By Dah Ikhwan
He came in at an extraordinary time, only welcomed by a new pandemic that by now has ravaged the world at such a speed unimaginable, including Malaysia.
The last time the world saw such a phenomenon was one hundred years ago when the Spanish flu infected 500 million people and killed between 20 million and 50 million. Then, Malaysia was not affected — in fact the nation was not even born yet.
But today, with global flight connectivity, our country is not spared. The only blessing is that it could have been worse for us if not for the wisdom of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s government in handling the pandemic.
It has never been easy for a newly patched up government — and a ‘backdoor’ one at that (as his political enemies would term it) — when it suddenly had to face a global and national calamity of unprecedented proportion.
Yet, he was unfazed by all the negative comments and condemnations by his detractors. He quietly assembled his new team to tackle the primary issues confronting the country.
New and effective members were brought into the National Security Council; the Economic Action Council was reconstituted as a slimmer outfit to replace the Council of Eminent Persons with balanced representation from the government and industry, and even the Majlis Kemakmuran Bumiputera was newly constituted in response to requests from Bumiputera business circles.
Needless to say, all the councils are chaired personally by the prime minister himself with full focus and selfless determination, from a man not at the top of his health, who had just recovered from cancer less than a year earlier.
Not many people knew how the new Perikatan Nasional government top machinery worked. The recent special interview of his one year in office threw some light on this.
To carry out such a huge and delicate task immediately at hand, the top two machinery, the National Security Council and the Economic Action Council and their various subcommittees, had to meet daily engagements with all the stakeholders, namely the various ministries, government agencies, chambers of commerce and business associations that represent the private sector as well as experts in medical and economic fields.
The objective is to fine tune the delicate balance between life and livelihood of the people, meaning to minimise deaths due to the pandemic and sustain ability of the people, particularly the B40 group, to put food on the table for their families.
I gathered from close contacts that the National Security Council and the Economic Action Council met once a week in the past one year, almost without fail, with each meeting chaired by Muhyiddin himself.
One may expect a prime minister being a towering figure would dominate all discussions and like to hear only pleasant stories. Instead, he is a humble person who is willing to listen to what everyone had to say.
He is fully alert all the time and able to spot mistakes in official data as reported in those meetings. Quite often agencies had to refine their reports or survey data for greater accuracy.
All the above focus, though involving tedious readings of and attention to volumes of briefing materials, are absolutely necessary to tackle the bull by the horns. The end results are clear — the Covid-19 pandemic is well tamed with the various MCOs, SOPs and an assortment of acronyms of field measures which even confuse the most notable members of the defunct Council of Eminent Persons, Tun Daim Zainuddin included, as reported in the media recently.
Daim may be right about it, but the more computer savvy younger generation may have no problem with acronyms, though perhaps it would have been better and clearer if the MCO acronyms correspond with the colour codes of Covid-19 areas.
More important though, the frontliners most often know what they are doing. There were of course cases of confusions in treating passengers of incoming international flights or how to handle students who already arrived at campuses when dates of resumptions of study suddenly changed, and construction worksites and oil palm plantations raided by the government agencies, even after the prime minister or Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg relaxed the measures.
The public also often get confused when they were differently treated as they crossed the borders of different MCO areas. Well, on the bright side, these are the inevitable minor inconveniences the public had to endure, though they may have involved tense exchanges between the public and frontliners.
The government public communication obviously had some drawbacks, with some agencies unable to keep abreast due to the speed at which cases unfold. Hence, some confusion on the ground. But mostly the frontliners know the prime reasons behind the different SOP treatment in different areas.
As the prime minister said, surveys were conducted very regularly, in fact in a way never done before. As a result, SOPs and measures could be tailored for different areas based on daily official data or survey results which are updated regularly.
Such dedication of the entire team enabled the government to contain the spread of the pandemic in all the three phases so far, and this was done without prolonged full lockdown in the country. Most of the time the economy is allowed to open though with some restrictions in different areas, depending on the severity of the new cases.
As a matter of record, Malaysia has just over 300,000 Covid-19 cases to-date with 1,153 deaths, a moderate case compared to other countries. The daily cases have also subsided to around 2,000 compared with over 5,000 a week ago.
The economy dropped by 5.6 percent in 2020, by any standard a reasonable achievement among Asean countries, given the existing global economic scenario.
Lessening the impact of the pandemic on the economy had not been easy. It was not the normal scenario of attracting foreign or domestic investment, since the sources of such investment are becoming more scarce, and becoming worse during the pandemic.
Few investors wanted to invest when facing the mounting economic risks caused by the pandemic. In an environment when existing business had to face the spectre of closing down, most didn’t have enough money to continue operating. Many faced business collapse with little possibility of revival after the pandemic.
Obviously after consultations with the private sector through engagements with the business chambers throughout the country, the Muhyiddin administration decided to take a rather radical approach.
The Economic Stimulus Package was increased exponentially to over RM300 billion from the original RM20 billion under the Pakatan Harapan government. This was a daring but necessary move in spite of the country’s poor financial health.
The package in the form of various initiatives like the Wage Subsidy Scheme, Rental Subsidy, Easy Credit Schemes for the SME and micro sectors down to the Perihatin initiatives and EPF withdrawals, literally put money into the pockets of the people, especially the poorest 40 percent of them, the so called B40.
This helped to stabilise the spending power of the people during this crisis. Otherwise, there would have been millions of people going hungry and losing their jobs.
In spite of the above, there are large sections of small businesses and those in the informal sector, particularly Bumiputera traders, who missed getting the assistance. They were missed out for various reasons, from lack of business records and documentation, such as registration with Socso, EPF, Inland Revenue or even licences from local authorities.
Surveys conducted indicated that these traders or businesses have been severely affected during the pandemic.
The government needs to take heed of this issue and rectify it in the coming months by addressing the problems faced, particularly by the Bumiputera SMEs and micro sector. Needless to say, the business community needs assistance this year, when the economic hardship is still expected to persist.
This article first appeared in Dah Ikhwan Blog on March 3 2021.