The MH370 Tragedy and Issues of Capacity and Governance in Emerging Middle Powers

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The government of Malaysia continues to face a storm of criticism over its handling of the tragic and still mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Stunned by the lack of any solid explanation for how an aircraft equipped with state-of-the art technology could vanish without a trace, Malaysian government officials reacted defensively and several times released erroneous or unverified information. The image of the government and ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak has also been tarnished by a campaign of insinuation involving ruling party supporters and indirectly the state-controlled media connecting aircraft’s disappearance with the fact that the pilot was an active member of the main opposition party and distantly related by marriage to its leader and the ruling coalition’s nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim. On March 24, 16 days after the plane disappeared, the Prime Minister abruptly announced that the aircraft was deemed to have crashed somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean. Lingering questions about Malaysia’s capacity to handle the crisis should be considered in a broader context of governance in rising middle powers.

Much of the criticism of the Malaysian government’s response appears well deserved, but individual, bureaucratic and leadership failings are not the only factors that have been at play. Malaysia closely resembles many other middle income and “emerging market” economies that have the trappings of a developed country but remain deficient in other critical elements of a modern industrial state. It has a modern fleet of aircraft, numerous foreign-owned electronics assembly plants, efficient transportation and communications, glittering shopping malls full of high end goods from prestige manufacturers and the tallest twin office towers in the world. Malaysia’s per capita income of about $10,400 in 2012 puts it well into the upper middle income range, well above China ($6,091) and Thailand ($5,480), though only one fifth of tiny but highly developed Singapore.

Countries with profiles similar to Malaysia often have the look and even the performance of modern industrialized societies in normal times, but often do not have the human, organizational and institutional capacity-the “software,” in other words, to match the more visible “hardware” of modernity.

Policies that attract foreign investment for natural resources exploitation, the assembly of components for foreign manufacture and growing financial and other services sectors are only half of the development equation. Another set of societal factors-fair elections, low levels of corruption, strong educational systems and other aspects of human and institutional capacity building are needed to smoothly escape the “middle income trap” and continue the climb the development ladder.

The industrialized democracies in particular have significantly deeper levels of individual and organizational capacity, political maturity, and a clearer leadership hierarchy than middle income states with or without middle power aspirations. The most important and most difficult transition for middle income countries is acquiring the requisite middle management depth and trust.

The drag effect of these lagging indicators is compounded by the fact that there is little or no “learning curve” for any country to respond to situations of the magnitude of the disappearance of MH370. The modern civil aircraft industry is extremely safe. Every accident is unique. The unprecedented circumstances of the plane’s disappearance would have challenged even the most coordinated, technologically advanced and effective government.

China is particularly livid over many aspects of how Malaysia responded to the disappearance of the Beijing-bound flight. This is fully understandable given that the flight carried 153 Chinese nationals among the 227 passengers and 12 crew members, but also incongruous. Ironically, though, of all the current middle income and so-called “emerging market” countries, China is probably the least transparent about information that could however remotely reflect adversely on its leaders, the ruling Communist Party, the military and or major economic stakeholders.

The most telling regional aspects of the MH370 crisis is the lack of any effective support from Malaysia’s neighbors in the 10 country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is in its 47th year and on the cusp of a much touted initiation of an integrated economic community in 2015 (AEC 2015). The two countries whose airspace was to be traversed by MH370 cooperated fully with the search until it became apparent the plane had reversed course towards the Indian Ocean just as it had reached the boundary between Malaysian and Thai airspace and was soon to be handed off to Vietnam ground control.

Indonesia reacted angrily to accusations in the Malaysian press that it had failed to share radar information that might have revealed more about the aircraft’s flight path, and Thailand reacted even more vociferously to a Fox News report that its air force had been “sitting” for ten days on radar information that might have help identify the missing plane’s course.

Exactly what happened or didn’t happen in these cases remains to be documented, but the failure of ASEAN as an organization to play any significant role shows that the regional organization suffers from continuing suspicion and lack of trust, and a serious gap between aspirations and reality. In many ways, in fact, the current obstacles to the fulfilment of ASEAN’s desire for “centrality” among the major Asian and Pacific powers parallels the limitations on the “middle power” aspirations of its most populous middle income member countries.

Image: Missing aircraft, 9M-MRO, pictured in 2011. Photo by Laurent Errera.


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