What did the government know, and when did it know it?
It seems almost impossible to believe, but the Malaysian government must have known since shortly after it crashed that Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the pilot of the doomed flight MH370, deliberately put the plane down in the Indian Ocean on the night of March 8, 2014 after rendering everybody aboard unconscious and creating the greatest mystery in aviation history.
The question that someone needs to be asking in Malaysia is the classic one posed to government officials before: What do you know, and when did you know it?
New York Magazine, in a stunning story last week, reported that a leak from the Malaysian government revealed the US Federal Bureau of Investigation had found evidence on Zaharie’s deleted flight-simulator hard drives indicating he had practiced a one-way flight into the southern Indian Ocean, just about the place a multimillion dollar search has been continuing for over two years.
Although Malaysian authorities including the inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar, flatly denied the story, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau confirmed to the Australian news show 60 Minutes over the weekend that the FBI did examine the simulator and did find a route plotted into the southern Indian Ocean.
Khalid said the Malaysians would have to wait for recovery of the plane’s black box, which may never be found. Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai has dismissed the speculation, saying Zaharie’s flight simulator records weren’t proof that he had intended to commit suicide, which if nothing else appears to be an admission that they knew about the simulator records.
But Malaysia, coincidentally in the middle of the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history with as much as US$4 billion having disappeared from 1Malaysia Development Bhd., thus now has a scandal now that in some ways is more visceral, involving real people, the families of the 227 passengers and 12 Malaysian crew who have bitterly attacked the government ever since the plane disappeared, accusing it of denying them “existing rights in law, including also access to justice mechanisms.”
So far, the mainstream Malaysian press, all of which are owned by the ruling political parties, have played the story very carefully, leaning more on the denials of government officials than on what appears to be evidence of a cover-up. With the opposition largely in disarray, under threat from sedition charges and a new anti-terrorism act that gives the government the right to arrest anybody for reasons of its own choosing, hard questions are not being asked.
Underwater cameras have searched 150,000 square km of the South Indian Ocean. But except for a piece of the wing called a flaperon, which was found last July on Reunion Island, a dot 200 km from Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and a second piece found later, MH370 might as well have been vaporized.
However, in an article in The Australian, a commercial pilot named Byron Bailey argued that the flight-simulator data proved that Zaharie had committed suicide, and that with that data in hand, search officials should have known where to look for it. Supposedly the condition of the flaperon which tore loose from the wing tells part of the story. Its trailing edge was damaged, as if the flaps were lowered as the plane descended toward what was presumed to be a controlled landing. If indeed Zaharie actually was able to put the Boeing 777-200ER down that gently, it would have remained largely intact and sunk to the bottom of the ocean, instead of going into a power dive as it ran out of fuel and exploding into thousands of parts, many of which would have floated and been found.
It isn’t impossible. It may have been flown in as carefully as US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 which Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger flew into the Hudson River in New York in 2009 after a bird strike disabled both engines. Sullenberger set the plane down so gently that it remained completely intact, except for having an engine torn off. If MH370 went in that carefully – an astonishing feat in an open ocean – almost all of the floatable bits may have gone to the bottom with it.
Certainly the Malaysians have inadvertently fed suspicions, initially refusing to release the full cargo manifest, raising suspicions that flammable materials such as lithium batteries might be aboard. It has seemed impossible to conclude anything but a deliberate pilot act ever since the plane disappeared.
According to controllers’ logs, the pilots said good night to Malaysia and never said hello to the Vietnamese controllers who were supposed to pick them up and monitor them. Instead, MH370, somewhere out over the South China Sea, is said to have made a steady climbing left turn up to 14,000 meters, putting the passengers to sleep, apparently for good, as it passed above the rated oxygen limit of the plane.
Then it apparently dropped back to 3,700 meters, seemingly sought to duck under Malaysian radar and disappeared forever. Seemingly all systems that might trace the plane were shut off. But pings from MH370’s Rolls-Royce engines enabled investigators to follow the aircraft as far as they could. As far as can be determined, the information was turned over by US and Boeing authorities to provide crucial cooperation to Malaysia in the search for the craft. It is unknown when the Malaysians took possession of the data from the flight simulator and when they returned the information back to the Malaysian government. But it must have been relatively early on.
The plane never issued a distress signal. None of the 227 passengers has been identified as connected to a cause or group that would be interested in hijacking the plane. The histories of the pilot and co-pilot have both been investigated exhaustively.
Zahairie has been fiercely defended by his fellow MAS air crews. But the answer may never be known. The last anybody heard, Kuala Lumpur Radar told the plane: “Malaysian three seven zero, contact Ho Chi Minh one two zero decimal nine. Good night.”
“Good night. Malaysian three seven zero,” Zaharie said. Nobody ever said hello to Ho Chi Minh one two zero decimal nine. – Asiasentinel
The decision to leave the EU changes terms of debate north of the border, writes Nicholas Macpherson
The EU referendum last month has raised existential issues of nationality across the British Isles. Applications for Irish passports are at a record level, with even Ian Paisley Jr, the Democratic Unionist MP, tweeting: “My advice is if you are entitled to [a] second passport then take one.” Meanwhile, the pressure for another referendum on Scottish independence is mounting.
With the UK leaving the EU, there is a golden opportunity for proponents of Scottish independence to reappraise their economic prospectus. Clearly, membership of the EU will lie at the heart of it. That will enable Scotland to have access to the biggest market in the world without the uncertainties that are likely to face the rest of the UK for many years to come. It would also provide a historic opportunity for Edinburgh to develop further as a financial centre, as London-based institutions hedge their bets on the location of staff and activities. If Royal Bank of Scotland, the state-backed bank, relocates its headquarters as part of that process, that would strengthen the long-term sustainability of the Scottish financial sector.
How quickly an independent Scotland could join the EU is of course highly uncertain. Spain is unlikely to agree to automatic membership because of concerns about secessionist pressures in Catalonia. All the same, the EU has a huge interest in fast-tracking membership for a country whose citizens have been members of the bloc for 43 years and have voted to remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Then there is the question of currency. In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish National party government missed a trick by advocating a unilateral monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Treasury had had enough problems with fixed currency regimes in the 20th century without wanting to enter into one in the 21st. The history of monetary unions teaches us that they require more political integration rather than less — as the eurozone has discovered to its cost.
In any case, an independent Scotland would have no interest in seeking to tie its currency to a country that wishes to put more distance between itself and the EU. It is surely time, therefore, for the Scottish government to commit to creating a Scottish pound supported by its own central bank. That would not preclude the monetary authorities of an independent Scotland from shadowing sterling, just as the Danish central bank shadows the euro.
In the longer term, there could be a case for tying the Scottish pound to the euro. And a long-term commitment to joining the single currency would almost certainly be a requirement of EU membership. But that does not mean Scotland would have to adopt the euro — at least not straight away. Sweden is theoretically obliged to join the single currency. But more than 20 years on from joining the EU, the prospects of its giving up the krona seem vanishingly remote.
One of the Treasury’s worries in 2014 about the putative monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK was the impact of the oil price cycle. With its own currency, Scotland would be much better placed to respond to an oil shock on the scale of the one that has taken place in the past two years. Interest rates and the Scottish pound could take the strain smoothing any adjustment in the real economy.
The fall in the oil price from $100 a barrel to under $40 earlier this year is a reminder of the importance of sound public finances. There is no reason why small countries cannot be very successful economically. But generally those that are — Norway and Singapore come to mind — put great effort into establishing fiscal credibility. That generally means running fiscal surpluses in the good times, the better to insure against shocks in the bad times.
The Treasury was concerned in 2014 that the Scottish government’s prospectus relied on over-optimistic oil price projections. But First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s administration has since worked to bolster its fiscal credibility.
John Swinney, Scottish finance secretary until earlier this year, was cautious about using the borrowing powers available under the existing fiscal arrangements. More importantly, he has taken steps to set up Scotland’s own independent fiscal council. There is now a much better opportunity for informed debate about public finances, taking into account changing North Sea oil production levels and wider demographic trends. The Scottish government can strengthen its credibility by setting out long-term plans for public services, public investment and social security, in particular pensions.
It also has a chance to set out a tax policy for the longer term. An independent Scotland committed to the EU would have an extraordinary opportunity to attract inward investment as well as highly skilled migrants. But, since it will be competing with Ireland, it needs a tax system that is equally competitive. That points to low corporate taxes and keeping marginal rates of income tax down. It may also point to a smaller, more efficient state.
The aftermath of the EU referendum contains many lessons. Perhaps the most important is that without a plan for what happens next you risk months, if not years, of uncertainty and drift. The Scottish government is in a unique position to take a more far-sighted approach. If it can develop a clear and coherent economic strategy ahead of any future referendum, it not only stands a better chance of winning it will also increase the probability that an independent Scotland inside the EU can hit the ground running.
The writer was permanent secretary to the Treasury and is now visiting professor at King’s College London