Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's acting transport minister.
Malaysia’s handling of the search for missing Flight 370 has turned the official groomed to become the country’s next prime minister into a lightning rod for criticism, hurting his chances to lead the nation.
Hishammuddin Hussein, the defense and acting transport minister, has led almost all daily press conferences held since the Malaysian Air plane dropped off air-traffic controllers’ screens March 8. The relation of three prime ministers and the grandson of the ruling party’s founder has stoked ire among passengers' families and China's government with his self-contradictions and failure to provide definitive answers.
“People are trying to find somebody to blame,” said Ahmad Rafdi Endut, senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia. “Given that he’s the minister in charge of finding this airplane, people easily pinpoint his weaknesses. I believe he’s doing as best as he could.”
With satellite data showing the plane ended up in the southern Indian Ocean and the reason for its disappearance unknown, any lasting impact on the reputation of Hishammuddin, 52, remains unclear. The man who beat the son of another ex-premier for the post of vice president of the biggest ruling party has risen through the ranks of the United Malays National Organisation since attending a high school known as the Eton of the East, earning a law degree and practicing as an attorney.
As minister of home affairs last year he oversaw a land, sea and air operation to evict Filipino Muslim insurgents, and took on the defense and acting transport portfolios after an election last May.
“The search for MH370 is bigger than politics,” Hishammuddin said March 18, referring to the hunt for the flight that was bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. “I urge all Malaysians to put our differences aside and unite during this difficult time.”
Hishammuddin, his senior aides and the Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to or declined requests for comment.
On March 13, Hishammuddin said reports that MH370 may have continued flying for some time after its last transmission of engine performance were “inaccurate.” Two days later, his cousin Prime Minister Najib Razak said satellite data showed the plane operated for almost seven hours after last making contact with air traffic controllers, and Malaysia was calling off its search in the South China Sea along the intended flight path. Najib said March 24 that new analysis of data showed the flight “ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
At the daily press conferences, the panel led by Hishammuddin has faced questions about why authorities in Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy took a week to examine the pilot’s home-built flight simulator, how they will remedy breaches in airport security and increase vigilance of the country’s airspace.
“For Hishammuddin this is indeed another massive setback for his political career,” said Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, an assistant professor and coordinator of the Malaysia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “He failed to show leadership in this current issue. In a party where strong leadership is essential, this might spell the end of his political career.”
The crisis comes as Najib’s ruling coalition seeks to regain momentum after it lost the popular vote for the first time last May, as ethnic Chinese voters shifted to the opposition. Najib, 60, has since sought to further entrench affirmative action policies that benefit ethnic Malays, to shore up support from UMNO’s base.
Hishammuddin and his family are closely tied to UMNO, the party that has led governing coalitions since independence in 1957. He is the nephew of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Najib’s father Abdul Razak Hussein. He joined the government in 1995 when he was elected to represent a constituency in the state of Johor. In 1999 he was appointed youth and sports minister, in 2004 became education minister and from 2009 to 2013 was home minister.
Hishammuddin, the grandson of UMNO founder Onn Jaafar, grew up in the capital Kuala Lumpur. He was attending his grandfather’s alma mater, the all-boys, all-Malay boarding school Malay College Kuala Kangsar in Perak state, around the time his father, Malaysia’s third prime minister Hussein Onn, was deputy leader.
“Everybody knew that he’s the son of a minister, but he was very humble, very friendly,” said Saifuddin Abdullah, the former deputy minister of higher education who studied with Hishammuddin when they were 13 and later joined him on the UMNO supreme council. “He has a way of talking to people on a one-to-one basis which makes people feel very comfortable and I think he remains what he was, he has no airs.”
Family members of the more than 150 Chinese nationals on MH370 protested yesterday outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, having accused Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) and the country’s leaders of a cover-up. If those passengers “lost their precious lives, then Malaysia Airline, Malaysian government and Malaysian military are the real executioners of our families,” the relatives said in an early-morning statement read out at Beijing’s Metropark Lido Hotel.
Hishammuddin gave an interview to broadcaster China Central Television and is using Sina’s Weibo microblog to try and understand the people affected by the missing flight, he said at a briefing on March 17.
“I have children. I have a wife and I have brothers and sisters. And putting myself in that position, I can imagine how difficult it is for them,” Hishammuddin said in the interview with CCTV posted on March 16, referring to relatives of the passengers. “But I also have to be responsible. I am the minister responsible to investigate this, and I know the world is watching.”
In October party elections Hishammuddin saw off a challenge from the son of Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, for the role of one of UMNO’s three vice presidents, retaining the post alongside incumbents Rural and Regional Development Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
“Everybody knows that Hisham is the heir presumptive,” said Oh Ei Sun, a former political secretary to Najib during the time Hishammuddin was home minister. “Whatever the facade he puts up as a minister and as a national leader, he is actually a person with quite a lot of feelings and empathy. He’s certainly not one of those who is aloof and shuts off people.”
Hishammuddin is operating in a political environment that places a premium on behind-the-scenes decision making, according to Oh, now a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“Information only trickles out as and when needed,” Oh said. “Those in politics do not view the people as being mature enough to fully participate in public affairs.”
Hishammuddin previously served as chief of the party’s youth wing where he sought to raise the status of ethnic Malays, following the same path Najib took to become prime minister. A lawyer by training, he was a legal assistant at Skrine & Co. before becoming a partner at the legal firm now known as Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill. He has a law degree from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and a masters from the London School of Economics.
“He was a competent and a more-than-above-average litigation lawyer but he didn’t stay long enough to make a mark for himself,” said Philip Koh, senior partner with law firm Mah-Kamariyah & Philip Koh, who was colleagues with Hishammuddin at Skrine where Hishammuddin’s father once practiced. “His pedigree is really meant for a life in politics.”
Hishammuddin’s act of raising the Keris, a traditional Malay dagger, in a speech defending the position of the ethnic Malay majority at an UMNO gathering in 2005, has “bedeviled” his political career, Koh said. The Malaysian Chinese Association, part of the ruling coalition, said the move created “uneasiness” among other races.
The plane crisis comes one year after Hishammuddin helped oversee Malaysia’s efforts to end the invasion of the eastern state of Sabah by a group of armed Filipino Muslims claiming sovereignty over the area. The operation to clear out the insurgents took several weeks and left at least 62 dead.
On the missing plane, “from day one, the government has not been honest in giving out information,” said Saravanan Bhopalan, a 35-year-old Malaysian from Selangor. “Whoever leads this crisis will not make any difference unless they are transparent.”
Hishammuddin pledged on March 17 to review the nation’s radar system, after it took more than a week to confirm a blip on military radar was in fact MH370 as it flew back over part of peninsular Malaysia, heading away from its planned route.
“For the families, I understand that every day prolongs the anguish. I understand because Malaysia, too, is missing its sons and daughters,” Hishammuddin said. “We would not withhold any information that could help.”
Razali Ibrahim, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and an UMNO supreme council member, said “we are very pleased” with the way Hishammuddin is handling this crisis. Based on feedback from party members, “they strongly believe Hishammuddin is managing his task well, in a very professional way, despite under tough circumstances,” he said.
Hishammuddin was mistaken for prime minister by a foreign journalist on March 14 as he arrived at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s mosque with his security detail, a sign of his recent international prominence.
Najib probably put Hishammuddin in charge of the investigation because he doesn’t have many allies in the cabinet, according to Steven Sim, a member of parliament for Bukit Mertajam from the opposition Democratic Action Party.
“Being the face of the crisis is an opportunity for Hisham to redeem his image,” Sim said by phone. “If Najib is not careful, at the end of the crisis, Hisham may emerge as the hero of it all.”