The once globally praised and lauded country in its handling of COVID-19, soon fell under scrutiny among its citizens. The pandemic held Malaysia in a chokehold while the government's efforts were not enough to protect the people. The first case of COVID-19 on Malaysian soil was recorded on Jan. 25, 2020, tracing back to three Chinese nationals who entered the country from Singapore. Amid a political tug-of-war, the suspension of parliament, and an unstable economy, the light shone on the shell of an inherently broken system.
Despite cases rising nationally and internationally, the Prime Minister at the time, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad completely dismissed the idea of barring all incoming flights from China. He stated that it was not an urgent matter. Amidst global panic about what seemed to be an unknown, highly infectious virus, the Malaysian government did not put together an appropriate framework to manoeuvre the blooming pandemic. The lack of planning and implementation of a comprehensive strategy is an ongoing failure spread across two different governments and cabinet members. Millions of people are suffering nationwide, bankruptcy is rising, and the rate of poverty and unemployment is rising rapidly.
One fact that became undeniably clear throughout the pandemic and the deterioration of livelihood was the hierarchy of class that allowed certain people to exist above the law. The rich grew richer while the middle and lower class members of society became significantly poorer. The gap between the top and bottom classes of society widened to an undeniable extent. This was no longer an issue that could be swept under the rug.
The rich were able to avoid laws and break rules with little to no repercussions while normal people suffered fines and penalties that set them back thousands of ringgit while already struggling to make ends meet. The reality and experience of COVID-19 are vastly different for the rich.
Marginalized communities were pushed further beyond the line as they suffered through the pandemic without sufficient aid from the government to stay alive and healthy. The marginalized, poor, elderly, refugees, immigrants, homeless, and those persecuted faced the overwhelming task of staying alive in a country that was not protecting them. People, families and entire generations fell through the cracks in silence.
People did not just suffer because of their inherent circumstances but the government-produced regulations and movement control laws that only allowed essential businesses to operate. However, as the social class gap widens and laws loosened for the rich, luxury stores were allowed to operate while struggling businesses were fined. To the extent of willful ignorance, Malaysia’s senior minister for security at the time, Dato' Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, said he did not know that Malaysia’s largest casino was still in operations despite the national security council’s confirmation of closure.
A common dream among Asian parents is for their child to become a doctor, right? Yet the distrust of medicine and vaccines was growing among the older generations. As politicians wielded medicine and healthcare as a weapon, fears only grew as Malaysians watched the government sell vaccines to other countries before even six percent of Malaysia’s population could be vaccinated. Apart from that, the shortcomings in executing a functional vaccination plan, limiting vaccination centers to government facilities before allowing private hospitals and clinics to administer vaccines and more, left most Malaysians feeling distrustful, fearful and used.
Malaysians watched in horror as COVID-19 cases rose exponentially after the acting government imposed a Darurat (State of Emergency) that was deemed necessary to control COVID-19. No lockdown or movement control order has been effective in limiting the number of Covid-19 infections and the numbers kept on growing. Evidently, this pandemic has worsened a long-standing problem in Malaysia’s political system. Aside from that, the current system’s flaws were also exposed.
The acting government has been put on display proving that the welfare of the nation is an afterthought. While people are dying, mourning, scared and helpless, the Malaysian Prime Minister makes important announcements through PDF documents instead of addressing the nation in a press conference or live telecast.
Amid the battle to outlive a pandemic, the government began cracking down on the freedom of speech and expression of online users. Every citizen of Malaysia has a constitutional right to freedom of speech, under Article 10 of the Constitution. However, Article 10 entitles citizens to these freedoms as long as they are not restricted by the federal government. Malaysians are not absolutely guaranteed these freedoms.
The archaic laws that affect this constitutional right are; the Sedition Act 1948, Defamation Act 1957, and Communications & Multimedia Act 1998. These acts have been commonly used recently to suppress dissent, criticism, and opinions of netizens on social media. In a time as frustrating as this, Malaysians are unable to have an opinion without fear of persecution or being called in for questioning. The government suppresses the voice of the nation instead of learning and improving from it. The government began imposing fines, jail terms or both for people who spread misinformation, calling it ’fake news’. The anti-fake news law was published with unclear guidelines and vague definitions that left people confused. It was as if the law was up for interpretation by police officers.
In conclusion, if COVID-19 never happened, Malaysia would not be any more advanced than where it was before the pandemic. There is no idealization of a better, more developed nation. Malaysia would be as it was, just with its bones exposed for the people to see. Flaws, gaps, and inadequacies were exposed and put on trial in front of the whole world to judge, analyse, and criticize. It took a global pandemic to uncover the deep underlying issues within Malaysia's financial and social systems. We, as a nation, deserve to have a functional government with contingencies in place to provide the structure and answers to the nation they represent. These devastating events should not render a government helpless nor dysfunctional; unless they already were before the issue arose.
By Mohamed Areslan Bensaid