A Way Forward for Malaysia

No country’s been spared the ravages of Covid-19. But in Malaysia, the pandemic has coincided with political turmoil and arguably the greatest period of instability in the nation’s history. Political analyst BRIDGET WELSH explores these issues – and more importantly, what can be done to fix them. Published on Between The Lines

There are no easy answers for any country in this devastating Covid-19 pandemic. Choices involve trade-offs and when lives are at stake, these trade-offs cause harm. The challenge is to find balance and make choices that do the least harm.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’ government has been in power for 15 months. During this time, his government has moved from controlling the virus to losing control of it, from stabilising the economy to setting it back decades.

Today, easily a third of the country are on the verge of serious harm – forced to make sacrifices like never before and facing difficult choices on how to feed their families. The social safety net of the country is not strong enough to save those that have fallen.

Deaths and infection rates are escalating rapidly. By current projections, Malaysia could reach over 1 million recorded Covid cases and double her number of deaths within the next two months.

The lack of transparent information on suicide as well as its criminalisation prevent assessments of how many have actually taken their own lives. After over a year of some form or another of restrictive lockdown amidst escalating case numbers, the despair is real.

Why Malaysia needs leadership change

Malaysians see governance by focusing on leaders, putting them on pedestals when they perform and pillorying them when they fail to meet expectations. Lenses are tinted by a history of divisive politics that often forgives unforgivable acts of abuse, and excuses poor performance.

Malaysia’s challenges go well beyond the individuals in office. There continues to be an urgent need for institutional reform. Yet, in a pandemic, where health systems, the economy and the well-being of everyone is on the line, leadership (or the lack thereof) is critical.

At this juncture, there’s a political stalemate among different political parties. Neither of the main coalitions – the PN government or the PH opposition – have the numbers for a stable government. Leaders who believe they are entitled to power are refusing to make way for new configurations and a new generation of leaders.

Lacking an alternative trusted voting system that allows for postal and online voting, and with politicians who are not willing to adopt safe campaign practices, the country cannot afford another super-spreader election. PN is using the advantages of incumbency, notably resources and control of political institutions in a centralized system, to stay in power, mistakenly believing they are entitled to be there.

But, there are four reasons the country needs new leadership.

First, the Covid-19 crisis calls for new policy ideas and approaches. The incumbent government is no longer listening.

Second, the erosion of trust of current leaders is unredeemable. If the country is to get out of the pandemic without further damage, it needs to rebuild trust both within the country and internationally.

Third, the damage on the economy and society is serious. If left to continue, the losses and widening inequality will leave permanent scars.

Finally, few at the helm realise that all the politicians are being indicted in a system that isn’t  working. Cynicism and anger against politicians are the most potent forces in the country. Today’s political crisis is not about one party or another, one politician or another; it’s about a broad failure of governance. The distance between a pandemic and pandemonium is precariously coming closer.

Muhyiddin has had his chance. His health gives him a gracious reason to step down and his legacy will be remembered positively for stepping aside.

Any new government needs to have meaningful representation of all the major ethnic communities and regions, particularly Borneo. It needs to have meaningful representation of women, and bring in younger more dynamic leaders.

Most important of all – it needs competency. This is especially the case in the health, social services and economic portfolios. The time is over for a handful of men jostling for positions and contracts to be in charge. Rather, it’s an opportunity for a smaller, more inclusive group of leaders cooperating for the country.

Frankly, the parties involved do not matter. The standard needs to be a principled, crisis-oriented collective working for the citizens, engaged in genuine public service, rather than focused on themselves. A short-term (year and a half) interim crisis government offers the best option, given the political constraints.

With new leadership needs to come policy change

New leadership is not enough. The crisis requires a hard look at policies that aren’t working and what changes are needed in policy implementation.

Foremost is to reduce dependence on lockdowns. While this policy worked in the past, it isn’t working any longer. There is no further public confidence or adequate acceptance of restrictive measures. The damage caused to the economy and to the psyche of citizens is too deep.

After losing a fifth of her GDP to lockdowns last year, Malaysia is now losing billions in redirected business and being cut out of global supply chains, while more citizens are becoming unemployed.

The government needs to empower people to manage their own health. They do this by providing free RTK- Antigen testing kits, allowing for home self-quarantine, and providing incentives for people to only operate in their ‘trust bubbles’.

If individuals cannot quarantine at home, facilities can be provided in the empty hotels. Clear, accessible health information on what to do to further prevent and address symptoms and when a person should go to hospital will help tremendously. As the government cannot control people through arbitrary fines and uneven policing, it should incentivize responsible behavior.

Shoring up the healthcare system is essential. This can be done by providing secure jobs to contract medical personnel, and proper N95 medical equipment to all individuals in hospitals, from cleaners to caterers.

The deadly variants are here and more are coming. Now is the time to prepare oxygen supply and to further ramp up vaccinations across the country – once the variants infect states outside Klang Valley; places where health facilities are less available, deaths will increase. New leadership is needed in the health ministry to allow for new approaches.

Also vital is the need to help those displaced and facing hardship. Jobs to support the pandemic response should be created, even if they are short term, and tax incentives given to employers to hire.

Factories that are abiding by SOPs should be rewarded. Rather than have people line up for provisions stamped with the faces of personalities, food vouchers can be provided online. The distribution process should not be through politicians, but through a more direct and efficient mechanism. In-person distribution should be targeted for the most vulnerable and remote communities, with NGOs and security forces working together.

Decisions and implementation need to be further decentralised to states that have competent leadership, with federal personnel in other agencies and departments reassigned to assist with providing needed provisions to people at the state level where local knowledge and trust is the strongest.

Parliament and expert committees can be created to buttress government and offer new ideas. The place for parliamentarians in not handing out food, but in coming together to debate a buffet of policy choices in a parliament. One priority should be reforms for a safe pandemic election, the other a stronger social safety net.

Mindsets need to change. The government has long seen the people – or in some cases different groups of people – as the problem.

But, across communities, ordinary Malaysians have led the way with initiatives focused on helping each other. Malaysians have stepped up like never before. They will do so again if they are included, empowered and given new leadership to work with.

The real international story of this past month is not a failing government. Governments across the world are failing and will fail. The story of Malaysia is a society that is working to save itself; the white flag movement is testimony to the brave and generous spirit of its citizens.

Now is the time to bring in new leadership and different policy approaches, where this positive energy can be harnessed for a stronger country and effective recovery.