‘This Trial from God’: The Politics of COVID in Malaysia

By Donald Greenlees, Senior Adviser, Asialink

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Malaysia just as an internal power struggle came to a head, ousting prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.  As Asialink senior adviser Donald Greenlees writes, the political infighting has risked undermining the quality of the response to the health and economic crises.

Nowhere in Asia has the COVID-19 pandemic intersected so directly with the question of who governs than in Malaysia.

Ever since Muyhiddin Yassin ousted Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to become prime minister on 1 March, he has been working furiously to shore up support for a fragile coalition.

The COVID-19 crisis has proved a useful pretext for keeping critics at bay.

The constitution required the recall of parliament on 18 May – an event that threatened to test whether Muhyiddin could command a majority on the floor.

But Muhyiddin was clearly nervous about the numbers. He decided the sitting would last one day; just long enough for Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, to deliver the royal address and no more.

The justification for the short session was the need for the government to focus on the pandemic.

Muhyiddin has bought his government a reprieve, but a final verdict on whether he has the right to rule probably won’t be settled until parliament resumes in July. The seating arrangements in the parliament on 18 May suggest he holds a tenuous edge over his rivals – 113 or 114 out of 222 MPs.

Malaysian Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a media conference at the PM's office, Putarajaya, Malaysia - March 13, 2020. Image credit: Adam Yosef, Shutterstock.

It was pure coincidence that the 94-year-old Mahathir’s second turn in the prime minister’s office ended as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting in Malaysia.

He was replaced after Muhyiddin—a member of his own party—deserted him and cobbled together a coalition composed of some of the very people the voters had rejected at general elections in May 2018.

On the same day Muhyiddin was sworn in, the World Health Organisation reported Malaysia had recorded just 24 cases of COVID-19.

It has meant the pandemic and the power struggle have played out in tandem, compounding the uncertainty that the virus has caused people everywhere. More importantly, the risk for Malaysia is that good public policy in combatting the spread of disease and reviving the economy risks being subverted by the pressures of the leadership contest.

The Price of Devotion

While the politicians were plotting, COVID-19 was quietly spreading. One event at the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur’s Seri Petaling district became the country’s single biggest source of contagion.

Over three days from 28 February, an estimated 16,000 pilgrims gathered for the annual Tabligh Akbar mass prayer.

Within two weeks, health authorities had confirmed the gathering at the mosque was responsible for an explosion of COVID-19 cases.

This was Malaysia’s Ruby Princess moment. As of 25 May, the cluster had grown to 3369 out of a national total of 7245 people who had tested positive for COVID-19. The episode alerted authorities and the public to the scale of the threat the virus posed.

From a peak in late March, the daily count of new cases has been trending down. But with one of the better testing regimes in the region—by late May more than 513,000 people had been tested—an average of about 50 cases a day have been uncovered since the start of the month.

Still, Malaysia has had success in containing the pandemic. With just 1323 people in treatment, its hospital system can easily cope.

‘Not to Burden any Soul’: The COVID Controls

The rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the first two weeks of March meant the first big public policy test for Muyhiddin Yassin’s new government came almost immediately.

But the speed and effectiveness of the government’s response were open to criticism. Like a number of other governments in the region, it was accused of being slow to react – either unaware of the capacity of the virus to spread like wildfire or believing geography and climate might spare Southeast Asia the worst.

Politicians were seen as too busy manoeuvring for advantage within Muyhiddin’s new Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition to pay sufficient attention to how Malaysia should manage the emerging health crisis.

Deserted KL airportA deserted Kuala Lumpur International Airport. March 24, 2020. Image credit: Kristin Greenwood, Shutterstock.

It wasn’t until 16 March that Muhyiddin moved to start shutting down international and domestic movement. To put that in perspective, this was the same day that the Australian government had proposed banning non-essential outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people. This hardly suggests Malaysia was excessively tardy by comparison.

Muhyiddin’s primary weapon in the fight against COVID was a Movement Control Order – the first in a series of two-week limitations on public activity under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act.

For a majority Muslim nation, heading into the fasting of Ramadhan, this entailed an unprecedented restraint on faith – all religious activities in mosques, including Friday prayers, would be cancelled.

Malaysians returning from overseas also were to undergo health checks and a 14-day self-quarantine.  Schools and universities were to close. Government and private sector employees, other than those deemed essential, were to be laid-off, placed on leave or made to work from home.

As the scale of the risks became clear, the government adopted a tougher set of controls. An Enhanced Movement Control Order was imposed for 14 days from 27 March. In any area where a large cluster was found, residents were required to remain indoors, roadblocks would be set up, authorities would make food deliveries, and a medical centre would be established within the area.

The movement controls were effective, but not without embarrassment for the government. On 2 April, the Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development published a set of guidelines that included encouraging women to wear makeup at home and avoid nagging their husbands to prevent the spread of the virus. The announcement received backlash from women’s groups and was removed from the department’s social media.

Faced with the escalating costs of the shutdown, Muhyiddin announced on 1 May a gradual reopening of the economy under a Conditional Movement Control Order. The relaxation of movement controls was to start three days later, giving businesses little time to put in place necessary protective measures.  Prohibitions were to remain on large gatherings and interstate travel, but businesses practising social distancing and keeping records of customers could reopen.

Roadblock KL
Police and military inspect vehicles at a roadblock created under the Enhanced Movement Control Order, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - March 22, 2020. Image credit: Abdul Razak Latif, Shutterstock.

In his address to the nation in the midst of the Muslim fasting month, Muhyiddin described the pandemic as a “trial from God”. Quoting from the Qu’ran, he appealed for patience from the people. “Allah will not burden any soul beyond what it can handle,” he said.

He might have been appealing for patience with his government. For many, he had made a premature declaration of victory. Several state governments rejected the easing of restrictions, which swelled into a wider backlash.

After initial resistance, the government backed down. It rescinded some measures within a day—the reopening of pubs being one—and allowed states greater freedom to determine their own response.

But the episode illustrated the tough political choices Malaysia would have to make as it simultaneously sought to revive the economy and protect public health.

‘No One Left Behind’: The Economic Stimulus

Malaysia’s economy has faced a double blow since the start of the year. Falling energy prices have compounded the economic impact that COVID-19 has had on domestic consumption and exports.

Malaysia is Asia’s fourth biggest oil producer, extracting about 625,000 barrels a day, the world’s fourth biggest exporter of LNG, and the second biggest exporter of crude palm oil, which is used as an edible oil and biofuel. All three have seen prices and demand sink.

Although the significance of oil production to the national economy has been declining, it still accounts for just over 20 percent of government revenue.

Every $US1 fall in the price of Brent Crude is estimated to shave RM300 million ($105 million) from oil-related tax revenue.

Since the end of 2019, the price of Brent Crude has halved to about $US34 a barrel. Malaysia based its 2020 budget on the assumption oil prices would average $US62 a barrel. The shortfall in revenue from oil could reach RM16.5 billion out of a total budget estimated to be RM297 billion.

Spot prices in Asia for LNG have also dropped sharply on the back of an unprecedented demand shock.  In late April, they were the lowest on record, falling below $US2 per million British thermal units for the first time. The effects also are being felt on oil-linked long-term contracts.

Maybank queue
The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Malaysia's economy could greatly impact PM Muhyiddin's political fortunes. Image credit: Farrel FG, Shutterstock. 

Malaysian palm oil producers too have been bracing for tighter market conditions, particularly in big markets like India and China. Since the start of the year, monthly export volumes have been down by about a quarter and global prices by 17 percent.

The disruption to energy markets compounds the economic challenge for Muhyiddin’s government.  Faced with projections the economy will contract by 1.7 percent this year, the government has unveiled three stimulus packages costing almost as much as the entire original budget for 2020.

The biggest of the three allocated MR250 billion to measures including a wage subsidy, loan and tax reprieves, support for small and medium enterprises, and electricity discounts.

Declaring “no one will be left behind”, Muhyiddin pledged direct payments to some four million low-income households as part of MR128 billion in welfare assistance. In total, government stimulus committed MR260 billion, more than 17 percent of GDP.

Still, 500,000 were out of work and there were fears the number could rise to one million in a workforce of ten million. The mounting economic toll could greatly complicate his political fortunes.

‘Possessed by the Devil’: The Leadership Contest

The destruction of Mahathir’s leadership came less than two years after he won an extraordinary election that saw, for the first time in Malaysia’s history, a government formed without the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) at its core.

The fall of the government was compelled by its internal contradictions. Mahathir’s coalition, Alliance of Hope or Pakatan Harapan (PH), engaged an eclectic mix of interests and ideologies.

Its strongest rationale for integration was the defeat of the corrupt government led by Najib Razak, notorious for serving during the plunder of the national investment fund 1MDB. Some politicians probably joined just to ensure their own survival – for them PH was a ‘lifeboat’.

It was only a matter of time before the practice of governing was going to reveal the fissures in the anti-Najib coalition over policy, values and personal ambition. This dynamic was moving relentlessly in the early part of this year as COVID-19 quietly took hold in the country.

In the end, it was a split within Mahathir’s own United Malays Indigenous Party (Bersatu), formed in 2016 by a mix of Najib critics and UMNO dissidents, that brought him undone. Mahathir was Bersatu chairman; Muhyiddin was Bersatu president.

Mahathir and Ibrahim
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad speaks with Anwar Ibrahim during a Pakatan Harapan meeting, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - September, 2019. Image credit: Afif Abd. Halim, Shutterstock.

That Muhyiddin should grasp the prime ministership by allying with UMNO so soon after its historic defeat fuelled a sense of dismay and anger among those who saw the Mahathir government for all its faults. This was a chance to cleanse and modernise a tradition of corrupt and nativist domestic politics.

Mahathir might have been a strange champion, given his first stint as prime minister between 1981 and 2003 helped establish some of the foundations of that tradition. Still, summing up the mood of profound betrayal at the events that led to Mahathir’s sudden resignation then replacement, one critic declared the Bersatu conspirators to be “possessed by the devil”.

The game inside Malaysian politics is now largely one of numbers. PH is in opposition, led by the perennial pretender to prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir and some loyal remnants of Bersatu line up with him.

The opposition is confident that if a vote were taken in parliament it could swing the extra two or three votes necessary to form a slim majority. There is talk of a deal between Mahathir and Anwar that would allow Anwar to achieve his long-frustrated ambition.

Muhyiddin senses the peril. He did no more than was technically necessary when the constitution obliged the recall of parliament, averting the danger of a vote of no confidence.

He has bought himself time. But in the coming weeks he faces the necessity of a full session of parliament, which will determine his right to govern, and internal Bersatu elections, which will determine whether he can even control his own party.

Although two decades Mahathir’s junior, he is 73. He was operated on in 2018 to remove an early-stage tumour of the pancreas. There is even a hint he feels a little awkward about the circumstances in which he took power.

On 27 March, he told voters he had not chosen the “best moment” to become prime minister. “This Government may not be the Government that you voted for,” he said. “But I want all of you to know that this Government cares for you.”

All the while, the pandemic plays out and the economy suffers. There could not be a worse time for a country to be at odds over who is in charge.

Donald Greenlees is senior adviser to Asialink, University of Melbourne, and a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

Caitlin Ryan contributed research to this article.

Banner image: Muslim clerics at the National Mosque of Malaysia practice social distancing during Ramadan, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - April 28, 2020. Credit: Fikri Yusof, Shutterstock.