Air Mystery Pulled Malaysia Together, But Now Pulls It Apart

The disappearance of flight 370 has fueled political criticism and ethnic tensions in Malaysia. NPR's Rachel Martin discusses the nation's internal divisions with political scientist Bridget Welsh.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

There's been an unprecedented international effort to locate the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Government says the aviation experts and search crews are now all working together to try to solve the mystery. But in Malaysia, where the flight originated, the jet's disappearance has fueled political criticism and ethnic tension. Many have criticized the Malay government's handling of the crisis, especially the country's large population of ethnic Chinese.

Bridget Welsh is a professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She was in Malaysia last week and closely follows development there.

Thanks much for being with us.

BRIDGET WELSH: A pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You have said that the crash has brought Malaysia together, but now it is pulling it apart. Can you explain?

WELSH: Well, in the immediate aftermath of the missing plane, Malaysians from every walk of life came together with the hope and prayers that something could be found. But as there has been criticism of the Malaysian government in the handling of the crisis, the political polarization, which is very deep this this society, has emerged.

MARTIN: Why are there so many political tensions that are tied to ethnicity? This is a very diverse place, right?

WELSH: You have a majority community of Malays, which make up about 57 percent of the population. Twenty-three percent of the population are Chinese, 8 percent are Indian. And they have always been a multiethnic, pluralistic place in Malaysia. But the political parties are organized predominantly along these ethnic lines. So you have to kind of race-based parties that get their legitimacy from, quote-unquote, "protecting the interests of their racial communities."

At the same time, policies in terms of government allocations and scholarships and others have also been racialized. So we have had a situation, a very deep racial embeddedness in political life.

MARTIN: Just getting back specifically to the missing plane. The Malaysian government hasn't really helped itself in the way it's kept information from the families. And I understand in particular, the communication with the Chinese families of those missing victims has been difficult at best.

Can you explain where have the missteps been?

WELSH: Well, I think at a certain level one has to acknowledge that the Malaysian government has been trying its best. It's not a democratic government in many senses of the word. And, as a consequence of that, they're not used to having higher levels of accountability that one would expect in issues of crisis. When the announcement that the plane had, quote-unquote, "ended" in the Indian Ocean," they send this message by SMS with computer-generated Chinese, which was not a good translation.

So the fact that the Chinese families, which are almost two-thirds of people in the plane, have not received information in the way that they can understand it. It's understandable that they are angry and they are raising questions because the lack of adequate information has contributed to a perception that the government of Malaysia is hiding things.

MARTIN: What is the political impact of all of this? Is this just something that's happening in the moment? Or is the missing plane and the Malaysian government's handling of this - is this something that could have longer-lasting political ramifications in the country?

WELSH: I expect there will be implications domestically as well as internationally. I think on the short term we're going to see significant questions raised about Malaysia's security, questions of competency. There may even be a backlash towards Malaysian-Chinese as a result of how this issue is becoming increasingly ethnicized. And unfortunately, you know, the worst scenario will be if we never find out what happened to the plane. And if that happens this will continuously be kind of an albatross for Malaysia to have to address.

MARTIN: Brigid Welsh is a professor of political science at the Singapore Management University in Singapore.

Thanks so much for talking with us.

WELSH: Thank you very much.

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