Utusan Malaysia, the Kuala Lumpur-based Malay-language broadsheet newspaper that Sunday accused the CIA of having a hand in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, has a long history of heated invective as the attack dog for its owner, the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest political party.
It is a publication that could be simply dismissed because of its often-irresponsible diatribes. But presumably it is the mouthpiece for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, the party president. And from his standpoint, the story had to be an utter disaster. US President Barack Obama is due to visit Malaysia sometime over the next few weeks, a visit that Najib, whose popularity is fading, needs to prop him up.
There has been no public reaction in the United States. However, certainly Washington would be less than amused by the story, which accused the US of engineering the plane’s disappearance in order to disturb the growing relationship between Malaysia and China. One source close to the government last week told Asia Sentinel the US has been instrumental in helping Malaysia behind the scenes, providing technological and forensic help from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other organizations in the search for the missing Boeing 777-200, which disappeared on March 8 into the Indian Ocean.
The paper targets a domestic audience and has traditionally felt it could indulge in any necessary rhetoric to help preserve loyalty to the party. However, over the past three to four years, it has veered into strident invective. In 2011, the company drove senior journalist Hata Wahari, then the president of the National Union of Journalists, out of the paper after he complained about its agenda and urged it to go back to its traditional role of presenting unbiased news to the public.
Now, it is reaping more unfavorable publicity and runs the danger of once again affecting international relations because of the perception that is has official standing. But Najib, according to one senior source close to the party, has lost control of the Board of Directors and the editors and has been unable to rein them in despite the fact that his own press secretary sits on the board.
Earlier, the newspaper accused Indonesia of conspiring with the United States to hide the missing airliner after radar communication was lost over the gulf of Thailand. The Indonesian online news portal Merdeka.com quoted the senior officer for foreign affairs at Indonesia's Defense Ministry, Sumardi Brotodiningrat, as saying the allegation was "funny" and that his country was already doing its best to assist Kuala Lumpur in the search.
Najib already faces strained relations with the United States over the conviction on appeal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a favorite of many US politicians and financier George Soros, among others, on what were obviously trumped up charges of sodomy. According to several sources including the purported victim’s father, the charges were cooked up in the prime minister’s office. The country is also facing criticism over confiscation of Christian bibles that use the word “Allah” to denote God and other issues.
US officials have had a habit of publicly observing diplomatic niceties in dealing with Kuala Lumpur and it is uncertain what kind of conversation Obama is going to have with the Malaysian premier.
Najib has repeatedly gone to the US – and the White House – and to the United Nations to characterize Malaysia as a moderate Muslim nation only to take no action against growing religious extremism on the part of Malay nationalists ‑ much to the distress of the country’s other races.
Utusan Malaysia has been at the forefront of racial attacks on ethnic Chinese and Indians. In 2012, a columnist called former Indonesian President B J Habibie a traitor and a “dog of imperialism” for meeting with Anwar. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the comments were unethical and overstepped the bounds of decorum, adding that they had jeopardized relations between the two countries.
However, Utusan’s vitriol is usually reserved for members of the opposition and for Christians. In 2011, for instance, the newspaper printed allegations that Christian pastors were seeking to install a Christian prime minister who would change the country’s official religion from Islam.
The story was ridiculous on its face. Muslims make up at least 60 percent of the population. Some Chinese are Christians, others are Buddhists. Islam is the country’s official religion, enshrined in the constitution although other religions are guaranteed freedom to exist. Any attempt to change the status of Islam would result in a racial conflagration.
In the current flap, according to a translation by the website Malaysian Insider, assistant editor Ku Seman Ku Hussein said it was time "to think outside the box" about the tragedy to Malaysia and world aviation, repeating baseless allegations that the US had also engineered the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda.
"If the CIA could arrange for the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, it is not improbable to link MH370 with the intelligence agency," he wrote, referring to speculation on the involvement of American intelligence in the 9/11 attacks.
"What if the MH370 tragedy had been arranged by certain parties to put Malaysia's relationship with China in jeopardy?" Ku Seman asked in an opinion piece in the paper’s weekend edition, Mingguan Malaysia.
"The September 11 conspiracy which had been previously treated as nonsense was now a fact, and Putrajaya must look at it from a different point of view." Ku Seman wrote.