Malaysia: From COVID role model to a mini-India

What Malaysia’s raging COVID-19 crisis tells us about failed leadership.

Family members of a victim of COVID-19 pray at a hospital mortuary before burial, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on May 23, 2021 [Reuters/Lim Huey Teng]

The horrific and heartbreaking scenes at Malaysian hospitals are akin to a disaster movie. An overwhelmed healthcare system and overworked medical staff have struggled to cope with the exponential growth in COVID-19 admissions.

Canvas beds have been put up in hospital car parks, several patients have had to share the same oxygen canister, and some life-saving procedures had to be performed on hospital floors. Doctors have reported that whole families have been admitted together to hospitals and some have died together.

To keep up with the rising death counts, bodies have had to be stacked up on trolleys and pushed to the morgues. Volunteer undertakers have been handling nearly 30 times more bodies than they did last year.

“Now, I just have no emotions, it is what it is … death has become so frequent that you become numb,” one front-line worker told Malaysian outlet Malaysiakini.

Malaysia’s biggest COVID-19 fear was becoming a mini-India and unfortunately, it has come true. Its daily infection and death counts per capita surpassed India’s peak. At the end of July, Malaysia’s daily cases per million people stood at 515.9 and its daily deaths per million were at 4.95; by contrast, at its peak, India reached 283.50 cases and 3.04 deaths. The country also has the highest per-million cases in Asia, and one of the highest per-million deaths in Southeast Asia.

This is a dramatic reversal of fortunes for a country once deemed the role model in handling the pandemic. Just a year ago, Malaysia celebrated as local transmissions reached zero for a few days, garnering praise from foreign experts, academics, and organisations such as the World Health Organization. The Malaysian government’s swift actions to implement a full-scale lockdown, invest in testing and medical facilities, and deploy proactive communication with the public resulted in fewer cases than in the rest of Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s director-general of health, Dr Noor Hisham, was given the highest civilian honour and was named alongside the US’s Dr Anthony Fauci and New Zealand’s Ashley Bloomfield as the top health officials in the battle against COVID-19.

But the country’s success was also its curse.

Government complacency

Not unlike India’s early celebration of success, Malaysia was too quick to self-congratulate for containing the virus. The government grew overconfident with the good results of its anti-pandemic measures in 2020 and in August decided to hold a state-wide election in Malaysia’s poorest state, Sabah.

During the campaign period, airlines increased flight frequency to ferry politicians and supporters in and out of the state. In total, 257 rallies were approved and many were held with little social distancing, mask-wearing or adherence to health guidelines. On election day, 1.1 million voters turned up at polling stations.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore found that the Sabah election contributed 70 percent of cases in the state itself and at least 64 percent in the rest of the country.

In the following months, as the number of cases continued to rise, the government engaged in rounds of denialism, stating that the situation was “still manageable” and “under control”. Interstate travel was allowed and restrictions loosened in December, although the country experienced a nearly tenfold increase in cumulative cases from October to December.

In January, medical professionals wrote an open letter to Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin about the impending disaster at hospitals if the contagion were not controlled. But government complacency meant little effort was made to avert it. Restrictions were half-hearted and unscientific, and when a nationwide blanket lockdown finally came in June, it could not stop record-high infections numbers, with cases nearing a million – in a country of only 32 million.

Lack of unified chain of command

Apart from its complacency, the health emergency of 2021 also uncovered the absence of a unified chain of command in Muhyiddin’s government. His cabinet comprises ministers from different parties who are political rivals and therefore, are mistrustful and uncooperative in their collective work. Public spats between the different factions of the prime minister’s party, BERSATU, and UMNO, the largest party in government, have resulted in contradictory decisions and confusing policies.

In May, as the health crisis was accelerating, Zahid Hamidi, the president of UMNO, asked the public not to link Muhyiddin’s failures to his party, despite UMNO being a member of the coalition government. “It is true that [we] are part of [the] government … [but] most of our views and advice about COVID-19 do not get much attention,” he said.

As the situation worsened, so did cabinet infighting. In June, Defence Minister Ismail Sabri from the UMNO party posted a photo of himself with the cryptic caption “I have closed the front door but …” The image implied that the lockdown measures he introduced were ineffective because Azmin Ali, the international trade minister from the BERSATU party, continued to allow non-essential industries to operate.

Many Malaysians were furious after local media outlets reported that non-essential businesses like photography studios, electronic goods factories, and leather furniture workshops were able to obtain an approval letter from Azmin’s ministry to continue work.

Confusion about contradictory policies, such as the temporary closure of some malls and bazaars and the issuance of police permissions to travel, have only worsened the situation. Clear communication and policies were absent when they were most needed.

Loss of legitimacy

Another contributing factor to the massive COVID-19 crisis is the government’s diminishing legitimacy, which has resulted in low public compliance with anti-pandemic measures. Instead of acting as role models, ministers and elected officials have consistently broken COVID-19 rules, giving rise to claims of double standards.

Ministers are exempted from the compulsory 14-day quarantine period upon return from overseas, while members of parliament have been allowed to travel abroad freely. There have been reports of officials not abiding by lockdown restrictions, including ministers dining at restaurants when it was not allowed. When they have been caught in violation of the anti-pandemic measures, punishment has been far lesser than what ordinary Malaysians would have faced.

These incidents have fed growing public resentment, which has discouraged many Malaysians from abiding by the COVID-19 rules. Inter-district and inter-state travel bans have been ignored, while barricades set up by the police have been burned as a form of defiance.

This anger and frustration came to a boil when hundreds of mostly young protesters took to the streets to demand the prime minister’s resignation. The rally, featuring banners, placards, black flags, and effigies of “dead bodies”, passed through Kuala Lumpur’s major roads on July 31.

But perhaps the most significant indication that the government has lost legitimacy is that Malaysians are increasingly looking to each other for help as the pandemic has left them impoverished and desperate.

Many, including the prime minister, believe that the poorest 40 percent of Malaysian society, called the B40 (bottom 40 percent), has now expanded to B50. Average salaries have fallen for the first time since 2010, cutting across all demographics. Suicide cases have soared, and the number of calls to distress hotlines has risen to concerning levels. Millions are out of work and trapped at home with little savings.

Having lost faith that the authorities can provide for them, families have started putting up white flags to ask their neighbours for help. Whole communities have mobilised to provide for those struggling to cope. Ordinary people have set up food banks nationwide to help others.

One mini-market owner in the small town of Johor Bahru set up a rack in front of her shop as a makeshift food bank. Though many came and took what they needed, the supplies never seemed to run out. Then she realised that the food bank was quietly replenished by nameless and faceless donors on her behalf.

Stories like this one demonstrate Malaysians’ resilience and the strength of their community spirit. When this pandemic is all over, those who survive will celebrate this spirit for helping them pull through, and not the failed policies of a chaotic government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.