Arts, Culture & Media

Malaysia's missing plane has put the country's government in an awkward spotlight

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Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar (C), addresses a news conference on the two passengers who had travelled onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane on stolen passports in Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 11, 2014.

Malaysian officials held a briefing Thursday with relatives of Flight 370 passengers in a hotel near Kuala Lumpur.

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Journalists weren't allowed in.

After the meeting, one participant told reporters that it is "apparent that Malaysia's military is incapable of protecting its own airspace.''

That was seemingly a reference to the Malaysian military's failure to act on its own radar data in a timely manner.

But the frustration with the Malaysian government goes much further. For nearly two weeks now, officials in Kuala Lumpur have been criticized for their poor handling of the search, including possibly withholding key information.

James Chin thinks the world is getting a glimpse behind a curtain that's normally closed. Chin is a professor of political science at Monash University Malaysia.

"I think that it's quite clear that this government is not used to scrutiny by international media," he says. "They're not used to being questioned. They're not used to being transparent. And they do not like it when the rest of the world calls them incompetent. It makes them very annoyed and it makes them very angry."

Malaysia has been ruled by a single party, currently known as Barisan Nasional, since its independence in 1957. And the government runs runs the media, so it is accustomed to saying exactly what it wants, when it wants, no matter the inconsistencies.

Al-Jazeera journalist Zarina Banu says this behavior is commonplace. "The system is so entrenched, it shapes and permeates all layers of Malaysian society. Now, we're seeing it play out in how the administration is managing and communicating the investigation to the rest of the world," Banu says.

Chin saw such arrogance when he watched the initial press conferences. But he says that changed when Malaysia realized its approach didn't play well on the international stage. The government stepped-up communications. Top officials began talking with the press in place of lower-level ones.

Ernest Bower told CNN that Malaysia's response has something to do with its relatively safe position, geographically speaking. Bower is a senior adviser for Southeast Asia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says Malaysia doesn't have earthquakes or tsunamis. So this is the first disaster it's been tested with in recent memory.

Chin says it's the last big disaster since an airplane hijacking in 1977.

But while the government is angry at the scrutiny, many of their people are angry with the government. And for the first time, many Malaysians have the ability to broadcast their frustrations since the country is one of the most active south Asian countries on social media. People are voicing critiques on Twitter and Facebook.

But even with all the social media focus and international concerns, the government won't change, says Chin. "After this crisis is over, they'll go back to the old way of doing things."

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