Malaysia’s catastrophe


If you are perplexed by Monday’s announcement on the missing Malaysian airliner, no wonder. Prime Minister Najib Razak declared that the flight “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean, and the state-owned airline said that “we have to assume beyond a reasonable doubt” that the plane went down in the ocean, far off its course to Beijing. Both announcements were vague; neither said much about why or how.

From the moment the plane went missing, the Malaysian government has been ham-handed in its dealings with grieving families and the global glare of attention. It delayed for hours saying anything after the plane first vanished, and over the next few weeks much of the information it disseminated was conflicting, wrong or misleading.

Such a bizarre disaster would be difficult for any government to deal with, and a fair amount of uncertainty and confusion is expected. But the Malaysian government has shown signs of a deeper malaise that comes from a half century of rule without challenge or transparency. When the prime minister was about to make a statement recently, his spokesperson told reporters there would be no questions. According to Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, when reporters pressed for more access, the reply came back: “Go watch a movie.” When China, no champion of transparency, complains — as it did recently, asking for “more thorough and accurate information” from Malaysia — you know the depth of the problem.

Malaysia, ruled by the same governing coalition since independence, has enjoyed strong economic growth, and we had hopes before last year’s election that, if the vote was free and fair, the country would be on a path toward a more competitive democracy. Mr. Najib has taken steps toward modernization and reform, but the election fell short. Mr. Najib’s coalition won a majority of seats in Parliament largely through gerrymandered districts, while the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim won a popular majority and disputed the outcome. Clearly there is rising popular discontent with corruption, authoritarianism and ethnic favoritism of the ruling powers.

It is especially disturbing that the government has renewed its politically motivated prosecution of Mr. Anwar on dubious charges of sodomy in order to sideline him from politics. On March 7, he was sentenced to five years in prison by a court, overturning a 2012 acquittal. The move had the effect of removing him from eligibility to run in an important by-election. The use of the sodomy charge is shameful and archaic, but as Graeme Reid of Human Rights Watch pointed out this month in Foreign Policy, if upheld, it could effectively remove Mr. Anwar from politics for 10 years. Malaysia should not tolerate this brazen manipulation.

It is entirely premature to say what happened to the airplane. But it is not too early for Malaysia’s rulers to draw lessons from their unsteady performance of recent weeks and commit themselves to transparency and openness. Their alternative is not working.