Caught in a political Covid-19 net

As cases numbers approach 50,000, with deaths steadily increasing to over 300, more experts are questioning Malaysia’s Covid-19 response.

The latest is an Imperial College report that suggests that there are considerably higher cases in the country that are being found. The focus of criticism locally has centred on the ineffectiveness of the blanket lockdown(s), with uneven ad hoc implementation, inadequate scientific justification and serious harm on the economy.

Unless the causes and substance of this criticism are adequately addressed, the credibility gap the government is facing over Covid-19 will widen.

As with many problems in Malaysia, the core challenges are political and systemic; Covid-19 has become caught in a political net – unnecessarily so.

To get out, senior government officials – from the Health Ministry to other departments – need to appreciate how they have contributed to the current situation and step back from long-standing practices and policies that are not working in today’s environment and crisis conditions.

Reforms are necessary, with more meaningful and respectful engagement with civil society and the public. Malaysia should learn the lesson from other countries – failing is an opportunity to learn and move forward.

Loss of trust

Malaysia’s initial responses to Covid-19 were assessed as one of the strongest in the world. The accolades then were well deserved.

Now, before the year is out, public trust is eroding. The pattern of falling from the pedestal is common globally, as confidence can quickly turn to over-confidence, blinding policymakers to the need for policy adaptation and weaknesses in current policy implementation.

In Malaysia, three factors are responsible for trust erosion:

Foremost, senior health officials were seen to be ineffective in stopping the double-standard implementation of standard operating procedures.

In meetings without masks and not properly calling out officials who violated procedures, this hurt the credibility of officials – and the government as a whole.

When double standards are repeatedly ignored by those in power and not adequately questioned by those managing the health crisis, this only confirms to the public that they can ignore the same standards.

Second, health officials have not properly addressed the Sabah health crisis. While numbers have stabilised in this Borneo state – close to two months after starting to rise – they have not significantly decreased. Deaths are just too high, and the strain on the health system remains serious.

As long as Sabah continues to suffer, the government’s credibility in handling Covid is being damaged.

Tiong King Sing

The Bintulu MP’s Tiong King Sing comments in parliament were unfairly harsh, but the anger and distrust embedded in the remarks reflect widespread sentiments that the federal Health Ministry is failing in Borneo.

Finally, and the most problematic, is opting to choose political sides, to support specific politicians rather than the people as a whole. In doing this, health officials have unnecessarily further politicised Covid-19 (which is already highly politicised in budget debates, for example).

Political conditions are always difficult to navigate for senior officials– they are especially so in a deeply politically polarised society like Malaysia. Senior civil servants who want to maintain their credibility in this politically fragmented situation should stay above the political fray.

Instead, open support of decisions that support the political powers rather than the people at large have grated – support for the emergency rule, an unwillingness to work cordially and respectfully with opposition-led states, for example, have alienated.

Senior officials seem to have forgotten that the current Perikatan Nasional government is unelected, believed to be in a minority in numbers and strongly opposed by large shares of the country.

This join-them practice was common during BN rule, where the line between government and government implementation was never drawn – in fact, civil servants were expected to be government cheerleaders.

This type of approach is not effective now – the more health officials speak on behalf of the government rather than for better governance and on behalf of public health, the more they hurt their national health efforts.

The appropriate role for senior public health officials is to be less partisan, to speak for the public health all Malaysians, irrespective of political affiliation.

Default to defensiveness

As criticism has increased with the erosion of trust, the response by officials has been to become more defensive. This worsens the situation as defensiveness angers the public, by disrespecting their concerns, and, ultimately, exacerbates the erosion of trust.

This defensiveness reflects another return to an old practice – the view that the public is uninformed and should not question the government. It reflects deep paternalistic and feudal norms that are not in keeping with Malaysia’s more modern society.

The trajectory has been to revert to behind a closed curtain, to come out once a day to speak at (rather than with) the audience. The more they hide, the more the perception is that they are hiding something.

Here, too, this is out of step with contemporary Malaysia. More Malaysians today expect to be respectfully informed and do not like their intelligence insulted. Many experts in the public are actually as (some even better) informed than some in the ministries.

Access to information globally has changed, with the crisis encouraging more attention to both the problems and different solutions. The role that health officials play is now more important than ever, to explain the science and layout the different options as part of a broader public discussion.

This is not happening as different ideas and concerns are largely being dismissed, and in the process, more concerns and questions are being raised. The time for the ‘government knows all’ response is over.

Being more transparent – about data, about the policy challenges, about the different choices ahead – will win over support. Being humble – acknowledging what is known and unknown and risks ahead is not a sign of weakness.

Sadly, these are not (yet) the norm in governance in Malaysia. Key is choosing the serious battles with the public (such as winning broad public support for vaccine usage), rather than treating all public engagement as a war.

Victim of own success

Senior officials face a difficult time; they are in many ways a victim of their own earlier success. Moving forward, one challenge is to change expectations and reframe issues, to shift what success means now after multiple waves of the virus.

Three issues are highlighted below:

Low case numbers have been myopically seen as a measure of success. The focus on this measure is not helping.

Success is broader – it involves finding the cases, treating them (well), to make sure that transmission stops and patients get the best care as possible.

A reframing of what a successful response is needed, where finding cases is seen as a measure of success, not a failure.

There should be more discussion of different measures of transmission beyond the case numbers. There is a need to tackle the reality that the virus is more widespread than the targeting testing to date and create acceptance that wider testing and larger numbers are a needed step ahead.

While officials worry about whether they can fulfil the ‘duty of care’ (and concerns about strains on health facilities) and whether they will be able to deal with the numbers that might exist, the government needs to distance itself from mindsets that hamper policies to better address the problem and better explain the constraints they face.

In particular, a wider approach to testing, including undocumented persons, should be considered and explained. At the core, is the need to give the public credit for its understanding and appreciation of honesty.

Second is to realise that the solutions at the beginning of the pandemic no longer have the same public buy-in or support when they were first introduced. There is a mistaken assumption that support for initiatives are the same as they were when the crisis started. Fatigue and scepticism are being underestimated.

Finally, officials have been lulled into the view that they have all the answers to the problem. This is why there has been a return to practices and policies of the past, ie lockdowns. There is inadequate attention to how and why the third wave may be different than earlier waves in Malaysia.

Over-confidence is contributing to an unwillingness to look at other policy options, acknowledge problems and reconsider solutions. A broad discussion with the public is an asset for the government, as it helps confidence-building; broader engagement wins more allies and support.

Resistance to reform

As the Covid-19 crisis deepens in Malaysia, it is exposing other policy problems across government.

Prison reform, treatment of foreign workers, the undocumented migrant problem in Sabah, inadequate attention to infrastructural development in areas such as the internet, resistance to increased health care spending and wider health care education, inadequate engagement with civil society as partners to problems – are just a few of many.

The trend has been to move away from reform and policy adaptation, as Covid-19 has become more politicised. Reform is treated as the enemy, the opposition, rather than as a needed friend to make the government and its health care efforts stronger.

This ‘seeing the enemy’ thinking should change.

Measures to improve prison conditions will reduce the numbers of Covid-19 cases and create fewer risks for security officials and their families, for example. It is a win-win for everyone, including reducing costs and protecting lives.

While many will see this call for embracing reform as falling on deaf ears, as the hunkering down against calls for change has increased. Now more than ever it is necessary to call for rethinking, to push for new ideas to be implemented.

More broadly, the policies and how they are being implemented are not working effectively. The longer this situation continues, the worse the situation can become.

The most successful countries in addressing Covid-19 in Asia – South Korea and Taiwan – provide examples of countries learning and adapting their Covid-19 responses. They won more trust and support by non-partisanly addressing and acknowledging weaknesses in policy responses head-on.

Leaving behind old practices and being more open to change, will tap a reservoir of goodwill that exists; Malaysians across the divide want the responses to Covid-19 to succeed. It is the path toward a safer Malaysia with lower risks from Covid-19.

Climbing out of the political net officials are now in will not be easy, but it is not impossible. It starts by seeing the net they are in.


Taken from