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Plane search puts Malaysian minister on defensive

    FILE - In this Monday, March 10, 2014 file photo, Malaysian acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein speaks during a press conference at a hotel in Sepang, Malaysia. Hishammuddin HusseinÕs wife is a princess. His cousin is prime minister, and heÕs been mentioned as a possible successor. But right now, as the face of his countryÕs effort to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, he is the man who has delivered more than two weeks of frustrating news about one of the most confounding searches in aviation history. (AP Photo)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia >> Hishammuddin Hussein’s wife is a princess. His cousin is prime minister, and he’s been mentioned as a possible successor. But right now, as the face of his country’s effort to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, he is the man who has delivered more than two weeks of frustrating news about one of the most confounding searches in aviation history.

The bespectacled 52-year-old defense minister has come under fire for just about everything that’s gone wrong with the unprecedented hunt — from delayed radar tracking data to confusion over when police searched the homes of the missing plane’s pilots. His handling of the search could affect not only his own future but that of Malaysia’s ruling party, which has been struggling to stay in power after six decades in charge.

“He is going to be hindered by the perception (of Malaysia’s) handling of the crisis,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Singapore Management University. “Those who see it negatively will associate it with Hishammuddin.”

The tech-savvy minister, who tweets regularly and has a Twitter following in excess of 600,000, tried to overcome some of that criticism Saturday when he read out a handwritten note passed to him at the end of a press briefing that bore the latest clue: A Chinese satellite had spotted debris that might belong to the jetliner.

“I’ve been accused of not informing the world about the information,” he said. “This is coming to me as quick as you are seeing it on TV right now.”

For Hishammuddin, who also serves as acting transport minister, much is at stake. As one of Malaysia’s most senior politicians and a member of its elite, he has been touted as a possible future candidate for prime minister — a position previously held by both his father, Hussein Onn, and his uncle Abdul Razak.

Hishammuddin’s family connections go even farther than that. His grandfather, Onn bin Ja’afar, founded the ethnic Malay party that has dominated politics here ever since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957.

His wife, Tengku Marsilla Tengku Abdullah, is a princess from the state of Pahang, north of the main city, Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has a constitutional monarchy, and the king’s role is largely ceremonial; the title is not handed down along family lines but shared among sultans from nine states who each take a turn as monarch for five years.

As a boy, Hishammuddin attended an all-male boarding school that was founded to educate the children of nobility. He studied abroad and obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wales in 1984 and a master’s from the London School of Economics in 1988 before returning home to practice law.

In 1995, he transitioned to politics, winning a Parliament seat. He ascended through government ranks to hold multiple Cabinet positions, including the portfolios of sports, education and the powerful home ministry.

Since the Malaysia Airlines flight went missing shortly after take-off March 8 with 239 people aboard, Hishammuddin has braved television cameras almost every day. He has been subjected to criticism and probing questions that Malaysia’s ethnic Malay Muslim rulers are unused to, and his responses at times have been seen as condescending and defensive.

Asked about accusations the plane search had been disorderly, Hishammuddin once retorted: “It’s only confusion if you want it to be seen to be confusion.” Another day, he called on a reporter to apologize for asking a similar question, saying: “I have got a lot of feedback saying we have been very responsible in our action. It’s very irresponsible of you to say that.”

Welsh said contradictory statements and a sluggish response degraded confidence in the government and hurt its credibility. “They are responding to it rather than leading,” Welsh said.

James Chin, a political science professor at Australia’s Monash University, said Malaysia has been ridiculed over its handling of the crisis and Hishammuddin’s career has taken “a step backward.”

Few countries in the world, however, have had to lead such a difficult search, and Malaysia has had little experience handling a crisis of such proportions.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged some initial missteps but blamed those on the government’s “eagerness to deliver information.” Hishammuddin, he said, should be commended. “He has given his best effort.”

Hishammuddin has sparked controversy before.

During a 2005 speech at the annual assembly of the United Malays National Organization, the linchpin of the ruling coalition, he waved a traditional Malay sword known as a keris that is seen as a symbol of Malay nationalism. Minority Indians and Chinese said the move fueled racial polarization.

In 2009, Hishammuddin came under fire for siding with Muslims who had stomped on and spat at the severed head of a cow to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple to a Muslim neighborhood. Cows are sacred animals for Hindus.

Last year, when Hishammuddin was home minister, he drew criticism after armed Filipino insurgents invaded a coastal village on Borneo island, sparking one of Malaysia’s worst security scares. The government — just as with the plane crisis — was accused of reacting slowly and not being transparent.

Malaysia’s ruling coalition has been shaken in recent years by rising public resentment over perceptions of government graft and racial insensitivity. Last year, an opposition alliance won the popular vote for the first time, though it fell short of obtaining enough Parliament seats to oust the ruling party.

Hishammuddin has insisted the current search is “above politics.”

But Welsh, the analyst, said Malaysia’s handling of the disappearance was making both Prime Minister Najib Razak and Hishammuddin more vulnerable. Hishammuddin, she said, is taking “the bullets for Najib.”

Najib has made the major announcements in the investigation. On Monday, he said a new British analysis of satellite data had found that the plane had plunged into a remote area of the Indian Ocean.

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