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Crisis in Malaysia: Politicking amid the Pandemic

18 Aug Crisis in Malaysia: Politicking amid the Pandemic

The COVID-19 situation in Malaysia rages on with infection rates crossing 20,000 every day and death tolls averaging between 200 and 300 daily. Despite Malaysia having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with over half a million people vaccinated daily, the worsening pandemic situation still has not abated. Malaysians are blaming the rising COVID-19 cases on the government’s inefficiency and inconsistency in implementing policies. This is because the government has imposed stringent lockdowns in several badly hit states like Johor and Kuala Lumpur but have allowed economic sectors in said areas to remain open. Such a counterproductive, flip-flopping move was not only bereft of scientific and medical back-up but has been widely criticised by the public as the government prioritising the economy over Malaysians’ lives.

On Thursday, 12 August 2021, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) organised the webinar, “Crisis in Malaysia: Politicking amid the Pandemic”, to provide insights to the political turmoil currently beleaguering Malaysia and how it adversely affects the government’s overall management of the pandemic. The webinar featured Dr. Oh Ei Sun, Senior Fellow of the SIIA, and was moderated by Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of the SIIA.

Current political turmoil

The infighting between then Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s faction and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is said to primarily involve Malay ruling elites. Opposition members like Anwar Ibrahim and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) have been thought to keep a relatively low profile and are less assertive in wanting to become the next PM as they are effectively excluded from the power grab. Dr. Oh stated metaphorically that, “UMNO is perceived to be ‘rocking the boat’ and if we see Muhyiddin as the captain of the boat then UMNO are the passengers. At some point if Muhyiddin is unable to steer the boat, then Muhyiddin’s crew would relegate themselves to become the passengers and UMNO passengers will instead replace their position.” Dr. Oh also added that, “UMNO has been very careful with its wording when expressing its support for or withdrawal from Muhyiddin as UMNO does not intend to totally disband or destroy the ruling coalition and instead hopes for it to remain intact.”

However, another pertinent point of contention would be the plausible successors that can replace Muhyiddin if he is ejected from office. Several names have surfaced like Zahid Hamidi (President of UMNO), Gua Musang MP Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh, and even former Prime Minister Najib Razak but Zahid and Najib are unlikely candidates as they are both deeply embroiled in legal matters pertaining to the 1MDB scandal or otherwise known as the ‘court cluster’. Dr. Oh said, “on the other hand, there is the ‘cabinet cluster’ consisting of UMNO MPs, cabinet ministers and government-linked chairpersons led by Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri.” However, the exact details of an ideal candidate remain hazy as this issue is currently unfolding and if the past few days’ political developments are anything to go by is that Malaysian politics is unpredictable. Muhyiddin has struck an agreement with the King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah to hold the confidence vote in September when parliament reconvenes, but it remains to be seen if the PM would fulfil his proposal as he has been delaying parliamentary sessions, not adhering to constitutional procedures, failing to implement promised policies and more. All of these indicating that he has a poor track record of honouring his word.

White and Black Flag Movements

As the country’s socio-economic state plunges further into dire straits, the daily suicide rate has risen to 3 cases this year, a significant leap from 0.93 deaths in 2018. Born out of these grueling times is a grassroots initiative called the White Flag movement (#BenderaPutih), where families in need of immediate assistance for food supplies, cash, mental health support, can raise a white flag outside their homes to signal for help from their immediate neighbours or communities. The movement has spread like wildfire across social media platforms and has helped mobilise Malaysians to consolidate help and offer assistance to identified families instead of solely relying on government aid. Shortly after the #BenderaPutih gained momentum, the Black Flag movement or #BenderaHitam gained massive traction following intense public dissatisfaction towards the perceived failure of Perikatan Nasional (PN) in handling the outbreak. Dr. Oh noted, “Those leading the Black Flag movement are mostly young, more socially and politically-conscious Malays, and this points to a hopeful picture where the younger generation could indeed bring forward a more progressive political outlook for the country.”

Glimmer of Hope

The silver lining emerging from this turbulent period is that social-minded and entrepreneurial civil societies are stepping up to offer aid to the bottom 40 per cent of Malaysian household income or B40 group, inculcating a spirit of self-help and shifting away from dependence on the government. Dr. Oh wrapped up his discussion with a commentary on the country’s economy, saying, “Malaysia is still very lucky as it has a lot of natural resources ranging from palm oil, rubber, to oil and gas. These productions will go on and provide some revenues for the country.” Apart from the revenues generated from the sale of natural resources to slightly cushion the detrimental economic impact of COVID-19, local start-ups have also taken upon themselves to generate employment for their respective communities, creating self-sufficiency and keeping the economy afloat amidst the country being enmeshed in political disarray.

(Note: Muhyiddin’s decision to resign was made on 16 August 2021, 4 days after the webinar was held.)