Friday, July 18, 2014

Malaysia in headlines for all the wrong reasons

Written for New Canadian Media, July 18, 2014

The plane departed from Amsterdam en route to Malaysia. It was shot down by two BUK missiles while flying over eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers and crew members were killed.

Only one passenger was confirmed to be Canadian and most passengers were Dutch, many of whom were top HIV/AIDS researchers on their way to a conference in Australia. Several passengers and all of the crew members were Malaysians; most were flying back to Malaysia to celebrate Eid with their families, in some cases, after years of living away from home.

This tragedy could not have happened at a worse time.

In March of this year, another Malaysian aircraft, MH370 disappeared without a trace while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Investigations are still ongoing and the search area has shifted several times. No discoveries have been made as to the whereabouts of the missing plane.

Both MH17 and MH370 were Boeing 777 aircraft.

Hotspot Malaysia

These tragedies have catapulted Malaysia into the limelight. After former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stepped down in 2003, Malaysia has essentially faded into oblivion on the global political stage. Now, within just four months, Malaysia is suddenly making international headlines -- for all the wrong reasons.

Most Malaysians I know are still reeling from shock. Since the majority of Malaysians subscribe to one religion or another, many are dealing with their grief and confusion through prayer and trust in God.

“Allah has better plans for her,” says Anna Samsudin, 31, of her close friend Nur Shazana Mohamed Saleh who was listed as a crew member on MH17. Samsudin says the perplexing circumstances of the plane crash made it even harder for her to come to terms with her friend’s death.

“Of all things, a plane crash?” Samsudin asked. 

“She was very a very kind-hearted and caring person, so when this happened, everyone felt it was a great loss,” Samsudin added. “We never thought she would be the first among us to go,” she said.

Samsudin says she last saw her friend in May and was looking forward to seeing her again on Eid. Flight attendant Nur Shazana had even made plans to break her fast with friends upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur. 

Putin the target?

MAS has offered to fly family members of the victims to Ukraine but specific details are still forthcoming.

As was the case with MH370, theories abound on social media. However, sources have confirmed MH17 was shot down by ground-to-air missiles over eastern Ukraine. 

An unnamed source speaking to Russia Today claimed that the original target was President Vladimir Putin's presidential jet, which followed the same flight path a mere 30 minutes after flight MH17 passed through the area. This theory is further bolstered by Putin's jet’s close resemblance to the MAS airplane.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has unequivocally condemned the shooting as a terrorist attack and denied any involvement. Both Russia and Ukraine have offered their full cooperation in investigating the crash. The U.S. has also called for a complete ceasefire in the region to open a humanitarian corridor for international crews to carry out their investigation.

As a Malaysian observing these events unfolding from a distance, I can see two possible implications from the twin airplane tragedy: the first is that international media attention will be diverted from reporting on Israel's assault on Gaza. Media observers and pro-Palestinian activists have noted a slight shift towards fairness and balance in Western media’s reports of Israel’s escalated assault on Gaza. MH17’s tragic loss will help reignite international fervour over the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and draw attention away from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

Airline bankruptcy

The second potential implication from these crashes is that Malaysia Airlines may finally go bust. The nationally-owned flag carrier is notorious for corruption within its highest echelons, which has led to near-bankruptcy losses. One of the more infamous corruption cases involved the airline's former managing director, Tajuddin Ramli.

Ramli’s control of Malaysia Airlines was rife with nepotism and projects contracted out to Ramli’s own family companies. The company was reporting losses between RM10-16 million a month while operating out of Frankfurt airport. By the time Ramli left MAS in 2001, the airline lost over RM8 billion (U.S. $2.54 billion). The Malaysian government dipped into public funds to bail the airline out of bankruptcy.

The airline also suffered intense criticism over its poor handling of MH370’s disappearance. Many passengers’ families, most of whom were Chinese nationals, remained clueless for days before receiving any definitive answers about the plane’s whereabouts. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s administration was slow to respond to inquiries and exposed serious breaches in Malaysia’s border security. When it was revealed that two passengers on board the plane travelled on stolen passports, the immigration department came under fire for not cross-checking them on Interpol’s list of stolen travel documents.

Allegations of MAS’s and the MH370’s mismanagement remain largely unaddressed.

Angst among crew

“When I first signed up with MAS years ago, I never imagined this could happen,” says an on-duty flight attendant who will not be named for obvious reasons. “Now I feel very unsafe,” she said, adding, “I couldn’t digest this information in the beginning.”

She knew many of flight MH17’s crew, which makes continuing on her shift as an attendant on tomorrow’s flight even more challenging. “I feel sad, scared, just mixed emotions. I keep wondering what is going to happen next?” she said.

Now, the shooting of MH17 over Ukraine’s contested territory raises old concerns about MAS’s poor management: why didn’t the airline divert its flight path as some airlines (including Air Canada) did following escalating hostilities between Russia and Ukraine? The presumed answer to this question may be that the path over eastern Ukraine was more cost-effective.

MAS is already facing stiff competition from Air Asia, a relatively new budget airline that is making headway in expanding its service delivery across the globe. With two planes lost within the span of four months and continuing allegations of corruption and mismanagement, the airline may finally find it hard to bounce back from these serious losses.

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