Malaysia’s dark winter

This month Malaysia has entered one of the darkest periods in its history: record Covid-19 cases and deaths are being reported daily, two weeks ago today emergency rule was declared with unchecked powers and the largest contraction in the economy since Malaysia became an independent nation has hit hard, with growing hunger and hardship.

An unfamiliar chill is setting into the national bones, as disquiet, anxiety, and shock are resonating. Many long ambivalent to the “new normal” are realising that there is, in fact, a “new abnormal” – a crisis of multi-dimensions that lacks leadership and clear resolution.

The health, economic and political crises the country is facing are reinforcing each other. The key question is not whether Malaysia will get out of it – there will be a spring. Malaysians are resilient and by comparison to many parts of the world, the country is in a stronger comparative position to harness its resources.

If it values its most important resource – its people – it will get out of the situation sooner. Democracy’s roots in Malaysia are strong and attempts to trim established political practices will result in regrowth. The main questions are how much damage the darkness will bring, how long it will last and what can be done to mitigate the ongoing shocks to the system.

Health crisis: Preparing for the long haul

Exactly one year after the first case, Covid-19 is sadly now widespread in the community – the numbers of unlinked cases and national scope of the infection speaks to the seriousness.

Lockdown – as practiced with extensive loopholes and lacking accompanied interventions to address conditions contributing to infections, such as inadequate education of risks, crowded flats and facilities of foreign workers – will not be enough to stem the rising tide. At best, it is a short-term measure that makes officials feel like they are doing something but will not yield the results its did last year.

The need to reform the national health approaches to Covid-19 is more pressing than ever. Repeatedly health practitioners and commentators on public health have echoed a common narrative – a call for transparency, data sharing, wider testing and new approaches to managing the strain on health facilities that includes greater care for health care personnel.

Policymakers and civil society activists have also called for reform of detention centres/prisons and a more inclusive and humane approach toward foreign workers and undocumented persons.

The public at large has called for politicians to respect the health protocols they have put in place and to focus attention on public welfare rather than power-grabbing. So far, despite the claim to include independent health professionals in the spiralling number of committees, these calls have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Trust in the management of the public health system continues to erode, even among the traumatised and exhausted medical officers themselves, at a time that trust and cooperation are desperately needed. More and more politicians are getting infected themselves – which personifies that reality of a wider pandemic.

Amidst these worrying trends, there have been two positive initiatives – steps towards private-public partnerships and shift in health care regime differentiating patients who are asymptomatic (not needing care but quarantine) to those who have symptoms.

Both measures show promise as they take the pressure off a strained health care system but have been implemented rather ham-fistedly and haphazardly. Improvements in communication with greater respect for the audience and partners can go a long way to making these steps more successful.

There has also been significant progress on the vaccines. While two neighbours – Singapore and Indonesia – have begun their vaccine rollouts (including vaccinating Malaysians in Singapore), Malaysia stands reasonably well positioned compared to other regional neighbours and globally. It has secured the vaccines.

Reports of the rollout process, however, have not evoked confidence and created even greater confusion. Defensiveness has set in with concerns about procuring contracts rather than containing the disease. Opposition to vaccination has also grown, even within the system.

The rollout process needs a serious rethink, with new partners and administrators and greater transparency. Fundamentally, it needs to include all in Malaysia, including foreign workers. The Health Ministry (MOH) is overworked; other departments and agencies should be assigned to coordinate the vaccine, working in tandem with state governments and the private sector.

Federal systems are relying on state governments elsewhere, and this should be the case here. An education campaign on the vaccine needs to be started, to reduce misinformation and strengthen confidence in the process itself.

Equally important, the mindset that the solution lies with the vaccine needs to be tempered. The government is now facing the backlash from focusing on case numbers as measures of “success”.

Now, there needs to be an acknowledgement that even with the vaccine distribution it will take time for the threat of this virus to dissipate, especially in light of the new strains of the virus emerging. Any vaccine is part of a solution, not the solution in itself. The pandemic will be here at least another year, likely much longer.

Moving forward, to instil greater confidence, new health leadership should be considered – one that works well with others and crosses the partisan divide to bring a genuinely holistic response to Covid-19.

Economic survival: Clearer direction needed

Rethinking how to manage the economy is also essential. Arguably the single most important factor that strengthened Muhyiddin Yassin’s government’s public support in his first few months was the introduction of modest financial assistance, from B40 to small businesses. While many were left out, these measures – especially the loan moratorium and financial aid – provided necessary lifelines.

A week ago, the government announced Permai, RM15 billion of support consisting of 22 measures that appear to be a rehashing of measures already in place. Even the numbers do not add up. The lack of enthusiasm for the programme is palpable.

Little was done to address the gaps in existing measures – and the intensification of the effects of an ongoing economic battering. Unemployment is reaching record levels and will increase further – which could spill over into rising crime and social discontent.

Malaysians lack a coherent social safety programme, and the funds being distributed to date are inadequate. If not addressed, the damage of the pandemic will be permanent, deepening inequalities and exacerbating already serious social divisions. The focus has been on putting a plaster on a festering wound, without any antiseptic.

The problems lie with a lack of clear vision to manage the economy in crisis and position Malaysia for a changing more competitive global economy. Muhyiddin inherited a weakening economy in dire need of reform. Among his first steps in office have been to reverse many of the reforms on the government-linked companies (GLCs), among others. Concerns about leakages and corruption are growing as undisclosed patronage is rampant.

The government’s advisory economic council has gone silent as thousands of businesses have been forced to shut down and investment has precipitously dropped. Last year’s budget began from assumptions about the growth that were unrealistic and was focused on winning support rather than needed restructuring and repositioning.

Malaysia is losing its comparative position regionally and globally as others make bold initiatives to build infrastructure for digitisation, enhance food security, and harness entrepreneurship, while supporting businesses as they lead in manufacturing.

Instead, the approach is to find someone to blame, with the latest being attacks on businesses for their management of foreign workers – a problem that originated within government and whose solution needs to be centred in more humane practices across the board.

The need for a recalibration of economic policymaking is also urgent – with attention to both short-term and longer-term measures. Greater engagement with the business (large and small) community as partners, not problems, is required.

Political regression: Problems persist

An “emergency” cannot be part of any meaningful solution for Malaysia. Even those in the system openly acknowledge that it is an overreaction to political circumstances of “instability”: inadequate political support among elected parliamentarians for the current government and unstatesmanlike self-interested leadership across the political divides.

Support for a minority government will likely worsen, as Muhyiddin has risen the stakes in a context where it is near impossible for him to deliver. The responses two weeks in on health and economy do not evoke confidence. Like his predecessor, Najib Abdul Razak, Muhyiddin has become more dependent on using the levers of power to stay in office.

We already see similar repertoires of the past to legitimise power – identifying and targeting “enemies”, “us” versus “them” mindsets and insensitive exclusion of minorities in decisions such as those in Kedah regarding Thaipusam. There is little appreciation that Malaysia is not the same place as the past as the impact of opening society and increased demands make old measures less effective.

With every action, there will be an equal reaction argued Isaac Newton, but in fact in Malaysia with every action, there is an unequal reaction – and in that inequality are sentiments that undercut the nation’s social and political fabric.

Lessons elsewhere – Thailand by one example – show that the underlying problems of a divided polarised country, weakened institutions, inequality and short-sighted leadership do not go away.

Political reforms in the system and within parties are needed. There are reasons new parties are forming and older ones are splitting – as they are not working to represent – even their own members.

Managing the cold

Malaysia has been blessed that it has not suffered the same level of crises as other countries – even in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. This current winter has come slowly, as doors on inclusion have closed, lights on learning lessons have been turned off and those outside of the taxpayer heated halls have been consistently told to heel.

It is important to keep in mind that Malaysians do not like the cold. Malaysians are doing what others do in cold weather – huddling together with families and friends to stay warm, finding a way together in their resilience to manage.

Too many are already suffering. While many hold out hope in the current government, larger numbers are losing faith in the system. The burn of frustration and anger is real.

The longer this winter persists – without clear policies and meaningful solutions as has been the case so far – the more divisive sentiments will fester. This situation is not healthy for Malaysia now or for its future.

Taken from