21 Mar 2014

Anwar Ibrahim: don't blame 370 pilot for his politics

A quiet day here in Malaysia : two weeks on from flight 370’s disappearance, there’s been no confirmation that any plane wreckage has been spotted.

The most interesting line the transport minister came up with at his daily press conference was that he had asked foreign intelligence agencies to re-check the backgrounds of all those on board.

This fits with what a source close to the investigation has told me: that officials still believe somebody acted deliberately, and are desperate to establish the motive for a crime, possibly the mass murder of well over 200 people.

We went to have coffee with Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s best known opposition politician. He was convicted of sodomy – illegal in Malaysia – just hours before flight 370 took off.

He was sentenced to five years in jail, in what is widely regarded as a politically motivated case against him, but is free pending an appeal.

Intriguingly, Captain Zaharie Ahmed Shah, flight 370’s chief pilot, is an Ibrahim supporter and close to the politician’s daughter-in-law. And Mr Ibrahim is adamant that suggestions the captain may have hijacked his own aircraft are as politically motivated as the allegations against himself.

‘Good family man’

“He is party member, very passionate about freedom and democracy, a good family man,” Ibrahim tells me, dismissing any suggestion there was a crisis in the pilot’s private life which might have triggered an act of madness.

“He is a good professional pilot. To cast aspersions on the pilot purely on the basis of political leanings is absurd.”

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

He rails, too, against the government’s handling of the crisis, the slow speed at which information was shared early on.

But, I ask him, wouldn’t most Malaysians support their government as it deals with an unprecedented event?

“Yes it is unique, it is unprecedented,” he says, “but it is clear incompetence. The reluctance to release information – saying they don’t know where the plane was when they actually had the mechanism to know.”

Muzzled media

Ibrahim points out that with most local media either controlled or muzzled by the government, the authorities have been taken aback by the demands of the foreign press for information and a clear version of events.

“They have been used to a compliant and controlled media. And now facing a more critical international audience, they have a problem. They fumble.”

It is debatable what impact the disappearing passenger jet will have on Malaysian politics.  The country has been run by the same party since independence in the 1950s. Ibrahim claims that because Malaysia is now under international scrutiny, “it has helped alleviate the understanding of the masses.”

That may be stretching it too far. What may well be true, however, is that with so many journalists reporting from here now, Ibrahim can draw attention to his own dubious conviction and impending prison sentence – and, quite understandably, use that international spotlight to keep himself free.

Follow @jrug on Twitter

Tweets by @jrug