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Plane search puts Malaysian minister on defensive

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FILE – In this Wednesday, March 25, 2009 file photo, Hishammuddin Hussein, front, chief of Youth wings placing the “Malay Keris” on a ceremonial display stand during the opening of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Youth general assemblies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hishammuddin Hussein’s wife is a princess. His cousin is prime minister, and he’s been mentioned as a possible successor. But right now, as the face of his country’s effort to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, he is the man who has delivered more than two weeks of frustrating news about one of the most confounding searches in aviation history. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

FILE – In this Wednesday, March 25, 2009 file photo, Hishammuddin Hussein, front, chief of Youth wings placing the “Malay Keris” on a ceremonial display stand during the opening of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Youth general assemblies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hishammuddin Hussein’s wife is a princess. His cousin is prime minister, and he’s been mentioned as a possible successor. But right now, as the face of his country’s effort to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, he is the man who has delivered more than two weeks of frustrating news about one of the most confounding searches in aviation history. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Malaysian acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein speaks during a press conference at a hotel in Sepang, Malaysia, Monday, March 10, 2014. Vietnamese aircraft spotted what they suspected was one of the doors of the missing Boeing 777 on Sunday, while questions emerged about how two passengers managed to board the ill-fated aircraft using stolen passports. (AP Photo)

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Hishammuddin Hussein’s wife is a princess. His cousin is prime minister, and he’s been mentioned as a possible successor. But right now, as the face of his country’s effort to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, he is the man who has delivered more than two weeks of frustrating news about one of the most confounding searches in aviation history.

The bespectacled 52-year-old defense minister has come under fire for just about everything that’s gone wrong with the unprecedented hunt — from delayed radar tracking data to confusion over when police searched the homes of the missing plane’s pilots. His handling of the search could affect not only his own future but that of Malaysia’s ruling party, which has been struggling to stay in power after six decades in charge.

“He is going to be hindered by the perception (of Malaysia’s) handling of the crisis,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Singapore Management University. “Those who see it negatively will associate it with Hishammuddin.”

The tech-savvy minister, who tweets regularly and has a Twitter following in excess of 600,000, tried to overcome some of that criticism Saturday when he read out a handwritten note passed to him at the end of a press briefing that bore the latest clue: A Chinese satellite had spotted debris that might belong to the jetliner.

“I’ve been accused of not informing the world about the information,” he said. “This is coming to me as quick as you are seeing it on TV right now.”

For Hishammuddin, who also serves as acting transport minister, much is at stake. As one of Malaysia’s most senior politicians and a member of its elite, he has been touted as a possible future candidate for prime minister — a position previously held by both his father, Hussein Onn, and his uncle Abdul Razak.

Hishammuddin’s family connections go even farther than that. His grandfather, Onn bin Ja’afar, founded the ethnic Malay party that has dominated politics here ever since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957.

His wife, Tengku Marsilla Tengku Abdullah, is a princess from the state of Pahang, north of the main city, Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has a constitutional monarchy, and the king’s role is largely ceremonial; the title is not handed down along family lines but shared among sultans from nine states who each take a turn as monarch for five years.

As a boy, Hishammuddin attended an all-male boarding school that was founded to educate the children of nobility. He studied abroad and obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wales in 1984 and a master’s from the London School of Economics in 1988 before returning home to practice law.

In 1995, he transitioned to politics, winning a Parliament seat. He ascended through government ranks to hold multiple Cabinet positions, including the portfolios of sports, education and the powerful home ministry.

Since the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight went missing shortly after take-off March 8 with 239 people aboard, Hishammuddin has braved television cameras almost every day. He has been subjected to criticism and probing questions that Malaysia’s ethnic Malay Muslim rulers are unused to, and his responses at times have been seen as condescending and defensive.

Asked about accusations the plane search had been disorderly, Hishammuddin once retorted: “It’s only confusion if you want it to be seen to be confusion.” Another day, he called on a reporter to apologize for asking a similar question, saying: “I have got a lot of feedback saying we have been very responsible in our action. It’s very irresponsible of you to say that.”

Welsh said contradictory statements and a sluggish response degraded confidence in the government and hurt its credibility. “They are responding to it rather than leading,” Welsh said.

James Chin, a political science professor at Australia’s Monash University, said Malaysia has been ridiculed over its handling of the crisis and Hishammuddin’s career has taken “a step backward.”

Few countries in the world, however, have had to lead such a difficult search, and Malaysia has had little experience handling a crisis of such proportions.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged some initial missteps but blamed those on the government’s “eagerness to deliver information.” Hishammuddin, he said, should be commended. “He has given his best effort.”

Hishammuddin has sparked controversy before.

During a 2005 speech at the annual assembly of the United Malays National Organization,

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