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MH370: Malaysia knows 'the world is watching'

In an interview earlier this week Malaysia's Defence Minister said that without the plane and black box all theories about MH370 are speculation.

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He has become the public face of the investigation into one of the world’s most baffling aviation mysteries.

And Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s Defence Minister and acting Transport Minister, has found himself bearing the brunt of international criticism as the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet enters its 12th day, with frustratingly few results.

Hishamuddin Hussein shows maps during a press conference near Kuala Lumpur.

Hishamuddin Hussein shows maps during a press conference near Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AP

Mr Hishammuddin has been touted as a contender to become Malaysia’s next prime minister, and a look at his family ties shows that, if that prediction comes true, he has plenty of people to call on for advice.

The 52-year-old is the son of Malaysia’s third prime minister, Tun Hussein Onn, and the nephew of its second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak.

He is also the cousin of the current Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, while his wife is a princess from the state of Pahang.

As Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Mr Hishammuddin has found himself thrust into the international spotlight in helping to co-ordinate the hunt for Flight 370 that vanished in the early hours of March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board.

But as the missing plane became the latest fodder for Malaysia’s bickering political rivals, Mr Hishammuddin has struggled during daily press briefings to defend his country’s handling of the search and investigation.

In a country where the government has controlled the mainstream media for decades, he has appeared uncomfortable answering unscripted questions amid days of misinformation and confusion.

On Sunday, Mr Hishammuddin appeared to give a crucial clue pointing to the possible complicity of the pilots in the plane’s disappearance when he said that the plane’s communications system had been ‘‘disabled’’ at 1.07am.

That was before somebody in the cockpit, later identified as the plane’s first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, gave the verbal sign-off to air traffic controllers of ‘‘all right, good night’’.

But the following day, Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said Mr Hamid’s final voice transmission may have occurred before any of the jet’s communications systems were disabled.

Standing beside Mr Ahmad Jauhari at the Monday briefing, Mr Hishammuddin waved off numerous questions about why he had given the incorrect information the previous day.

"What I said yesterday was based on fact, corroborated and verified," he said.

In response to another question, he said that uncertainty about the chronology underlined the importance of finding the aircraft and its data recorders.

Mr Hishammuddin kept telling the media that information could not be released until it was verified, releasing only scant details about the disappearance that has captivated the world.

For three days, he refused to comment on a report in Britain’s Mail on Sunday claiming that MH370’s senior pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a “political fanatic” and an “obsessive” supporter of Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.

The report alleged that Mr Zaharie had hijacked the plane because he was upset that Mr Anwar had being sentenced to five years jail on a sodomy charge.

People close to the investigation quickly rejected the claim as far-fetched, but it went viral anyway on Malaysia’s social media.

On Tuesday night, when Mr Hishammuddin was asked about the Mail On Sunday report, he said he was focused on finding the plane. 

“Our position remains that this issue is above politics,” he said.

A French reporter appeared to stump Mr Hishammuddin at the same press briefing.

“Can you confirm that you are PM Najib’s cousin? Are you protected?” the reporter asked.

After a seemingly embarrassed pause, Mr Hishammuddin replied: “Yes. I can confirm that Najib is my cousin and I do not know what I am supposed to be protected from.”

A few hours later, the pro-government New Straits Times rushed to his defence.

“Since MH370 disappeared on March 8, Hishammuddin has been taking the flurry of media inquiries in his stride with many crediting the 52-year-old minister for his calm and collected manner in handling the press,” it said.

Mr Hishammuddin has risen through the ranks of the United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia’s largest political party that has ruled the south-east Asian country since independence from Britain in 1957.

Before his political career, he completed a law degree from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, in 1984, and attended the London School of Economics, where he received a master of laws in commercial and corporate law in 1988.

Mr Anwar says his conviction for sodomy is politically motivated and has lodged an appeal.