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MH370 CRASH: M'sia's man of the moment

Malaysia's Defence Minister and Acting Transport Minister

Publication Date : 05-04-2014


The past four weeks have been the most hectic ever for the man thrust into spotlight as the face of Malaysia since Flight MH370 was lost


Since March 8, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has helmed almost every press conference beamed live across the globe. The first few days were clearly unnerving as he rushed through his words, and stumbled.

But soon, he became more comfortable - even as the questions became harder and the critics sharper.

"You could say he rose to the occasion," a friend of his, who did not want to be named, told The Straits Times.

The inexplicable disappearance of an aircraft with 239 people on board was not something the defence minister, or indeed anyone in Malaysia, had ever envisaged happening. When morning came on March 8, almost a month ago, it was politics as usual.

Hishammuddin was with the other top Umno leaders in a strategy huddle at a high-level party retreat in the Janda Baik highlands at the border of Pahang and Selangor, discussing strategies for two upcoming by-elections and other political matters.

Prime Minister Najib Razak was chairing the meeting. Then, a message from the military top brass came in: a Malaysia Airlines plane had been lost. Soon, more and more updates were arriving from the military, Malaysia Airlines and the transport ministry.

Hishammuddin left the retreat for the Sama-Sama Hotel, next to Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, where anxious officials had already been in meetings since early morning.

The press had also been gathering there since the morning.

Hishammuddin chaired the second press conference of the three held that day, and it soon became routine for him to hold daily briefings for the press for the next three weeks.

A meeting room near the media centre in the hotel was converted into a crisis management centre where officials and experts now gather for meetings, usually chaired by Hishammuddin. Those within these hectic circles tell The Straits Times that the first meeting is usually held at 9am and attended by technical experts.

Meetings continue all day, with Hishammuddin chairing another five or so as the hours unfold. The meetings have grown larger as more experts arrive to try and help solve one of the world's biggest aviation mysteries.

The foreign experts include those from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board of the United States, and Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Experts from Boeing, which manufactured the plane, and Rolls-Royce, which built the engines, are also in Malaysia.

Hishammuddin, who briefs Najib at least once a day, also personally makes the phone calls to high-level officials of the 26 countries helping the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner.

It has been a gruelling routine for 52-year-old Hishammuddin, who underwent angioplasty four months ago.

"I hardly sleep because of the time zone (factor). Information comes from different time zones. Information in real time is a roller-coaster of sorts for me," he told the official Bernama news agency.

"Before I intend to sleep, someone says they found oil slicks; the next day, it turns out to be negative. Subsequently, when I want to retire to bed, they say a life- jacket was found. When I wake up the following day, it is said the information is negative," he said, adding that the prime minister keeps an equally gruelling schedule.

Besides coordinating the search, the flow of information also has to be managed. This has, however, come under a lot of criticism as the information has sometimes been contradictory and messy.

Communications are managed by teams from the Prime Minister's office, Hishammuddin's office and Malaysia Airlines, as well as communications specialists engaged for this crisis. Information is put out via social media, including behind-the-scenes photographs, statements and televised broadcasts.

Hishammuddin himself has a four-person communications team which gives him regular updates. He updates his personal Twitter account, while the official Twitter and Facebook accounts are managed by two social media managers.

The team also prepares the briefing package for the daily press conferences, drafts the written statements and anticipates questions from the media.

To stay focused, Hishammuddin keeps only one mobile phone with him and does not carry a tablet. His phone is used only to receive updates, and rarely does he make phone calls.

Malaysia's handling of the crisis has been harshly criticised - mostly for the messy flow of information that has resulted in U-turns and contradictions. It improved somewhat after the chaotic first few days.

An insider said they worked on getting discipline and focus into the message to keep all spokesmen consistent.

Hishammuddin was also briefed to remain serious and to stay on message.

He and the others were strongly advised not to evade questions with a "No comment", and preferably not to answer "I don't know" without making the effort to find out the answer.

Despite the messiness, Hishammuddin's human touch has been well spoken of, especially when he visited anxious Malaysian families who had been staying at a hotel in Putrajaya to wait for news.

His father, Tun Hussein Onn, was Malaysia's third prime minister, and the current prime minister, Najib, is his first cousin. Despite his elite upbringing, he displayed great warmth when he hugged family members.

"He shows honesty in his emotions when dealing with people. At times like this, it works," said his friend.



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