COMMENT | Malaysia’s newly minted three-week-old government led by the country’s 8th prime minister Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin has had an inauspicious start. With his cabinet barely in office for a fortnight he has had to face the country’s worst crisis in perhaps six decades- the coronavirus pandemic.
It is commendable that the government is doing everything within its capacity to address and ameliorate the situation but a lot more remains to be done.
First existential crisis
Much, much earlier when a fledgling Malaysia faced an existential threat from our neighbour’s Konfrontasi we had in place a seasoned and suave prime minister, a first-rate cabinet that was representative of the whole country, a commendable chain of command, credible foreign allies and an easily identifiable external threat.
The country also had a first world civil service, particularly its foreign service led by a cerebral Muhammad Ghazali Shafie and an able team of legendary officers, almost all in their late twenties, thirties or early forties. They were formidable team players who drew inspiration from every challenge and defused it diplomatically.
Most significantly the nation was marshalled into a state of being united and the leaders unequivocally placed national unity above all else. Those vital elements of national unity within a diverse leadership structure and a chain of command are lately in somewhat of a short supply in Malaysia.
Today’s Covid-19 threat is far more amorphous, antagonistic and much more exasperating and unpredictable. It threatens total attrition, even annihilation.
It has a highly toxic amoebic character, its capacity to inflict rapid devastating pain and damage on Malaysian society and the global population is far more threatening than the most lethal drones.
It is an existential threat for all of mankind, creates paranoia and it crept up on Malaysia with some warning but when the leadership was wantonly distracted.
Pathetic political pedestrianism had produced a musical chair of three prime ministers. The first was the country’s 6th prime minister a seemingly popular leader then languishing in the docks, the second was the 4th and the recently unseated 7th prime minister, the super senior Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the third was Anwar Ibrahim, widely acclaimed until Feb 24, 2020 as the almost perpetual prime minister-in-waiting.
Between Feb 24 and Feb 29, a series of slick and shady events schemingly embarked upon largely from a Sheraton Hotel in suburban Kuala Lumpur produced a fourth candidate for prime minister, Muhyiddin. He became the country’s 8th prime minister on March 1.
Muhyiddin’s task was a difficult, rather tenuous one from the beginning as his support base was a fragile, fractured one that had been reconfigured to necessitate the inclusion of various senior parliamentarians who were facing serious charges of embezzlement, corruption, abuse of office and plain theft.
The grand old man, Mahathir, had made it clear that while he could work with some members of the opposition he could not realistically envisage a situation where some of his political allies were the very same fellows he had fought so hard to dislodge and who were defending themselves to escape imprisonment and other penalties. At the same time, Mahathir made it clear by his actions that although he had pledged that Anwar was his successor he had no such intention of passing the baton to Anwar all along.
With this unmistakable message Muhyiddin’s prospects for the prime ministership not only brightened but were secured and sealed.
This is a purely domestic, internal, rather remote issue involving perhaps five personalities, when an agent provocateur is included. Given the wafer-thin parliamentary majority that Muhyiddin’s government genuinely needed to make it viable, he had to please and placate every potential parliamentarian who could, on a whim, turn his back on him.
This was evident from the larger cabinet that replaced the previous one. Almost half his support base was now either ministers or deputy ministers. The precariousness of the lineup was also evident from the absence of a deputy prime minister.
Significantly, Muhyiddin became Malaysia’s first prime minister who had four senior ministers, a superclass above the run-of-the-mill cabinet minister. Precedence and protocol are pivotal in Malaysia. This superclass of ministers proved to be a precious commodity in this environment.
In the current Covid-19 crisis, the four are competing for attention and authority. But not one of them has the health portfolio which makes their intense competition for media publicity rather glaring. The main narrative on the efficient handling of a grave health emergency with extensive reach, extremely ruinous repercussions and deadliness is being lost.
A queer quarantine
Mahathir had, on sound medical grounds, self quarantined himself, quietly stepping aside from this unresolved quest for power.
Anwar has been not-so-quietly murmuring about possessing the qualifying numbers for the prime minister’s post while Najib is probably enjoying a restful respite from being in a rather quixotic and quaint quest of self-righteousness.
Millions in misery
The poor, impoverished and poorly paid casual workers of the country are lost and at a loose end. No work, no pay and how would they make ends meet. Then we have an additional six million foreigners, almost all earning an honest living but who can’t generally work now. Is there no compensation or consideration for them?
Then there are thousands of home alone types who rely on small eateries, Mamak shops and hawkers for their daily needs. One must also not forget the handicapped who cannot prepare their own meals who have sustained themselves on assured delivery service or access to their neighbourhood shops and stalls. They are all facing hard, impossible times. Some need charity while others crave for compassion and consideration.
Movement restrictions mean a curb on good Samaritans as well as family visits. Simple acts of kindnesses are in danger.
It is time for the country’s key political leaders to show humility, humanity and knuckle down to work hard together. This is no time for more politics, histrionics or heroics.
When the situation improves they must sit together and thrash out a reasonable, representative, perhaps even revolutionary recovery plan to come out from this nightmarish crucible.
M SANTHANANABAN is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.