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Malaysia's low key minster in hot seat after MH17 crash

Publication Date : 28-07-2014


When Liow Tiong Lai was appointed transport minister on June 25, he thought his foremost task this year was to engage Chinese officials following the furore over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 in March.

Two-thirds of the 239 people on board were Chinese nationals.

But barely a month after he accepted the transport portfolio, the 53-year-old found himself thrown into the deep end of a second MAS crisis.

On July 17, Flight MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down by a missile over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people onboard.

When news of the MH17 disaster broke around midnight, Liow had arrived in Beijing a few hours earlier and was preparing to meet Chinese officials the next day to discuss follow-up measures to Flight MH370's disappearance.

After the news was confirmed by MAS officials, Liow took the next available flight, at 1.30am, back to Kuala Lumpur.

What followed for the minister were non-stop meetings and conference calls with government officials, advisers and grieving relatives of the victims.

The government scheduled a press conference at 4pm, which would thrust the new transport minister for the first time into the glare of the local and international media.

While Liow is known to be more comfortable speaking in Mandarin and Bahasa Malaysia and had up till then dealt mainly with domestic political affairs, he prepared himself well for the grilling, according to those who work with him.

Liow remained calm as he fielded pointed questions, such as why the Boeing 777 plane was flying over a conflict zone.

He explained that the flight path used by Flight MH17 had been declared safe by the international aviation authorities, backing his statement with flight records of other airlines. He had done his homework the night before, said aides.

"Liow had already prepared responses expected of him and gathered as much information as he could before facing the media," a staff member told The Straits Times recently. "That has always been his style."

Liow took over the reins of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a component party of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, in December last year.

Born in Jasin, Malacca, he is a nutritionist by training and later did an MBA at Universiti Malaya. He is married with three children.

After joining MCA in 1981, he rose through the ranks over the next three decades - from research assistant to press secretary and then political secretary to then deputy party president Lim Ah Lek.

The bigger posts followed - youth chief, MCA deputy president and MCA president.

Those who know him say Liow is a party workhorse, but his low-key style means he often gets overshadowed by more vocal party colleagues such as Wee Ka Siong, his MCA deputy and Minister in the Prime Minister's Department.

"Even when MCA was hit by a leadership crisis in 2001, Liow did not attempt to court the press and only gave carefully worded statements periodically," said a peer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"His quiet strength provided a good balance for the leadership at that time."

In 2009, MCA was hit by another crisis involving then party president Ong Tee Keat and his former deputy Chua Soi Lek.

Liow took the unconventional route of leading a third faction that pushed for a party leadership election in 2010.

Analysts said Liow took the risk because he saw an opportunity to consolidate his position.

He had been appointed by then prime minister Abdullah Badawi in 2008 to be health minister after Dr Chua resigned over a sex scandal.

Liow was also health minister when Najib Razak became prime minister in 2009.

His stint as health minister was largely described as "unremarkable" by civil servants, who also said his policy of cutting waiting time for patients left medical officers overworked.

Following its disastrous showing in the general election in May last year, MCA declined to take up any ministerial posts.

The transport portfolio was then temporarily taken over by defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Professor James Chin of Monash University said that given that Najib was more proactive in engaging the media in the Flight MH17 tragedy, Liow has yet to show his capabilities in the driver's seat.

One of his next challenges is to help turn around the national carrier, which some analysts say is unlikely to survive financially after back-to-back blows.

MAS needs the transport ministry's approval on matters such as flight routes and building of infrastructure to boost profitability.

"Liow needs to prove that MCA is not all obsessed about government positions and can produce leaders capable of handling major crises," Prof Chin told The Straits Times recently.

"It is not just about winning back Chinese votes any more."

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