Politics of the Pandemic: Covid-19 and Challenging Malaysian Narratives

Comment International Issues

Image description: The text ‘Perikatan Nasional’ in white, on a blue background, with a rip going through the middle of the picture.

Political paradigms and narratives represent the different forms of worldview within any particular society. These are the underlying assumptions that permeate political discourse and guide political action, consciously or otherwise.

Much of the neoliberal world, for example, assumes a priori that state intervention limits individual freedom. However, times of crises such as war, economic recessions, or pandemics, often tend to challenge the validity of these assumptions. 

This article seeks to analyse the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has challenged dominant political narratives within Malaysian politics. Specifically, we argue that the dominant political paradigms of paternalism and ethnoreligious populism have been called into question

Particularly amongst the youth, there has been a shift away from identity politics, towards a political paradigm that acknowledges the fault lines of class divisions within Malaysian society. This could, in turn, pose a threat to the legitimacy of the current ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition in the long term.

In March, as the Malaysian government mounted its Covid-19 response, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin delivered a national address: “This may not be the government that you voted for, but I want you to know that this government cares for you,” he declared.

This was in clear reference to the fact that the coalition had gained power undemocratically, arising from the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in February 2020 and leading to the current ruling coalition’s notorious reputation as a ‘backdoor government.’

The sentiment behind the PM’s statement effectively illustrates ‘paternalism’ as a political narrative in Malaysia. Essentially, the restriction of individual freedoms, or even the abandonment of democratic principles through negotiated backdoor dealings, can be justified through the more crucial ‘caretaker’ role of government.

The current PM even readily adopted the nickname ‘Abah’ (the Malay word for ‘father’, but more colloquially ‘daddy’), exemplifying the paternalistic narrative in a quite literal sense.

A paternalistic state-society relationship, however, contains within it an implicit social contract.

The government’s image as a “father figure” could only be maintained insofar as citizens feel as if the state is capable of protecting them. In the initial months of the pandemic, the Malaysian government undoubtedly performed this role well, successfully bringing down daily cases to roughly single digits from June to September after battling two separate waves. 

The pandemic has also called into question the relevance of divisive yet dominant ethnoreligious narratives in Malaysia.

However, the third wave of Covid-19, which began in late September, has reversed this progress. Coinciding with the state elections in Sabah, there is no denying the role of politicians in spreading the virus to Sabahan communities. Politicians were even seen campaigning without the use of masks and in close contact with the people, despite harsh laws being imposed on ordinary citizens. 

Since the elections were held, Malaysia’s cumulative cases have more than quadrupled, with economic anxieties more harshly felt since many workers cannot afford the economic cost of another lockdown. Meanwhile, the Malaysian PM continues to avoid direct culpability for this catastrophe, only admitting in November that the elections may have played a role in spreading the virus.

Through the third wave, then, the PM is shown to have broken the social contract which denotes paternalistic relationships. The “father figure” is nowhere to be seen. 

More crucially, the pandemic has also called into question the relevance of divisive yet dominant ethnoreligious narratives in Malaysia. In 2018, the victory of the diverse and progressive Pakatan Harapan coalition had ended 60 years of rule under the National Front coalition. This provided a possibility for the nation to move beyond these narratives of Malay-Muslim supremacy.

The reactionary Perikatan Nasional coalition that took power following PH’s collapse, however, has negated such hopes. Instead, the right-wing coalition has led to a resurgence of ethnoreligious propaganda as an attempt to exploit racial sentiments for its political gain.

However, as economic strife continues to worsen and Covid-19 cases continue to surge, this rhetoric fails to prove its legitimacy. 

It is difficult for the government to scapegoat immigrants or the ‘Communist Chinese’ (in reference to the prominent Malaysian Chinese community) in light of clear evidence that it was politicians who were mainly responsible for the spike in the number of cases. Similarly, its RM85.5 million allocation in the 2021 budget to the JASA propaganda unit is difficult to justify during a time of socioeconomic anxiety.

The dominant ethnoreligious worldview of Malay-Muslim supremacy – one that has shaped the trajectory of Malaysian politics since the colonial era – is thus critically challenged.

Hence, contemporary developments pose crucial challenges to the simplistic yet dominant political narratives of paternalism and ethnoreligious identity in Malaysia. This, in turn, has reintroduced the dimension of class into mainstream political discourse, a dimension which possibly threatens the legitimacy of the new ruling elite.

This class divide is most prominently observed in Malaysian politicians’ privileged position with respect to the law, when compared to the laws imposed on the people.

Over recent months, the strict enforcement of quarantine measures in Malaysia has led to harshly imposed punishments on the rakyat, with cases such as heavy fines for breaching quarantine laws, and notably, even jail time for the person responsible for the Sivagangga cluster in the state of Kedah.

These rather drastic measures were justified by the government as legitimate attempts to curb the virus. As the PM himself declared, “we are a nation at war with invisible forces,” and such strict enforcement could be deemed as necessary in winning said war. 

In stark contrast, however, the police were unwilling to enforce similar laws when politicians and ministers were involved. In July, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Khairuddin Razali broke mandatory 14-day quarantine laws upon returning home from Turkey.

Working-class Malaysians face full legal consequences… despite causing less disastrous consequences than the actions of politicians.

In the case of Sabah’s third wave, ministers returning to the Peninsular from the campaigning sessions routinely flouted quarantine measures in place, with some even attending public events and cabinet meetings before being tested positive for the virus.

Religious Affairs Minister Dr Zulkifli, for example, even visited multiple mosques to hold public talks from 29 September to 4th October, before testing positive for the virus, with no subsequent action taken by authorities. 

The government’s actions (and authorities’ inaction) reflect a dichotomy between a ‘political class’ and a class of ordinary citizens existing below it.

For the former, breaking quarantine measures can simply be brushed off as honest mistakes made by otherwise well-meaning individuals. Working-class Malaysians, in contrast, faced full legal consequences for similar actions, despite causing less disastrous consequences than the actions of politicians.

This dichotomy, then, delegitimises the rhetoric of paternalistic government and ethnic populism, and in turn creates a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling PN coalition.

In response to this crisis, the public has opted for non-governmental solutions to alleviate their hardships.

The author Hanna Alkaf, for example, initiated the mutual aid campaign called ‘#KitaJagaKita’, which connected willing donors to various NGOs such as Queer Solidarity Fund and #SabahAid. While this campaign was a display of solidarity amongst the people, it was also borne out of the wider disillusionment towards the political class and their failures in governance.

In the political scene, the crisis of legitimacy has also led to the emergence of new political parties and movements. The party MUDA (Malaysian United Democratic Alliance), formed in September, champions youth politics and commits to being a multi-ethnic party.

Smaller parties such as the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) have also grown in popularity, as their grassroots involvement gains traction amongst the youth. Even the members of the traditionally-conservative, Malay-based UMNO party have formed the ‘ProgresifUMNO’ caucus to push progressive ideas into the political mainstream. 

While these less dominant narratives continue to be scrutinised, the movement away from ethnoreligious nationalism and paternalism is difficult, as there seems to be no official united front within the Malaysian opposition. 

One issue at least remains certain: despite its continuous claims in championing the voices of the supposed “Malay-Muslim community”, the PN government will nevertheless have much to do to restore its reputation and legitimacy. This is especially within the urban constituencies, as well as the people of Sabah living in areas worst-hit by the pandemic. 

The question remains: on which ideological grounds will the battle against the faults of the PN government take place? But in it, is an answer we cannot come to know, not least until the next general election scheduled for 2023.

Image credit: Image used with permission from Malaysian artist and graphic designer, Fahmi Reza, @kuasasiswa on Twitter. Available at https://twitter.com/kuasasiswa/status/1316918904011317252?s=24 


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