Spotlight - Malaysia: June 10, 2021
by Sophie Lemière, Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program
Malaysia entered its third Movement Control Order (MCO) on June 1. Slated to last until June 14, MCO 3.0 may be renewed for an additional two weeks. If the lockdown is not renewed, Malaysia will enter a six-week period of dialing restrictions back to pre-MCO 3.0 levels. Malaysian economic growth and unemployment, as forecasted by the International Monetary Fund, may be impacted by the new lockdown. The state of emergency Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin declared earlier this year to reduce political obstacles in dealing with the pandemic is due to be lifted in early August. Yesterday, the king met with the prime minister, the opposition leader, and leaders of other parties, raising the question of a possible reopening.
By late May, the numbers of new daily cases spiked to over 9,000 but are now down to a little over 6,000. The total death toll is nearly 3,700 but slowing. Vaccination rates remain low, with 7.3 percent of the population having received at least one dose, but are beating the average in Asia and accelerating relatively quickly. Despite the limited progress, Malaysians are upset and confused about the direction taken by the government. Mixed messaging from different ministers has led to a morass of overlapping and sometimes contradictory measures and general confusion between ministries and public actors. The new MCO took many by surprise and all sectors are at loss in the administrative maze of counter-directives and conflicting policy declarations. The vaccination campaign is slowly picking up and scandals over the vaccine procurements are proliferating, exposing unhelpful competition between the public and private sectors as well as between state and federal powers.
Meanwhile, the government is scapegoating migrant workers—both documented and undocumented—insinuating that foreigners are the source of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak. Rather than accelerate vaccination rollout to these laborers or penalize the firms that disregard their overcrowded and underserviced living conditions, the government has pursued a policy of mass arrests and placing undocumented workers in overflowing detention facilities, further compounding the public health risk.
While the Muhyiddin government could certainly be blamed for a lack of coherence due to inter-ministerial rivalries, it has also had to grapple with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy inherited from previous administrations. No prime minister in recent memory has successfully attempted bureaucratic reform; the few who tried have been beaten down by the strength and resistance of Malaysia’s old-fashioned political machinery.
Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.