Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: The Chinese government’s unrelenting criticism of Malaysia’s handling of the disappearance of Flight 370 and an angry protest outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing this week have produced a nationalistic backlash here.
Social media in Malaysia has been flooded with criticism of China this week, with many noting that Malaysians as well as Chinese died on the Malaysia Airlines flight. Many on Malay-language social media contend that China is wrong to assail Malaysia during the national mourning that began on Monday night, when Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the flight had disappeared into the stormy waters of the southern Indian Ocean.
Chinese officials’ demands for greater transparency by the Malaysian government in its investigation of Flight 370 have been met with online retorts that China itself has one of the world’s most opaque governments. Many here have been particularly dismayed that relatives and friends of Chinese passengers were able to break through thin screens of police officers in Beijing and march to the Malaysian Embassy.
“I don’t agree with their activities because Malaysia has made a big effort to find the plane,” said Muhamad Hairi Sulaiman, a 35-year-old telecom technician, as he left a special prayer session for Flight 370 passengers and crew at the cavernous National Mosque here on Thursday night. “The general view of my friends is that we are shocked that they are biased against Malaysians.”
The burst of nationalism here is in some ways a relief for the Malaysian government, since Internet users had castigated Kuala Lumpur in the first days after the Boeing 777-200 vanished.
By contrast, Malaysian newspapers and television, controlled by pro-government business leaders, were circumspect about the government’s repeated release of contradictory information in the early days, and said little about the air force’s failure to react as the plane turned around and flew back over the country nearly unnoticed.
Yet public hostility toward China also holds risks for the Malaysian government. China is the nation’s biggest trading partner and one of its largest foreign investors. Chinese tourists throng Malaysia’s resorts and shopping malls, one reason that more than 150 of the 239 people aboard the Beijing-bound flight were Chinese.
Malaysian officials have been low-key in their response to China’s anger. They even asked for China’s help on Thursday in seeking to assuage the anger of the family and friends of passengers aboard the flight, as bad weather over the southern Indian Ocean forced another interruption on Thursday afternoon of an aerial search to find traces of the plane.
Malaysian officials asked Huang Huikang, China’s ambassador to Malaysia, “to request the government of China to engage and clarify the actual situation to the affected families in particular and the Chinese public in general,” Malaysia’s transport ministry said in a statement on Thursday evening.
The pro-establishment New Straits Times weighed in with an editorial on Thursday noting that China had nuclear weapons and the world’s largest standing army in addition to the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, and concluded that, “In short, China is a friend not to be antagonised.”
James Chin, a professor of political science at the Kuala Lumpur campus of Monash University, said the government was eager to avoid quarrels with Beijing. “The elites understand that in the long term, you have to deal with the dragon,” he said.
The nationalistic response has complicated the political environment for Malaysia’s broad-based opposition, which has been chastising the government for its slow response but now perceives a public enthusiasm for national unity.
A Boeing 777-200 operated by Malaysia Airlines leaves Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing with 227 passengers, of which two-thirds are Chinese, and a Malaysian crew of 12.
Fuziah Salleh, a vice president of one of the opposition parties and a member of Parliament, said that while many Malaysians were sympathetic toward Chinese families who lost loved ones, some were also upset at the Chinese government and angry about the embassy protest.
“Being Malaysians, we rally together and feel it is wrong to treat our embassies that way,” she said.
The prospect of heavy claims by the families of Chinese nationals and others against Malaysia Airlines, the national carrier, has unsettled many here and contributed to unease about foreign criticism. Hishammuddin Hussein, the defence minister and acting transport minister, declined to address a question on Wednesday about whether the airline might need a government bailout.
But insurance executives say that Malaysia Airlines is heavily insured against air disasters because it operates the world’s largest commercial airliner, the Airbus A380. Air carriers commonly insure themselves based on the number of passengers carried by their largest jet, in case of individual claims by every passenger or the passengers’ estates.
Malaysia Airlines configures its A380 to carry 494 passengers. By contrast, Flight 370 had 227 passengers, as well as a dozen crew members.
Because the details of the aircraft’s disappearance are not yet known, it is unclear whether the airline could make insurance claims for the loss under a terrorism policy, a mechanical failure policy or some other type of policy. While local insurers wrote the initial policies, they transferred most of the exposure for claims to a consortium led by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, part of Allianz of Germany, a financial services conglomerate.
“In this case, only a small percentage of the risk is retained with the local lead insurer, with the remaining proportion of the risk fully reinsured,” Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty said in a statement, adding that various reinsurers have already begun making claims payments.
The most volatile aspect of Malaysian politics involves race relations. Malays, roughly half the population, have dominated the political process and sometimes limited participation by the country’s ethnic Chinese minority.
But that minority has had weakening links to mainland China in recent decades. Most people here appear to have drawn a distinction between Malaysian Chinese and the government in Beijing.
Unhappiness over the Chinese government’s response to the disappearance of Flight 370 “is not going to affect race relations within Malaysia,” Mr Chin predicted.
New York Times