At least as important as finding the wreckage of Malaysian Flight 370 is uncovering the facts that caused the disaster. But based on the real-time performance of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry as it has unfolded since the jet disappeared, there’s little hope that the facts aren’t just a deeply buried and even less likely to be recovered than the missing jet, because of three cold, hard facts: politics, incompetence, and liability.
First, the political factors that mortgage the Malaysian investigation of this tragedy. Most of these center around the Malaysian Acting Minister of Aviation–a post left vacant since May of 2013–who is also the appointed Minister of Defense, Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein.
Hussein’s official resume lists neither aviation nor military experience or expertise, and his primary qualification to hold both titles appears to be largely that he is the son of Malaysia’s third prime minister, Tun Hussein Onn, and the nephew of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak. He is seen as a likely successor to his cousin, Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Hussein has built a political career as the icon of nationalism predicated on race, and the symbolism of the native garb so prominently displayed during the initial phases of the MH 370 investigation are his trademark:
The above photo was taken at a speech he gave at the 2005 United Malays National Organization, as Hussein waved the traditional Malay “keris” in a fiery call for Malay racial solidarity (his cousin, the present Prime Minister, is seen applauding in the background), earning him the derisive nicknames Hishammudin Tauke Keris (“The Keris Merchant”) or simply as Hishammudin Keris (“Hishammundin Keys”) in the Malaysian press. Hussein defended his usage of the keris, saying it was meant “to motivate the Malays” and that it “is here to stay,” denying that it was a symbol of Malay supremacy.
The early opportunity to politically brand the authoritative spotlight in official press conferences with the racial purity signature quickly gave way to more sensible and less political garb in subsequent press briefings, but both the intent and the liability were clearly set forth on day one of the investigation: politics will be at the forefront of the MH370 investigation.
Hussein has the dual political liability stemming from his two ministry titles, Defense and Aviation. First, given the fact that Malaysian military radar detected MH370′s rogue turn that penetrated Malaysian sovereign airspace without clearance–indicating a possible 9/11 threat to the nation–why weren’t Malaysian Air Defense Forces sent to intercept and investigate?
Had Hussein’s Defense Ministry handled this routine (in the west) airspace alert and scrambled interceptors, they would at least know where MH 370 was headed, and perhaps how and why. With Hussein directly in the political hierarchy topped by his cousin the Prime Minister, the military intercept fiasco has been downplayed by Hussein and his Ministry of Defense.
But even more liability accrues to Hussein in his responsibility as Minister of Aviation. The regulatory function of a national aviation agency must encompass inspections, compliance, licensing, and accident investigations.
In modern aviation regulatory practice, the accident investigative arm–the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States–operates independently from the regulatory, licensing and operations inspections agency, the FAA. This is fundamental to fair and objective accident investigation: the NTSB must not be subservient to the agency that is liable for the failures leading to an accident.
Not only does Hussein’s Malaysian Aviation Ministry not have such a vital separation between key branches, but in fact, most of the Malaysian aviation oversight structure remains unstaffed and vacant, as the Malaysian Ministry of Aviation’s own organizational chart clearly shows:
Unfortunately for the entire world demanding unbiased and thorough investigation of the MH370 disappearance, this is where objectivity collides with liability–both political and financial–as well as incompetence: in a nation whose national airline operates state-of-the-art jetliners worldwide, the Safety and Compliance leadership positions are largely vacant? What does that say, in retrospect, about the competence of not only the regulatory function of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry, but also the air carriers certified–including the national flag carrier–regulated and inspected and certified by the Ministry of Aviation?
Further, what does the direct linkage to both the sitting Prime Minister and his heir apparent create in terms of political incentive to meter and constrain the flow of investigative facts while that nation’s credibility declines as the investigation is filled with, as Reuters described, “misinformation or conflicting reports” from the agency charged with both certifying competence and investigating failures?
With no firewall between the agency liable for the regulatory failures and the investigative body responsible for discovering and reporting such faults, with the national leadership embedded through family relations in both the governance and the liability in both the MH370 disappearance and the ongoing investigation, what chance is there that the unvarnished truth will ever be discovered or divulged?
Because even if the Digital Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice recorder are ever recovered–and that’s a hope that grows dimmer by the hour–the final authority over the data transcription will not be the aircraft manufacturer, nor the data units’ manufacturer, nor the NTSB.
In fact, the investigative findings and all supporting data belong to the Malaysian government–until and unless they elect to turn over the data and investigation to a third party. Given the political and personal stakes involved, the chances of a fair, factual and unbiased investigation seem as lost to the world as the jet itself.