With cases and deaths soaring, Malaysia is at a critical moment in the COVID-19 pandemic, but if the government can reach its most vulnerable with vaccines and work with its neighbours, it could recover quickly, Stewart Nixon writes.
Malaysia has long been a popular target for commentators quick to criticise its fragile democracy, divisive ethnic policies, and self-serving political class. As it struggles to contain its deadliest and most persistent outbreak since the pandemic began – bringing the country past the milestone of one million cases – criticism has become hyperbolic with commentators using labels like ‘failed state’.
Of course, critiques are justifiable where they highlight the genuine suffering of Malaysians and insufficient efforts to provide relief. For one, the pandemic has exacerbated youth unemployment challenges and disproportionately affected vulnerable groups, including the low-skilled and mobility-dependent.
Indeed, if Malaysia maintained detailed, accurate and timely poverty statistics they would paint an increasingly bleak picture, as repeated lockdowns have exposed poorly targeted and insufficiently generous social protection policies.
The government is providing emergency social expenditure together with food, tax, and debt relief, but budgetary and institutional constraints limit their impact on those who need that relief the most. Instead, help has mostly come from the community, including through the #benderaputih (white flag) movement, which seeks to help households and communities fend for themselves.
Malaysia is also going through a chaotic first parliamentary sitting in months, under a state of emergency that is slated to end on 30 July. The unelected governing coalition which took power in early 2020 has crumbled, threatening an election and the catastrophic virus transmission risks it would entail.
Still, between the dysfunctional governance and the growing dissatisfaction surrounding it, things could be a lot worse. Malaysia’s resilience is remarkable compared to the devastation and anarchy that has befallen other states across the development spectrum.
It managed the early stages of the pandemic admirably by deferring to bureaucratic leadership centred on health advice. And despite huge struggles in 2021, Malaysia remains well down the list of countries in COVID-19 deaths per capita, and compares favourably with countries of similar, and even greater development levels.
Its economy has suffered worse than most though, contracting about two per cent more than the average last year – compared to growth from 2015 to 2019. This partly reflects below average fiscal stimulus – the aforementioned insufficient relief – and has direct human costs.
Despite hospitalisations stretching the health system beyond capacity, Malaysia’s accelerating vaccine rollout also offers hope. It was late to the procurement party as richer countries cornered early supplies, but with deliveries ramping up, doses are being administered at an impressive pace.
Daily vaccination rates have increased drastically in two months, with Malaysia among the top countries in the world in doses delivered. With the bulk of its vaccine orders arriving in the next two months, this will only accelerate further.
The government has deployed a multi-pronged approach to vaccine distribution that includes hospital hubs, purpose-built vaccination centres, public and private clinics, on-site factory arrangements, and mobile vaccination units.
This is delivering significant surge capacity that is not wholly dependent on stretched public health resources and is bringing vaccination to remote and reluctant communities outside of major cities too.
Thankfully, Malaysia has also not engaged in vaccine nationalism, but instead secured a diversified basket of vaccines and sought to dispel negative perceptions towards Chinese varieties, while taking a longer term view to developing locally-produced booster shots. It is also easing registration requirements to encourage vaccination among those with missing documents or irregular status.
How Malaysia tackles residual vaccine hesitancy and undocumented persons will be its greatest hurdle to ending the pandemic.
Up to a third of locals have expressed hesitancy – about half of which outright refuse vaccination – while irregular migrants represent upwards of 10 per cent of the population. If these groups can’t be brought into the vaccine fold, it is difficult to imagine an end in sight.
Both groups have significant distrust of government officials and have been burnt by false promises of amnesties, and reaching them will require a significant ramp up of non-government delivery.
Any exit strategy also cannot ignore the plight of neighbouring countries whose pandemic containment and vaccinations lag well behind.
‘Vaccination migration’ is a significant phenomenon among privileged Southeast Asians, who are leveraging overseas networks to get vaccinated sooner, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the potential influx of migrant workers seeking opportunities across porous borders. Malaysia, through ASEAN, needs greater foresight and collaboration in this area to get vaccines to the whole region.
That international cooperation has featured strongly in Malaysia’s pandemic response is a good sign that it will contribute positively to the recovery phase too. It has resisted harsh prohibitions on non-citizen entry, maintained trade and supply chains, and actively courted foreign investors where other countries have erected barriers.
Restricted movement and political uncertainty have still suppressed investment activity, but recent data is encouraging. Major investment announcements including Microsoft’s datacentre region and China’s Risen Energy’s solar mega-plant suggest investors retain faith in Malaysia’s outlook. As others turn inwards, Malaysia can boost its global competitiveness through long overdue reforms in areas like competition policy, education, and skilled migration.
The truth is that things are tough, and Malaysia faces some difficult months ahead, but it is no stranger to turbulence. If the government can reach its most vulnerable populations and work with other countries in the region to accelerate vaccination, there may be clearer skies ahead.