The intrigue of Malaysia predates missing airliner

03/24/2014 12:18 AM

03/24/2014 12:18 AM

With a 180-degree swivel of my office chair, I can gaze at a flat-screen TV tuned in to CNN, where the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is breaking news, all the time.

New clue. Best lead yet. Testing the hero pilot theory. Testing every theory. The search expands. The search narrows. Expert analysis from just about anybody who has ever boarded a plane.

CNN’s ratings have soared on the wings of missing Flight 370. Obviously, people are fascinated with a mystery in the skies.

I am sorry to see Malaysia captivate the world’s attention in such a bizarre way. I had the privilege of living there for a year in the late 1980’s, and will always have an affinity for the place. It was a land of intrigue long before Flight 370 vanished with 227 passengers on the way to Beijing.

The Malaysian government has handled the catastrophe badly. It took officials four days to disclose that military radar may have picked up signals that the missing airliner had diverted wildly from its scheduled course. Other nations are complaining about a lack of coordination.

This is not surprising. The government in Kuala Lumpur is known for being secretive and out of touch. It is horribly out of its depth under the bright lights of CNN and the rest of the world’s media.

Once officials acknowledged that the disappearance of the airplane might be a criminal matter, attention of course turned to the crew. Officials disclosed that the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a supporter of a man named Anwar Ibrahim.

But of course. Anwar is a long-standing thorn in the side of Malaysia’s ruling party. To curb his populist appeal, the government periodically charges him with the crime of sodomy. The day before Flight 370 departed on its ill-fated flight, a judge sentenced Anwar to five years on a sodomy charge. Interesting that a court overturned a previous acquittal of the same charge just days before Anwar’s party was favored in a key election.

You’d better believe this makes for a cable-news conspiracy theory. Pilot supports opposition leader who gets sentenced on bogus sodomy charge the day before pilot’s plane disappears. What are the chances of that being a coincidence?

I suppose no better, or worse, than any of the many other theories put forth to explain why, in a world of satellites and spies, a commercial jetliner has plumb gone missing.

Malaysia Airlines was a source of pride when I lived in the country in 1988. It was a modern airline in a nation that was building skyscrapers in cities not far from fishing villages where people still lived without electricity.

Ethnic Chinese make up almost a quarter of Malaysia’s population and provide much of the brainpower and financial heft for the still-booming economy. But almost all of the top government positions are reserved for ethnic Malays, and tensions between the groups simmer.

Malays are eligible for a number of preferences, like government contracts. On the other hand, they are required to be Muslims and are subject to Islamic law.

When I was there, Islamic police would conduct sweeps of bars and hotel rooms, looking for Muslims drinking alcohol or consorting with people of the opposite sex who weren’t their spouses. Foreigners like me, and the country’s Chinese and Indian residents, could sit at sidewalk cafes sipping the local beer without a worry in the world. The country has tilted toward an even more conservative form of Islam in the years since.

Pick your backdrop. Islamic militarism? Political rivalries? Ethnic tensions? Malaysia has them all, and any one could be grist for a plane disappearance theory.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with Malaysia. Or China, the intended destination. Perhaps a simple mechanical failure brought down Flight 370. Whatever we finally learn, this quirky southeast Asian nation, which has somehow prospered despite secrecy and contractions, is likely to be forever changed.

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