March 31, 2014
Is Hishammuddin Hussein, voice of Malaysia on flight MH370, headed for the top?
After a brush with death and addressing world’s media on flight MH370, Hishammuddin Hussein’s personal journey may yet take a dramatic turn
by Satish Cheney in Kuala Lumpur
When Malaysia Airlines flight 370 went missing, the country’s Defence Minister and Acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, may have recalled his own brush with death.
Just last year, a helicopter he and his family were travelling in toppled over onto its side after landing at a site in Kuala Lumpur. Strong winds were blamed. No one was hurt, but the incident left the Minister dazed.
The 52-year-old would surely have never imagined that almost a year later, he would be behind efforts to co-ordinate more than two dozen nations to crack the biggest mystery in modern aviation history. Hishammuddin has also become the face of Malaysia to the international media.
When the Boeing 777 went missing on March 8, Prime Minister Najib Razak initially turned to civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, an unknown civil servant, to hold the fort.
But after a series of blunders, the former air traffic controller was promptly replaced by Hishammuddin as the man to handle the intense global scrutiny at the daily press conference. It was no easy task. Information about the flight and its possible fate came at a snail’s pace and to make things worse, some of the statements were soon after retracted, leading to confusion and contradiction.
This fanned the flames of anger in Beijing – two-thirds of the passengers on the flight were Chinese nationals.
And all this took place under the relentless gaze of the modern 24-hour news operation and its incessant demand for information.But as talking heads on television channels and angry relatives continued to attack the credibility of Hishammuddin and Malaysia over their jittery handling of the crisis, there could be a surprising twist in the tale.
Despite the controversies, the saga may unwittingly provide the extra impetus Hishammuddin needs to become the next prime minister of Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy.
“If all these relentless foreign [media] attacks persist, Malaysian people may indeed rally around him as a reaction,” said Oh Ei Sun, who was Political Secretary to Najib when he became Prime Minister in 2009.
“Domestically, it has actually enhanced his credentials as most locals perceive him as doing reasonably well under very tough circumstances.”
Local reporters covering Hishammuddin’s daily press conferences emphatically say there isn’t anyone else in the Malaysian cabinet who could do a better job of handling the crisis. One of them, who works for a popular newspaper, said: “If you have met any of our other ministers, you will know why. Najib is the only one that can maybe do equally well, but probably not better.”
And it’s not just the Malaysian media that holds this view. A taxi driver, who wanted to be known only as Tan, said: “The government here is no good and there is always a lot of corruption.
“But Hishammuddin is not corrupt and he isn’t embarrassing Malaysia on television. He is doing his best, I can see.”
Malaysians are also favourably comparing Hishammuddin’s handling of the MH370 crisis with his previous poor performance dealing with the country’s biggest security threat of recent times, when a group of armed Filipino rebels who claimed allegiance to its former rulers invaded Sabah last year claiming the Malaysian state belonged to them.
“He wasn’t good and there was much criticism from locals back then,” said Sivamurugan Pandian, of the School of Social Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“Now he’s so much different and it’s true that most Malaysians feel he is doing a good job.”
Oh, who worked for Najib for two years, explained why there is an apparent dichotomy in terms of foreign and local perceptions of how Hishammuddin is handling the flight crisis.
“I think this is mainly because the foreign media is more used to confronting specialists who know the subject matter by heart and not politicians who depend on prior briefings, especially when it comes to press conferences. The local media, on the other hand, are mostly used to ‘reporting’ and not ‘critiquing’.
“The local audiences are also more easy going [so] they might think what Hishammuddin has been doing is adequate enough,” said Oh, now a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Hishammuddin’s tilt at the premiership is still far from assured. Even though he beat the son of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last October to become one of the three vice-presidents in the dominant party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), it will take more than just popularity to become Prime Minister.
“UMNO politics is not so much about being popular. It is about clever distribution of largesse to various interest groups in UMNO, which in turn would usher in political support,” said Oh.
“So far, it appears that his [rivals] are doing quite well on that score.”
But Malaysia is no stranger to producing surprising political results. In the early 1970s Mahathir Mohamad didn’t attract very favourable odds as a prime ministerial contender. He went on to hold the post for 22 years from 1981, making him Malaysia longest serving premier.
Pundits also thought it was unlikely that Abdullah Badawi would one day become the leader of the country before his six years as premier from 2003.
However, Hishammuddin has his fair share of controversial baggage that’s weighing him down. In 2005, he waved a keris ( a Malay sword and symbol of Malay nationalism) while giving a speech at the UMNO Assembly. This angered the Chinese and Indian communities in the country who saw the gesture as a form of racial politics.
Then in 2009, when a Hindu temple was to be relocated to a Muslim majority area, some Muslims protested by marching with the severed head of a cow, a sacred animal in Hinduism.
Hishammuddin – the then the Interior Minister – defended the actions of the protesters. Yet Hishammuddin does have a lot going for him on the political legacy front.
The social-media savvy minister, who recently quoted US hip hop musician Puff Daddy’s lyrics on Twitter, is a cousin and close ally of Najib. His grandfather, Onn Jaafar, founded UMNO and his father, Hussein Onn, was Prime Minister. If that isn’t enough to propel him to the political elite, he is also married to a princess from the state of Pahang.
Oh said: “Like Najib, whose father [Abdul Razak Hussein] was also a Prime Minister, Hishammuddin too is imbued with a sense of purpose of stepping into his dad’s shoes as Prime Minister.
“But unlike cool-headed Najib, Hishammuddin has a more impetuous temperament. Like most shrewd politicians, if need be, he could get things done quickly.”
Glimpses of his impatience have surfaced at the daily flight MH370 press conferences, but they have been rare. Even when asked silly questions, he has answered with good humour.
During a particularly enthusiastic media scrum, a calm Hishammuddin said to the crowd: “Guys, if you are going to behave like this, then you are going to get nasty visuals beamed all over the world. And then you are going to blame Malaysian officials for that. That is not fair.”