Fiasco over missing airliner just the latest example of country's inept leadership.
As errors, misstatements, retractions and head-scratching rationalizations tumble over each other in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the world is coming to recognize what the country has known for decades — that Malaysia's leaders are accustomed to getting away with murder.
Sometimes figuratively: For example, with elections looming and Prime Minister Najib Razak losing popularity, top opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim recently was sentenced to five years in prison on a sodomy charge. Two years ago, Anwar, who enjoys support in Washington, was acquitted after spending six years in prison on the same charge.
And sometimes perhaps literally: In October 2006, the gruesome remains of a human body were discovered on a remote hilltop outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's principal city. There was no corpse, really, just hunks of flesh and shattered bone. DNA determined that the victim was a 28-year-old Mongolian woman who had been involved in a long love affair with one of Najib's closest advisers.
These instances of real-life political shenanigans and pulp-fiction-style crime share deep cultural and behavioral traits with Malaysia's clumsy handling of the mysterious Boeing 777 and the 239 people on board.
Spinning dubious stories
In the cases of the murder and the missing plane, Najib and other political leadershave felt free to spin their own dubious stories. The big difference is that this time, the world is watching as the leaders repeatedly are caught in their own web of claims and denials, allegations and refutations.
Where does this arbitrary political culture come from?
In 1969, following traumatic, bloody rioting between Malays and the substantial ethnic Chinese minority, the government granted a broad array of privileges to Malays, in effect ensuring them of perpetual power.
This quota system also enabled the ruling party, which has held office for 60 years, to ride roughshod over the facts, as we now see regarding the missing plane. Questions such as how two Iranians carrying false passports were allowed to board were bungled. The matter of the jetliner turning off course went unreported.
A full understanding of Malaysia's ineptitude on the world stage today isn't possible without recognizing the power elite's belief in its open-ended unassailability.
Until the jetliner flickered off Malaysian radar screens, that misplaced cockiness was best seen in the case of the murdered woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu. She had accompanied Najib, then defense minister, and his adviser, Abdul Razak Baginda, her lover, on a trip to Paris to purchase two French-built submarines and an overhauled Spanish sub for Malaysia's Navy.
The package was worth nearly $1 billion. French authorities are investigating whether the defense company gave a $100 million "commission" to Baginda. Shaariibuu, according to witnesses at her murder trial, demanded a $500,000 slice for her services as "interpreter."
Blind eye to justice
Once her remains were discovered, the short-reined domestic press turned a blind eye on the prime minister's evident connections, which he blithely denied. Baginda,an Oxford Ph.D., was imprisoned on charges of abetting the woman's murder.
A year later, the high court acquitted Baginda. He left the country. A private investigator he had hired quickly filed a stunning declaration in court, implicating the prime minster and his wife in organizing and covering up the crime. Baginda quoted a text message the prime minister allegedly sent him after the woman's remains were discovered: "I am seeing IGP (inspector general of police) at 11 a.m. today … matter will be solved ... be cool."
Within 24 hours, the private detective, without explanation, replaced his declaration with a new one that erased all references to the prime minister. Then he fled Malaysia.
In both documents, the detective identified two junior police officers on the prime minister's security detail as having carried out the killing. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to hang. That never happened. Last August, the pair were acquitted.
After eight years, the murder case remains unresolved.
Anwar is in limbo, appealing his sodomy conviction yet again.
Najib, prime minister for five years, until now has remained aloof and secure from the world's stares. With the disappearance of Flight 370 and the world pointing repeatedly to all the faulty information coming out of Malaysia, business as usual finally might be coming to an end.
Lewis M. Simons, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was based in Malaysia with his wife and two daughters, who were born there.