Malaysians’ desperation grows as politicians feud

Citizens take Covid relief into own hands as PM is preoccupied with political survival

KUALA LUMPUR : More than five weeks into a nationwide lockdown and its strictest restrictions yet, Malaysia’s new coronavirus cases have hit a record, underscored by an inconsistent response to the epidemic as the focus of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s embattled government is clouded by constant political turmoil.

A social media campaign is prompting Malaysians in desperate need of assistance to hang white flags outside their homes, capturing the country’s attention on how dire the situation is for some.

And with Muhyiddin embroiled in yet another battle for his political survival, businesses are warning the economy is at breaking point and mass unemployment is a real risk.

Hans Bala, 43, is among the Malaysians who has taken matters into their own hands to aid those who are struggling. He canvassed for donations from family and friends and has provided thousands of cooked meals in recent months in Kuala Lumpur, where the urban poverty situation has worsened.

“We don’t need to wait until the government does something,” he said, adding that requests for food aid have surged in recent weeks.

“I’m not in politics. I’m not going to wait for what this prime minister is going to do, or whoever is going to come in the next elections.”

Malaysia’s lockdown began on June 1 as daily cases rose by an average 7,600 in the final days of May. Millions of people were forced to stay or work from home, and leave only for essentials. Yet certain sectors were kept open, fuelling criticism that the lockdown wouldn’t change anything with millions of others still out and about.

Volunteers pack food supplies for distribution to residents in need at the Kembara Community Care Centre in Kota Kemuning, Selangor, Malaysia on Friday. (Bloomberg Photo)
Volunteers pack food supplies for distribution to residents in need at the Kembara Community Care Centre in Kota Kemuning, Selangor, Malaysia on Friday. (Bloomberg Photo)

On Friday, new infections reached a record 9,180.

That came after a week where the biggest party in Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition withdrew support for the prime minister. In January, Muhyiddin imposed a state of emergency that led parliament to be suspended, blocking his opponents from bringing a no-confidence motion against him.

With cases rising, opposition parties and even the country’s king have pressured the premier to reconvene parliament before the emergency expires on Aug 1. He finally agreed to do so on July 26 for five days to discuss the country’s Covid recovery plan.

The withdrawal of support by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) will “make the current coalition considerably less stable and likely make it harder for the current coalition to tackle Covid and jump start the economy”, said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate in the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Even if the government manages to survive yet another challenge to Muhyiddin’s leadership, more than a year of political turmoil due to power jockeying among fluid factions in parliament has left many Malaysians in doubt, and at the worst possible time. Health workers across the country are suffering from burnout while hospitals are forced to increase capacity.

And even with hundreds of billions of ringgit in extra budgetary spending since the start of the pandemic, the concern is that not enough of the relief trickled down to those who need it the most.

“People are broadly unhappy with the government and its handling of Covid,” said Serina Abdul Rahman, a visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “They see the political manoeuvring as an obsession with maintaining and grasping power, and that the government does not have the people’s interests at heart.”

Last month, the government unveiled 150 billion ringgit (US$36 billion) in Covid aid — its fourth package this year — including cash handouts and wage subsidies. It included a cut in personal income taxes, monetary aid for businesses and breaks for first-time home buyers. Announcing the measures, Muhyiddin said the government’s remaining fiscal resources were very limited.

“There have been many aid packages announced, but the help doesn’t necessarily reach the people because of the difficulties to access aid,” Serina said.

In an effort to pick up the slack, a flurry of social media campaigns rallying support for those severely affected by the pandemic has gained momentum with movements aimed at helping the hardest-hit groups, from lower-income families to refugees and animal shelters.

Lawmakers were allocated a 300,000 ringgit “food basket” to be channeled to target groups regardless of political affiliation. Some parliamentarians have also resorted to their own fundraising through Twitter and Facebook.

The #KitaJagaKita hashtag, which translates as “we look out for each other”, has trended on Twitter since the pandemic first broke out last year. Last month, #BenderaPutih took hold, encouraging people facing financial distress to reach out for assistance by displaying a white flag in front of their homes. The movement spurred the creation of websites to crowdsource aid information while connecting donors and food banks to those seeking help.

“With the Muhyiddin government caught up in heavy politics, the problem of Covid death numbers lingering high for over a month, and with flagging confidence in the government, people have taken to helping each other,” said Khor Yu Leng, a regional economist at Segi Enam Advisors.

“Financial distress is on the rise and so is negative social media attention against politicians and the administration.”

There are few signs of a turnaround anytime soon, with the finance ministry expecting an earlier GDP growth target of 6% to 7.5% to be revised downward given the extended containment measures. Muhyiddin last month said the national lockdown was costing the economy 1 billion ringgit a day.

Others, meanwhile, hold out hope that the government can put politics behind it and deal with the crisis at hand.

“Let the government focus on the bigger things like how to settle this Covid issue and vaccinate everybody,” said Bala. “That’s something we need to focus on, not politics.”

BLOOMBERG

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