It hasn’t been a good week for Malaysian authorities.
The country’s government has been facing increasing criticism - at home and abroad - amidst a frantic search for clues about the fate of missing flight MH370, which vanished last Saturday after taking off from Kuala Lumpur with 239 people onboard.
First came the reports that at least two people had boarded the international flight using stolen passports. Then came a string of disastrous press conferences, conflicting information, and incorrect details by Malaysia Airlines, the government-owned carrier.
Interpol has publicly berated the Malaysians for their loose passport system, as have the Chinese over the poor communication and delays in sharing of new information. Families of the passengers have also hurled words - and water bottles - at Malaysia Airlines’ Beijing representatives.
Now, six days into the fumbling search for the flight, an outspoken Malaysian opposition leader has added his voice to the many chastising the government’s handling of the situation, calling their inaction “shameful” and accusing them of bringing ridicule on the country internationally by bringing a “bomoh” - a sort of shaman in Malay culture - to the capital’s airport to help with the search.
“The Malaysians deserve to be criticized," Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia specialist in Washington, told Reuters. “Their handling of this has been atrocious.”
Confusing and contradictory statements by Malaysian authorities have frustrated the governments helping with the search and filled the families of the passengers with angst and false hope.
Airline officials have repeatedly backtracked on information about the plane’s last known contact, and the country’s aviation authorities have all but admitted they have no clue even about the direction the plane was headed in when it vanished. Officials have claimed, and then retracted, that five passengers had checked in but never boarded.
To add to the communication snafus of the past week, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said in a press conference on Monday that the two men traveling on stolen passports looked like the Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli, who is black.
As it turned out, the two were actually Iranian nationals - and not black - reportedly on their way to seek asylum in Europe. But when authorities released security footage of the duo, their legs were identical. Malaysian police said the mistake “was not done with malice or to mislead,” and one photo was simply placed over the other when they were photocopied.
Which didn’t exactly help their already plummeting credibility.
With criticism growing - alongside calls for China to step in and take charge of the search - often vocal opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim took an opportunity to slam the government of his long-term rival, Prime Minister Najib Razak. Ibrahim lost to Razak in last year’s close-call election, in which he won a slight majority of the popular vote.
Earlier this month, a Malaysian court sentenced Ibrahim to five years in prison on charges of sodomy - for which he had already served six years in the 1990s, after being ousted as deputy prime minister. Rights groups have said the trial was politically motivated.
But at a Thursday press conference, Ibrahim, who is currently free on bail while appealing the verdict, spared no words for his opponent.
“Wake up from this slumber and a state of denial that everything is alright,” he said, referring to the authorities in charge of the search. “They have said that you are hiding facts from us, you’re not telling us, you’re not responding. It takes six hours before we can get an answer to a simple question.”
In the video below, Ibrahim says the government’s botched response is “damning” to the country’s image and made all Malaysians look “incompetent.”
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim takes on his political opponent at a press conference on Thursday.
On Thursday, Ibrahim also called for a full investigation into exactly who commissioned a local shaman to perform rituals aimed at solving the mystery of the missing flight.
“Bomoh” Ibrahim Mat Zain - sporting a political badge associated with a government initiative to promote ethnic harmony and national unity in Malaysia - used coconuts and talismans in a ritual at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Wednesday.
A “Bomoh” shaman performs a ritual at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, hoping to locate the missing plane.
The Selangor Religious Department, a leading Islamic organization in Malaysia, has now taken steps to ban these types of healers from further rituals at the airport on the premise that they violate the teachings of Islam. But this didn’t happen until after Zain’s performance went viral, producing inevitable online parodies.
“Even Barack Obama must have been amazed with our stupidity,” Anwar said on his blog, adding that the shaman’s presence turned Malaysia into a “laughing stock of the international community.”
But to the families of the victims and those involved in the search, the farcical mishandling of the incident by Malaysia is of course no laughing matter.
Nor is the matter of the missing plane, which isn't anywhere close to being resolved.
A recent report by The Wall Street Journal revealed the possibility that the plane might have continued to fly for hours after vanishing from air traffic control radars. It potentially could have traveled an additional 2,200 nautical miles.
As the plane’s last direction remains unknown, those numbers broaden the search to an area stretching from Australia to India.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi