Pandemic failures will transform Malaysian politics

Across Malaysia the hashtag #Kerajaangagal (failed government) is trending. Malaysia is not alone in grappling with a debilitating pandemic. Yet what makes this crisis different is how it is playing out politically.

Halijah Naemat, 74, puts away a white flag after she received help from the public at her home during an enhanced lockdown, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 6 July 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Lim Huey Teng).

Malaysia is arguably experiencing its largest broad crisis since the 1969 racial riots. Then the riots were elite driven, but the policies in their wake fundamentally transformed Malaysia. The same could be said of the aftermath of the 1997–1999 Asian financial crisis which provoked an elite struggle that gave birth to the reformasi movement. The Muhyiddin government’s botched handling of COVID-19 has evoked unprecedented social reaction and, in the government’s failings, transformed political narratives and mobilisation.

The erosion of support for Muhyiddin’s government is tied to four issues.

First is mismanagement of the health crisis. Malaysia went from a success story in 2020 to calamity in 2021. It has recorded more than 800,000 cases in total, but over 110,000 in the past fortnight alone. The strain on health systems has shocked the public and led to comparisons with Italy and India.

This has come as senior health officials refuse new approaches and alienate medical staff including a generation of young doctors. With deaths and cases rising, the Delta variant rampant and only 13 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, the health crisis is not going away soon. The toll on a society not used to these numbers is serious.

Also devastating have been the economic effects. An addiction to half-hearted lockdowns has exhausted the population and devastated business. Financial support for businesses and workers has been totally inadequate. Amid record unemployment, the hardest hit workers are young Malaysians. The youth unemployment rate has hit a whopping 9.2 per cent and is projected to increase. A third of Malaysians are facing serious distress as the social safety net has not offered sufficient protection. These numbers extend beyond the bottom-40 (B40) to an increasing share of the middle-40. Government mismanagement is getting the blame.

It has inflated figures of pandemic assistance — touted at RM530 billion (US$126 billion), but in actuality only RM83 billion (US$20 billion) of fiscal stimulus — by including withdrawals from retirement savings and loan moratoriums managed by banks. There are calls for more spending and better oversight of it. The crisis has highlighted a flawed system too dependent on irregular transfers and tied too closely to political patronage.

There has been a growing perception that those in power don’t care. Ministers have been serial offenders of health protocols, accepting modest fines while imposing devastating penalties on ordinary citizens. There is a disconnect between the hardship of the public and the elite who freely mingle and travel abroad.

Frustration in the community is escalating. History shows that out of crises new political narratives and forces emerge. In Malaysia, this is already happening.

There has been a rise of movements in the community to address government shortcomings in assistance. From #kitajagakita (we look after each other) and #rakyatjagarakyat (people look after people) movements last year to the more recent #benderaputih (white flag) calls for assistance, focus has shifted to the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people.

Government failure has led to a rethink of its role as problem solver. More now see it as the problem and have greater appreciation for the power of action from below.

There has also been a rethink of what it means to be Malaysian. The crisis has been a collectively shared experience and assistance is crossing ethnic lines. Circumstances are opening the way for collaboration across previous political fault lines.

Rather than ethnic ‘others’, the more prominent narrative is one of ‘haves versus have nots’. Rich influencers repeatedly flouting rules and business figures callously calling the suffering lazy join politicians in being pillaried on social media. COVID-19 has placed the issue of inequality centre-stage, bringing longstanding divides to the surface, but in a manner that differs starkly from the zero-sum ethnic lens of the past.

This has to do in part with the government’s failings. Muhyiddin’s ‘all Malay’ government gave ethnonationalists what they asked for, and it has not performed. More Malays are taking a hard look at ethnonationalist governance and find it wanting. Malays have experienced the most COVID-19 deaths and been hard hit by deficiencies in the social safety net. Their views of their leaders are shifting.

That can be said for society as a whole. Led by professionals across races, there are louder calls for more competent government not beholden to race or focused on enriching elites There is less fear of speaking out and more are open to listening. As the virus mutates and politicians flounder, COVID-19 has forced citizens to seek out information on their own for survival.

The generation of younger Malaysians is spearheading this political shift. Young medical workers are demanding fairer contracts. Voting rights activists are demanding the vote for those 18–20 years of age. Young social activists are leading fundraising efforts. Responding to COVID-19 has become a political training ground, outside party hierarchies and grounded in crisis experience.

How this mobilisation will evolve remains unclear. Different notions of rights, responsibilities and community are coinciding with narrower models of race, exclusion and elite entitlement.

It’s too soon to say new narratives will supplant older ones. Yet, in the cacophony of political voices, there is a cadence towards a different Malaysia. The 1969 and 1999 crises recalibrated Malaysian politics and the signs are that COVID-19 will do so as well.


First published on East Asia Forum