Amid deep political dysfunction, how did Malaysia pull together its coronavirus vaccine plan?

  • Science minister Khairy Jamaluddin has become the face of Kuala Lumpur’s public health drive, and he – and PM Muhyiddin Yassin’s government – stand to benefit from its success
  • But while the country has secured enough doses to vaccinate 80 per cent of its population by early next year, analysts say the political infighting will continue behind the scenes

After a year of political turmoil, economic struggle and coronavirus-induced lockdowns, Malaysia is poised for the endgame of its fight against Covid-19 as it kicked off a first round of vaccinations on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin among those receiving a shot.

The premier’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, which came to power via political coup, is close to the end of a first year in government that has been marked by deep internal dysfunction and threats to its hold on power, including bickering with ostensible allies the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) over primacy ahead of promised elections next year.

Despite this, analysts note, it managed to pull together a national immunisation plan led by science minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who has seen his political popularity rise as the face of the government’s approach to public health – a rather different reception to that of health minister Adham Baba, who has been widely mocked for missteps such as telling the public to drink warm water to counteract Covid-19.

Khairy, a member of Umno and an Oxford graduate, is at the centre of a plan that will cost more than 4 billion ringgit (US$988.9 million) once all procurement and roll-out costs are totted up. With vaccines from at least six different sources and more in the works, Perikatan Nasional is confident it has enough for 80 per cent of the country’s population, including foreign residents as well as refugees – and, accordingly, that it will reap any political benefit.

“As Umno heads towards a showdown with Perikatan Nasional, with a good chance that Umno will remain a key partner in a future coalition government, Khairy has everything to gain by looking like one of the few competent and reliable ministers in the government,” said political scientist Wong Chin Huat, who described the science minister as having matured from “arrogance” as a youth leader to “a steady and patient player who does a good job while waiting for his chance”.

“Depending on the composition of the next government, he may stand a good chance to be a senior minister and even a candidate for prime minister one day,” Wong said.

Science minister Khairy Jamaluddin in 2018. Photo: Nora Tam
Science minister Khairy Jamaluddin in 2018. Photo: Nora Tam

Meanwhile, he said the current administration’s loss of middle-ground voters – ordinary people who view political parties and politicians with indifference – due to its “incompetence and chaos” in managing the pandemic and economy, as well as the impunity and arrogance of leaders flouting Covid-19 restrictions, might be reclaimed a successful vaccination roll-out.

“However, Perikatan Nasional may emerge as its own worst enemy. Because of its fragile parliamentary majority, this government dares not mete out punishment for its allies who break rules or misbehave … Just one scandal may bury this government,” Wong said.

The fact that the science minister – as opposed to the health minister or Prime Minister Muhyiddin himself – was placed in charge of the vaccination roll-out might have been part of a grander scheme to woo Umno, political analyst James Chin said.

“If the vaccination plans go smoothly, then Muhyiddin will be able to justify his measures such as the second national lockdown and the announcement of an emergency this year, which earned him disapproval,” he said. “But there’s a long way to go, it isn’t such a smooth journey.”

Malaysia began negotiating with vaccine manufacturers in April 2020, when most were in the middle of Phase I and II clinical trials, with the government from the outset adopting the strategy of building a portfolio of vaccines from different producers.

“[This was] a great strategy to hedge our bets to increase our chances of having access to at least one successful vaccine candidate, and also to ensure we can have as many doses as we need so we can achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity,” said public health analyst Nazihah Noor of Khazanah Research Institute.

Workers unload a shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at Penang International Airport in Malaysia. Photo: DPA
Workers unload a shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at Penang International Airport in Malaysia. Photo: DPA

Malaysia also joined the World Health Organization’s Covax Facility, contributing money to help fund vaccine development research in exchange for guaranteed access to a large portfolio of vaccine candidates that would be distributed more equitably. The country is also expected to receive 41.1 million vaccine doses from Britain’s AstraZeneca, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute, and China’s Sinovac Biotech and Cansino Biologics, on top of 6.4 million doses from the Covax programme.

Its goal is to vaccinate 27 million of its population of 33 million by the first quarter of 2022. The plan also includes vaccinating members of Malaysia’s foreign worker community, which numbers about 4 million – although a recent deportation exercise carried out by the governments of Malaysia and Myanmar has raised concerns about spooking the population of foreign national population, with a negative effect on vaccine uptake.

“The deportation exercise will spook migrant workers and cause them to go to ground out of fear of being repatriated. Workers in sectors such as construction or [hospitality] may report for work as normal, but avoid presenting themselves for vaccination and instead flee the authorities,” lawyer Mahajoth Singh said. “If the government is serious about addressing the pandemic holistically, it cannot run the risk of having migrant workers avoid this essential measure.”

Malaysia’s voluntary vaccination programme will be rolled out in three stages. The first, from February to April, involves 300,000 medical and 200,000 non-medical frontline workers such as politicians, security and welfare officers; the second involves at-risk groups such as the infirm and elderly; and the final phase is for Malaysian adults.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (right) and science minister Khairy Jamaluddin during the launch of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme Handbook. Photo: DPA
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (right) and science minister Khairy Jamaluddin during the launch of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme Handbook. Photo: DPA

“Our first objective is to protect those who are most vulnerable,” said Khairy in a statement last month, in which he also lamented that developed countries had “paid a lot to corner the [vaccine] market even before the availability of safety and efficacy data”. Besides this buying power, neighbours such as Indonesia received vaccines earlier in exchange for taking part in clinical trials last year – Malaysia was not selected at the time due to its low number of cases, which only shot up in September.

Besides confronting vaccine hesitancy and public misinformation, Khairy has also pushed the #LindungiDiriLindungiSemua (Protect Yourself, Protect Everyone) campaign, which makes the case that inoculating yourself is a civic duty. He said the move to vaccinate politicians – which he pointed out was necessary to allay public concerns and boost trust – would be done in stages, although experts have expressed some reservations about extending the measures to all members of parliament in the first phase.

“While there may be a compelling enough case for prioritising some leaders of the government, I haven’t yet encountered a sufficiently compelling justification for vaccinating all MPs, for instance,” said Nazihah from Khazanah Research Institute.

“Some might say that MPs should be prioritised because they are out seeing people a lot so they are also at higher risk of getting infected, but if the reason they are at higher risk of infection is because they are not strictly following rules like wearing masks and physical distancing, I don’t think we should reward bad behaviour by vaccinating them first, especially as those who are vaccinated still need to follow the rules for a while.”

Political analyst Chin said that while the vaccination plan was rolled out, coalition politics would continue to be tumultuous behind closed doors. He noted that this was largely due to the struggle over who should lead the country between Umno warlords and Muhyiddin, who was part of the party before being turfed out in 2016 and helping set up the nationalist Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

“One mountain cannot have two tigers,” Chin said.

By : Tashny Sukumaran – SCMP

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