Sometimes it takes a crisis for someone to emerge as a leader. For Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, the MH370 crisis seems to have been his moment.
IN the early hours of March 8 when MAS flight MH370 went missing, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein was in Janda Baik with Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for an Umno function.
Both Umno vice-presidents were in a room they were sharing when they received the worrying news in the wee hours that flight MH370 from KL to Beijing had disappeared from radar without a distress call.
Once it was light, Hishammuddin, who is also acting Transport Minister, left Janda Baik and headed for the Air Traffic Control Tower at KLIA to see what was going on.
In the first four days, there was a lot of confusion with contradictory statements being made by different personalities to try to explain even the most basic of things about the disappearance of MH370.
These included the exact time the plane went missing, the last contact it had with Air Traffic Control (ATC), the number of passengers with stolen passports on the flight, and whether all those who had checked in had boarded.
With the eyes of the world watching, it was not only confusing but embarrassing for Malaysia.
That was when Hishammuddin took charge and things started coming together.
Eloquent and professional
Live press conferences were conducted at 5.30pm almost daily to deliver the latest updates. And it was here that Hishammuddin, 52, an LSE law graduate who is comfortable speaking both English and Bahasa Malaysia, shared information about the mystery of the missing plane that had caught the attention of a worldwide audience.
He was eloquent and professional. True, there were a few times when he bristled at some questions but to his credit he was still able to maintain his composure and answer calmly.
He was also not afraid to show emotion when dealing with grieving and angry family members demanding answers on the whereabouts of their loved ones.
He apologised when overzealous security members grabbed a distraught Chinese national who had gate-crashed the press conference at Sama Sama Hotel to get answers about her loved one on the flight.
At a recent TV3 interview, Hishammuddin wiped away a tear while he was connected with a father, Hamid Ramlan, a 56-year policeman whose daughter, Norliakmar, was on the ill-fated flight.
Hamid had thanked him for the search and rescue efforts, told him how the family is feeling and asked him not to stop looking for the plane.
“The one question that families want answered as to where their loved ones are and where the plane is, we simply do not have the answer,” he has humbly said repeatedly over the weeks while promising that Malaysia will keep searching until MH370 is found.
His active engagement on Twitter and Facebook has also won him a huge number of fans.
Victor Lopez, a 15-year-old from France, even wrote in to tell Hishammuddin of his admiration and ask for his autograph – to which the minister obliged and then posted on twitter.
USM political scientist Assoc Prof Dr Sivamurugan Pandian says that when Hishammuddin took over the handling of the MH370 crisis, there were “huge winds of change” in the way he handled the media.
And that it actually allowed for Hishammuddin’s personality and character to come out.
“He was patient in engaging people and showed a different level of confidence. He said all the right things that we wanted to hear and this was appreciated.
“He wasn’t arrogant, didn’t make uncalled for remarks and he was trying to see himself as the family of passengers and crew.
“He managed somehow to pull people together.
“Suddenly, he has become the spokesperson for the nation. And now you have people referring to him as the next PM in waiting,” he says.
It was only a year ago when Hishammuddin, who was then Home Minister, got a lot of flak over how he dealt with the Sulu gunmen who had tortured and killed policemen in Semporna and the intrusion into Lahad Datu.
Many had criticised him for being “too soft”, “too slow”, or “too indecisive” and some were furious when Malaysia extended the deadline for the armed intruders to get out.
Dr Sivamurugan thinks Hishammuddin has learnt from that experience.
“He has become more open and more transparent. People want to look at facts and he is trying to give them that and restore confidence,” he says.
He believes that coming in a close third in the Umno vice-presidency race and almost losing to Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir actually helped Hishammuddin.
“It boosted his strong determination.”
For UKM’s head of political science Dr Muhamad Takiyuddin Ismail, Hishammuddin comes across as “convincing and very cool” although there have been issues in the handling of the MH370 crisis.
“The way he has portrayed himself makes people confident of his handling of the crisis. It has also changed people’s perception of him,” he says.
Dr Takiyuddin points out that while Lahad Datu and the missing MH370 are both a first for Malaysia, “you can see there is a lot of improvement in how the MH370 crisis is being handled.”
Hishammuddin has now become a “hot commodity”, he feels.
On March 29, three weeks after MH370 disappeared, Hishammuddin went to Everly Hotel in Putrajaya with his wife, Tengku Marsilla Tengku Abdullah, to meet some of the Malaysian families who had loved ones on board the missing flight. He went to comfort them, give them strength, answer their questions and assure them that Malaysia is doing all it can to look for the plane and will keep looking.
He also brought along two of his children, Faris, 23 and Kyra Arianna, 21.
Dr Takiyuddin says this added a personal touch as people always want to know about the families of their leaders.
“Maybe he brought them to show that he too is a father and knows how a parent would feel if their child is missing.”
He also points out that Hishammuddin and his wife have shown that they can mingle easily with the ordinary folk.
Universiti Malaya’s International and Strategic Studies’ senior lecturer Dr K. S. Balakrishnan feels Hishammuddin has “changed so much” compared to his Umno Youth Chief days when he unsheathed a keris and kissed it at the Youth assembly as part of Malay tradition. That gesture had caused much discomfort among the other races, the Chinese in particular, who saw it as a veiled threat.
Dr Sivamurugan believes this was not what Hishammuddin had meant or intended, but it was misinterpreted, backfired and cost him Chinese votes back then.
“I think what we are seeing today is the real Hishammuddin,” he says.
Dr Balakrishnan feels there is now “a maturity and good showmanship on leadership” from Hishammuddin, and credits him for the multilateral defence co-operation.
He points out that it takes a lot of effort and work to get 26 countries to work together and send in assets to help locate the plane.
“That shows he has been doing an excellent job as far as that is concerned,” he says.
Dr Balakrishnan says that while people and the media are emotional and desire quick information, this is not always possible because everything needs to be verified and cross-checked with other parties before it is released, which he describes as a “fair deal.”
“A leader has to manage information responsibly and very carefully. He should not bow to pressure from the media and should only reveal when he is very sure of the information. A leader can’t be playing the predictive game,” he says, adding that some of the criticism levelled against Malaysia has been very unfair.
“This type of crisis would put anybody in a spot”.
He adds that while it is true that Hishammuddin has shown competence in handling the MH370 crisis, he will not give him full credit.
“Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is the master craftsman commanding the whole thing from behind the scenes. I’d give Hishammuddin another three to five years to reach that level.”
Asked if someone else in Malaysian politics would have handled the crisis better than Hishammuddin, Dr Balakrishan pauses for a while, thinks then says: “No, unless it is Najib himself.”
This crisis is a test of leadership not just for Hishammuddin, Dr Sivamurugan says.
“It is also a test for Najib because whatever Hishammuddin says reflects on the government’s position.
“If he fails, then the government might not be rated well.
“What is at stake is the government’s credibility. If he handles it well, then the credit will also go to the government.”