Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin unveils his new cabinet members at the Prime Minister's Office in Putrajaya on March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

KUALA LUMPUR – When a nation is in crisis, it is the duty of its citizens to increase their scrutiny of the deeds and words of those who wield authority and power. Such scrutiny is perhaps all the more urgent when the nation is confronted by a triple crisis – a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a political crisis. Citizens should not only be alert and evaluative but also wise and reflective. 

The need for such an approach becomes apparent when we examine three aspects of governance that have come to the fore in recent times.

One, the paramount importance of inclusiveness in addressing our multiple crises in Malaysia. There is no need to emphasize that our very demographic demands inclusiveness. Notwithstanding the current composition of the federal cabinet, a product in a sense of a bizarre political crisis, the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has attempted to be inclusive in certain respects, such as its allocation of critical tasks to senior ministers from different parties in the coalition. It has also established a degree of rapport with the civil service by projecting the Director General of Health as the primary interlocutor with the public on matters pertaining to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The role of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king) in articulating the central message of the fight against the pandemic – a role that is above party politics – also underscores inclusiveness in governance. Inviting celebrities to reinforce that message enhances inclusiveness.

Perhaps the time has come to give greater meaning to inclusiveness in dealing with the health crisis by bringing in opposition political leaders to play a role. They should be given space on our television networks to persuade a segment of the populace to comply with the Movement Control Order. Since party loyalties are a major cause of divisiveness in Malaysian society, the sight of opposition Pakatan Harapan leaders on TV urging their followers to stay indoors or to observe “social distancing” could help curb the spread of Covid-19 and serve the public interest. 

Two, the government has increased the allocation for personal protection equipment (PPE) for medical front-liners and for other facilities needed in the battle against Covid-19. PPEs in particular should have been given priority from the outset. It is sad that in some instances our health-care providers had to make “their own PPEs using plastic bags, dustbin liners and other paraphernalia.…” 

It is not just getting priorities right. In the procurement of equipment and in ensuring the viability of the supply chain, there has to be absolute integrity. The middle-man and the so-called “facilitator” should be eliminated. Let the Covid-19 crisis set the stage for a meaningful transformation of our entire health-care system.

Three, the government has sought to lessen the burden of the poorer segment of society through a variety of measures in its most recent economic stimulus package. This is commendable. However, its proposal to enable Employees Provident Fund (EPF) contributors to withdraw up to 500 ringgit (US$116) monthly for 12 months to make ends meet in these difficult times has run into opposition from a number of groups including trade unions.

EPF money is workers’ money meant for their retirement. It is not right to use it as a source of income to alleviate transient hardship. As People’s Justice Party (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim has pointed out, it would be more sensible to draw from our national reserves to help the poor and disadvantaged at this time. It is not just EPF contributors who will benefit. Because the national reserves belong to the people as a whole, a lot of the marginalized, including fisher folk, smallholders and petty traders, would also be entitled to the fund. 

Ideas such as these about how best to tackle the Malaysian people’s woes in the grim situation that confronts the nation should be accorded the attention they deserve by the government of the day. For the Muhyiddin government, which while legal is still struggling with its moral legitimacy, an open and accommodative attitude toward ideas and individuals outside its circuit of power is one way of strengthening its credibility. Given the multiple crises it is facing, enhancing its credibility is a fundamental prerequisite for its survival and success.

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Chandra Muzaffar

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.