the Malaysian defense minister, who said that flawed Chinese satellite data had “distracted” Malaysia from the search for the plane. Such open hostility marks a significant shift in Malaysia. According to a July 2014 Pew Research Center study of global opinion toward the U.S. and China (taken during the first month of the MH370 controversy), Malaysia was one of two Asian countries where the population viewed China as its chief ally — and one of three that recognized the U.S. as its chief threat. Bilateral relations with China were so close in 2013 that a Malaysian official announced that Malaysia was willing to collaborate with China on developing natural resources in the South China Sea — a blatant break with other countries in the region.
That spirit of cooperation is now gone. Not long after the disappearance, a former Malaysian ambassador to Beijing told the Malaysian Insider that he believed that China’s reaction revealed a “bullying tendency,” and added: “China has bullied the Philippines and Vietnam. So Malaysia has to be careful.” He also said that Malaysia should review ties between the two countries.
Over the last year, the Malaysian government has also made an effort to build closer ties with the United States. It even invited U.S. spy planes to use bases on Malaysian territory — an invitation that likely infuriated China. Though MH370’s disappearance isn’t solely responsible for this important diplomatic hedge, it certainly played a key role in widening a gap that barely existed on March 7, 2014.
Privatizing the public economy. Founded in 1972, state- owned Malaysia Airlines has long been one of Malaysia’s most prominent GLCs — or government-linked companies — that make up an astonishing 54 percent of the entities on the Kuala Lumpur Composite Index, and dominate key industries across the country. They are government controlled and owned, and widely viewed as patronage programs that bleed public cash. However, even before MH370 disappeared, Malaysia Airlines was in dire financial condition, having lost money for three years straight (while most other airlines worldwide were booming).
Prior efforts at making the airline more efficient were vetoed by — among others — Malaysia’s powerful unions. But the precipitous drop in ticket revenue that followed the disappearance of MH370 (and then, MH17) brought the company to the edge of bankruptcy and dissolution. Rather than allow what would be viewed as a national humiliation, Khazanah Nasional, the sovereign wealth fund that controls the airline, took it private, and hired a foreign CEO– the first in its history — who is cutting 6,000 jobs, in addition to many of the airline’s international routes outside of Asia.
It’s a pragmatic step for a company that remains one of Malaysia’s signature brands, and it raises modest hopes that a stubborn Malaysian government will be willing to treat other GLCs similarly — especially as its oil-dependent economy falters. That the discussion is even possible, however, is solely the result of MH370.
This article was written by Adam Minter from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.