Why Malaysian officials can't seem to handle the heat over missing plane

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: Still no word on the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The plane with its 239 passengers and crew vanished almost a week ago. Confusion has marked the investigation all week. Even now, amid reports suggesting the plane flew for several hours towards the Indian Ocean, investigators still appear to have no firm clues as to its whereabouts. Almost from the start, Malaysian officials have been criticized for their handling of the crisis. They've been accused of being slow to release information and then of giving contradictory accounts. Kean Wong is a Malaysian journalist currently based in Washington. He says he's not especially surprised by the performance of Malaysia's officials and politicians.

Kean Wong: I suppose it really comes down to the problem of a rather monocultural political scene where you've had this party or coalition in power ever since Malaysia's independence over 50 years ago. You've had a sort of "inbreeding," if you like, of a lot of the culture, yet at the same time, Malaysia is very much a globalized top-20 trading nation in the world. It engages with the world in a pretty open, modern manner, except its politics haven't quite caught up. It still has this political culture that is stuck in a feudal time warp.

Hills: It's been interesting to see these press conferences and to hear about the missteps such as the three different press releases in a day. It seems like Malaysian officials seem to be in denial about the fact that the whole world is watching them. Let's hear a bit of that now from Malaysia's acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, speaking with reporters earlier this week.

Hishammuddin Tun Hussein: I don't think so. I think it's far from it. It's only confusion if you want it to be confusion. We have made it very clear that we've been very consistent in our approach.

Hills: That was the Transport Minister. He's also the Defense Minister, Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, who is in fact the cousin of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Kean Wong, how do you see the answers we're hearing? Do you see it as confusing?

Wong: It has been and I think basically even a lot of rather vociferous local commentators have acknowledged and lambasted the government for ineptly handling the critical first few days of this search and rescue operation. In many ways, it's unprecedented, that such a crisis has occurred. But it also reveals all these shortcomings of how the government has been run and the limits that the political system and the hobbled democracy has thrown up, lots of problems with the lack of talent at the top echelons. However, having said that, Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, the Defense Minister and acting Transport Minister, is probably among the best and most articulate of them and I think the daily press conferences clearly have improved since he started helming them the last few days.

Hills: Kean, you were the BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur for five years. That was from 1998 to 2003. Did you encounter the Malaysian government's discomfort with direct questions firsthand?

Wong: Many times, many times. But I think some of this has to do with the traditional culture that applies not only in Malaysia but across Southeast Asia in my experience in reporting from Indonesia and Singapore as well, where that western reporting, direct questioning style is in many ways at odds with a more traditional, forgiving, polite type of inquiry that occurs. But you can't excuse all of that, obviously, on just the culture alone. There is a problem that has been prevailing in Malaysia for some time over the way information is given, especially in a modern globalized economy like Malaysia where, to ration these things, becomes very difficult, especially with the internet being free and open like it is in Malaysia.

Hills: Malaysia journalist Kean Wong, thank you so much.

Wong: Thanks.