HomeCommentaryMalaysia: A virus, a crisis, and an economic plan in ruins

Malaysia: A virus, a crisis, and an economic plan in ruins

The new coronavirus dominates headlines worldwide. What started out as a ‘severe dose of the flu’ has become a global killer — emanating from Wuhan in Hubei province, southeastern China at the end of 2019 — with a death toll that has already eclipsed that of the SARS epidemic in 2002.

In Malaysia, the response to the outbreak has been swift and decisive. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamd almost immediately handed over responsibility for the nation’s safety to Health Minister Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad who — with equal speed — set about preparing for the worst.

Dr Dzul, as he has become affectionately known in some circles, ensured that quarantine facilities were up and running at one of the country’s major hospitals and, crucially, established strict control of the information outflow.

The result was the authorities were able to isolate and begin to treat the first cases in Johor before the media had even got a whiff of the story.

Meanwhile, hospital staff were able to start setting up quarantine facilities around the country to contain a steady stream of cases and minimise the impact on the nation from a health perspective.

The net result has been more than one pat on the back from the World Health Organization for the nation’s response to the crisis, plaudits Dr Dzul and his right-hand man — director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah — richly deserve, because it is a prime example of effective crisis management and leadership.

This is reflected in the comparatively few cases — 22 to date, with no deaths — Malaysia has recorded since the outbreak began, despite its strong links with China.

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Ethnic Chinese account for 20.6 percent of Malaysia’s 32.6 million population, so it stands to reason that on any given day the volume of traffic between the two countries is high.

On top of which, southern neighbor Singapore, is nearly 75 percent ethnic Chinese, which adds to the flow of people and no less the complexity of dealing with this outbreak. This doesn’t even take in to account the sizeable Chinese communities in other Southeast Asian nations.

Passengers wear protective face masks at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on Feb. 4. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)

Indeed, Malaysia’s first reported cases were part of a family of Chinese nationals, who visited relatives in Singapore, before crossing the border into Malaysia.

However, Malaysia’s ties with China are also proving to be an economic migraine that does not look like it will go away any time soon.

This year is, officially at least, Visit Malaysia Year. In the latter part of 2019, the government laid out ambitious plans to attract tourism to the country, setting itself a target of roughly $25 billion in revenue, a 25 percent bump on said income for 2019.

During this time, almost 10 percent of arrivals in Malaysia were from mainland China.

Malaysia sees the seemingly endless expansion of the Chinese middle class as a key market into which it can tap a solid revenue stream and has aggressively marketed itself as such, including more than one ministerial delegation to China.

Yet, as Beijing has steadily imposed an ever-tightening self-quarantine during the ongoing crisis, the expected flood of tourists to Malaysian shores has dwindled to a trickle.

The cabinet in Putrajaya has itself had to grapple with a horrible dilemma of restricting visitors from China, a must for public safety but a bullet in the foot for its tourism ambitions.

Even within the first couple of weeks of restrictions, Malaysian hotel associations were reporting initial collective losses of $100 million or more. This is just the hotels.

The knock-on effects for ancillary businesses are just as grave, particularly in the rural areas of the country.

For example, Terengganu, on the eastern side of the peninsula, had planned to make tourism its prime industry in 2020, with “menteri besar” (or first minister) Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar promising millions of dollars in investment to that end.

The state boasts roughly 200km of coastline that will, and often does, make the cover of any travel magazine but coupled with this idyllic beauty is a region in dire need of tourists, who provide a vital lifeline for locals.

A beach scene on the coast of Terengganu, Malaysia. (shutterstock.com photo)

This coastline is peppered with villages that once depended on fishing for revenue, all but laid to rest by commercial fleets.

These villages now look to buses full of tourists from expensive resorts, who want to relax on tropical beaches and dive. Terengganu is a mecca for the scuba fraternity with its marine biodiversity.

While average earnings in the state are a relatively comfortable $1,150 a month, it is not uncommon for villagers to be scraping by on $250, so the shot in the arm from those buses of curious tourists is something that will be sorely missed this year.

Inland, and with ecotourism just beginning to take off in Malaysia, villages of indigenous peoples supplement their meagre income as tour guides for visitors wanting to explore the nation’s rainforests.

This includes Orang Asli on the peninsula, and the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak, a demographic that already feels ostracised from mainstream society, because they won’t conform.

There is some light on the horizon, because Mahathir is by the end of February due to announce a stimulus package to help the tourism industry.

There has been plenty of speculation about what should be in the package, but Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, who has been tasked with devising the economic booster, has so far played his cards very close to his chest.

News reports have been littered with the usual clichés of consulting “all the relevant stakeholders” (is there an irrelevant stakeholder?) but how this will benefit people living on the breadline remains to be seen.

It is likely major players will receive all kind of tax breaks but at the other end of the scale Malaysia, historically speaking, has had a myopic approach to the hardcore poor, relying on providing short-term aid through cash handouts.

Former prime minister Najib Razak used this approach extensively, notably Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia, or BR1M to show his was a caring government.

People eating breakfast in Terengganu, Malaysia. (shutterstock.com photo)

Indeed, it seemed that cash was on hand for every economic hardship or even natural disaster, but long-term solutions eluded ministers or were possibly ignored.

While in opposition, the current Pakatan Harapan administration decried BR1M, pointing out how it was open to abuse, ie payments to people who really didn’t need them, and saw it as another sticky thread in Malaysia’s complex web of money politics.

However, under a new, supposedly reformist government, BR1M is now called Bantuan Sara Hidup and is relatively unchanged, albeit with tighter controls on distribution.

Yet, while people benefit from handouts in the short-term, longer term issue of grinding poverty remains.

If indeed Pakatan Harapan is intent on reform, then it needs to look at a structured welfare state, helping people to help themselves out of their endless cycle of misery, rather than have them hold out their rice bowl when the going gets tough.

But, despite the oft used mantra that this is a caring government that listens to the people, the long-term solutions still seem to elude ministers.

Or are just simply being ignored.

Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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