Testing Our Faith in Government and Looking for a New Malaysia

By Dorothy Cheng

 

The past three years have been a whirlwind for Malaysia. As we move into a new year, and importantly, a new government, let’s take stock of the defining issues in 2022, examine their complexities, and try to envision this New Malaysia we have all been promised.

 

This article will use Google Analytics to determine the most important issues to Malaysians in 2022. In reflecting on the developments of the past year, hopefully we can learn from our mistakes and plan for our future: 

 

Top Search in 2022: Bantuan Keluarga Malaysia

 

Considering rising inflation and general economic downturn, a revamp of the national government assistance and financial aid programs was timely, if not a little late. 

 

Under the new Bantuan Keluarga Malaysia (BKM) scheme, eligible individuals and households could receive a one-time assistance payment of up to RM2,000 maximum. Additional aid would also be available for certain groups, such as single parents and senior citizens.

 

It is necessary to draw parallels between the new BKM and Malaysia’s COVID-19 financial assistance programs.

Government financial assistance programs sprung up all over the world throughout 2020 to 2022, no thanks to a certain airborne scourge that shut up businesses and prevented workers from, well, working. 

Where does Malaysia rank in its roll-out of COVID-19 financial assistance programs? Let’s look at the some of the proposed plans:

 

  • One-time financial aid payments were provided to eligible individuals and households, ranging from RM500 to RM2000.

  • Deferred loans, lowered interest rates and early withdrawals were approved for various groups, including students, businesses and more.

  • Discounted or free utilities, including internet and electricity, for a set period.

 

In the wake of these announcements, Malaysians took to social media to express their dissatisfaction. It is easy to understand their frustrations. If you were making RM3500 a month before the pandemic, and then become jobless for months and qualify to receive a one-time aid of RM800 that has to be paid in tranches, you would not be too happy either at the lack of more substantial aid. You’d put up your white flag. 

As the white flags abounded and dissatisfaction with government planning and aid surrounding the pandemic spread, #KitaJagaKita made rounds on social media, amplifying that dissatisfaction but also showcasing the grassroots determination to take matters into their own hands. 

Now that a new financial aid scheme is out, it will be important for the government to get in touch with the people’s sentiments on it. Complaining about the economy is a national pastime, but what is the truth in those complaints?

Perhaps there is some truth in the criticism that instead of acting like a stimulus plan, Malaysia’s COVID-19 financial assistance program was more of a balm – and while there is an argument to be made that balms are critical in certain situations, it is also self-evident that balms do not solve problems but rather, offer temporary relief from certain symptoms. 

It remains to be seen how Malaysians will react to the new BKM program over time, but it seems likely that social welfare programs that continue with the same approach of balm-applying – here’s a few hundred Ringgit to put a smile on your face, now go into the wild – will be met with the same kind of disdain, or at the very least, complete disinterest. 

The skeptics will always be suspicious, what with existing narratives around the old BR1M programs essentially being bribes for votes. To make matters worse, our government is infamous for lagging on data collection – there are often no comprehensive government-led reviews or reports of the results of the various financial aid programs that are put out. 

If we combine the fact of our government’s lack of transparency with existing skepticism and the memory of ineffective government action during the pandemic, it is easy to say that Malaysians will continue to struggle with their faith in our government’s ability to take us through economic crises. Many people perceive all kinds of government assistance programs purely as political devices and not as part of a package of legitimate services they are entitled to from their government. Is it the nature of the messaging? The kind of financial aid packages that are provided? The timing?

 Whatever the case may be, it is clear that our institutions have some work to do to regain the people’s trust.

 

Top Local News in 2022: Peninsular Malaysia Floods

Aside from COVID-19, no other event showcased the people’s lack of faith in government as much as the Peninsular Floods of 2021 and 2022.

 

During this period of chaos, our government put on a masterclass of exactly what not to do during a national climate crisis. This has worrying implications for our future, as climate emergencies and events will only continue to increase in number and intensity until humankind finds long-term solutions to reverse the damage we have done. 

Again, the financial aid offered to flood victims could not have possibly covered their losses and helped them remake their lives. The sums offered were essentially tokens of appreciation for having survived a disaster. 

#KerajaanPembunuh trended online, a hashtag that was derived from other versions created during the pandemic to criticize government actions and inactions that were perceived to result in people’s suffering. In the case of #KerajaanPembunuh, people were now actually accusing the highest order in the land of murder. 

Naturally, #KitaJagaKita also made a comeback. The hashtag highlighted stories of ordinary Malaysians helping each other out during the floods, whether it be organizing their own search and rescue efforts or putting together charity drives to deliver needed funds and goods to victims. But, the hashtag also allowed for more commentary from netizens on the government’s failure to perform their duties. 

If institutions from rescue services to hospitals to police and lawmakers cannot be trusted to be effective during times of crisis, and people have to essentially organize themselves to serve and protect each other, are they not enacting some of the key requirements of a so-called idealistic anarcho-communist society – A.K.A any government’s worst nightmare?

And yet, our government seemed content to let the people handle the issues themselves, perhaps recognizing that grassroots organization could be much more effective than bureaucratic, inaccessible services. 

It isn’t just incompetence in execution that the people should fear – our government also demonstrates continued incompetence with their ability to grasp the underlying issue: climate change. 

From downplaying climate change to insisting that Malaysia will be spared from the worst of it, it is clear that we are ill-prepared for the challenges of the future. 

Nobody can expect any one government official to reliably predict the state of the weather every day, but a lack of prediction does not forego readiness. And it’s not just a Malaysian problem either. Governments around the world continue to make compromises with their climate goals – actions that will inevitably always undermine any country’s readiness to deal with climate emergencies. 

As an oil-producing nation, one could argue that the urgency for Malaysia to get on top of its climate goals is even greater. When the time eventually comes for the world to get off oil, will we be ready for the economic, infrastructural and environmental implications of that?

It takes a lot for a populace to openly decry their government as murderers. Perhaps some may try to invalidate the movement as an overreaction or political play, but for so many Malaysians to buy into the idea in the first place, there must be some serious sense of underlying distrust of the people who are in charge of our nation’s money, safety, health and more. It no longer matters if the distrust is valid or not, because the relationship is clearly broken.

 

Top Local Personality in 2022: Anwar Ibrahim

ELECTIONS AS A SOLUTION?

The best way democracies know how to make their grievances known is to vote. 

 

In Malaysia, the track record for the effectiveness of elections is underwhelming, at best. Although, one could argue that the same is true for most democracies. One could even argue that democracy itself is ineffective.

But for so long, Malaysian people have not been able to truly put our democracy to the test, thanks to decades of gerrymandering and unfair elections. This time however, Anwar Ibrahim finally won, and we are all excited to see the results of this effort. 

It is impossible to disassociate Anwar from the idea of a “New Malaysia.” But the concept is shaky. A New Malaysia could mean very different things to different people. Is Malaysia new just because we have a different political party and different people in charge now? 

What is Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan Harapan actually offering as part of this New Malaysia, aside from just their ability to win an election? 

In their recent election manifesto, PH tackled some important issues, from the rising cost of living to environmental protection and more. But it’s not as if Barisan or Perikatan do not know these issues exist. They had their own supposed solutions for them too. The underlying assumption that holds Pakatan together seems to be that Pakatan is more averse to corruption or has more of a genuine desire to serve the people, and hence, their solutions will end up being more effective. 

But of course, the opposition always has the same narrative, and it is not clear that Pakatan actually wants to enact radical changes. Even if they do, their will to do so will certainly be challenged due to only holding a small majority.

 

There are two key radical recommendations PH must consider at least setting up the building blocks for now if they want a truly New Malaysia and not just a Different Malaysia or Slightly Less Corrupted Malaysia.

 

1. Universal Basic Income (UBI)

The idea of a UBI has been hotly debated in richer countries, even in the most capitalistic of them. As it stands, most experts will say Malaysia is not rich enough to afford giving all citizens a UBI. The economic challenge is one thing, but there is also a social aspect. 

 

There is strong stigma against welfare in Malaysia, no thanks to decades of ineffective financial aid programs from the government that was alluded to earlier in this piece. But on top of that, the legacy of the New Economic Program (NEP), which enshrines affirmative action for Bumiputeras, has resulted in a legacy of merit-fetishization in Malaysia, especially among Malaysian Chinese and Indians. 

A UBI, while indiscriminate in its delivery, will force a reckoning with this mindset. PH will have a lot of work to do to reframe welfare in Malaysia and put out good messaging that combats neoliberal sentiments among the middle and upper classes if they want to create better economic programs that will benefit the lower classes. 

Limited UBI pilots could be a good way to get that conversation started. Until we move away from this gameplan of yearly one-time measly handouts, welfare in Malaysia will never be in a good state.

 2. Aggressively Divest from Fossil Fuels 

The keyword here is “aggressively.” Like most countries, Malaysia has acknowledged the harm of climate change and paid lip service to environmentalism. 

 

But the entire thesis of environmentalism goes against the existence of one of the main economic engines of this country: oil. 

It is idealistic to demand that Malaysia stop relying on oil right now, or implement a UBI immediately for that matter, but the right steps have to be taken now, and that includes exploration of controversial sources of energy such as nuclear power. 

The goal should not be to extend how long we can continue using oil for. The goal should be to figure out how we can stop using it as quickly as possible. 

Again, messaging and setting up the right conditions will be key for PH. They will need to aggressively pursue cleantech research and make some decisions that may compromise their popularity temporarily. When it comes to existential issues, the government must not give up doing the right thing in favour of pleasing the public or placating their opponents. 

 

WAWASAN 2023

It may seem corny to revive the whole “Wawasan” thing again for 2023 just because we have a new government, but Malaysians need to be able to firmly believe in change. 

 

The constant undermining of elections or lack of concrete action will eventually either break a population’s political spirit or radicalize them to pursue less democratic offerings. 

To preserve and improve Malaysia’s prosperity in 2023 and beyond, some level of radical thinking and action will be required. It is up to our new government to muster the will to bring about a truly New Malaysia. 

 

Malaysians Who Use Drugs: Personal Narratives and Experiences

By Shaun Phuah

Drugs are used recreationally across the globe and Malaysia is no exception. Many of the narratives that we have surrounding drugs come from news stories reported from Western countries such as the US and Europe which more often than not bend the truth around the context surrounding the use of drugs to create one-sided narratives which tend to demonize drugs and their users. Along with this are our own data analyses of drugs used in Malaysia. However, the ways in which people use drugs vary to great degrees between places and as an example, we do not have the same issues North America has with opioid deaths or a great prevalence of opioid-use; and while data is a strong tool in terms of understanding the groups of people who use drugs, the amount or types of drugs which are used in the country, or the level at which people use a drug habitually, it does a poor job of showing us the reasons people use drugs in the first place and tends to place drugs within the lines of abuse, recovery, and relapse. Here data tends to be used as a vehicle to place drugs and its users within the dichotomy of abuse and recovery. I believe that this is too simplistic a view of how and why people use drugs in the first place. Whether it is to stay awake to function through long work hours and long sleepless nights, self-medication of a chronic physical or emotional pain, or simply for the purpose of recreation—people do not simply end up with drugs in their possession and choose to use them for no reason or no forethought whatsoever. People consciously seek out and use drugs even in a society where use of these drugs are made illegal on a systemic level and heavily stigmatized within our society.

Because of this, I chose to interview a Malaysian who has experience with a substance which has a particularly bad reputation. While I have only interviewed one person, I believe that this direct and personal interview forms insight into how drugs and the systems which surround drugs effect the everyday person; separate from the larger drug narratives that tend to be summarized and disseminated to the public through normative news outlets often through the lens of sensational criminality. The people who use drugs and the people who sell drugs have stories which are ultimately much more human than simple datasets and news articles (especially within the context of criminalization) are able to capture.


Noel is a Malaysian Chinese bartender. He is a gay man who uses meth. When I first talked to him about his meth use, his responsible use of the drug surprised and subverted my expectations of what meth-use is like. Because of this, I chose to pursue a more thorough interview.

Noel was first introduced to meth through a casual Grindr relationship. He describes meth as something that he has only ever used during sex and that he has little interest in using the drug outside of sex.

I was surprised by this as there is a common understanding of the drug as something which is instantly addictive, a drug which you try once and are hooked so immediately that the user enters the cycle of searching for the drug and using it to the point where it ultimately ruins the user’s life.

When I prodded further on the subject, Noel told me he recognized he has a potentially addictive personality. Because of this, he consciously chooses to only allow his own access to be through this Grindr relationship rather than something that he would seek out independently. He also consciously chooses to use smaller amounts of the drug as compared to his partner. This also surprised me. I have only ever heard anecdotes of meth as something users binge on, to the point at which they deprive themselves of sleep for multiple days and the drug takes a heavy toll on both their physical and mental health. I asked him about this seemingly unsustainable quality of meth as a drug and he agreed that there have been times where he’s experienced a day or two with little to no sleep but also thought of this idea of meth’s unsustainability as something which is intrinsic to many other habits. Noel talked about how alcohol could easily be used to a point at which it severely interferes with someone’s life and that it is an addictive drug which can often bring out self-destructive behaviours in people. Noel recognized the times at which his meth use began to interfere with his life through one of the drug’s effects which is the prevention of sleep and he was able to disengage entirely from the drug during this time. In total, he has only used meth five times in the last year. He describes enjoying the effects of meth but that he really has no interest in the drug outside of sex and said that as far as his personal experience goes, that meth is not recreationally used as a “get me through the day sort of drug” and that it is used entirely for the purpose of sex and that he has only seen its use among the gay men he’s met on Grindr.

I asked Noel if gay people in Malaysia might be more open to drug use in general to which he responded that being gay in Malaysia meant existing as an already illegal entity. It means feeling alienated from their society and community. Already their very sexuality is something which is illegal and so for Noel and the gays he knows, being comfortable and accepting their sexuality in a space where they are told their sexuality is wrong, it is much easier to question the laws which surround drugs as well. Growing up gay means growing up as an other in your society and it makes it easier to access and engage with things such as drugs which are also considered taboo by larger society. Noel also believes that the unique perspective of growing up gay in Malaysia creates a type of person who is more open to a wider range of experiences in general.

Noel says that he feels lucky at the very least that his family is supportive of his sexuality and that while they show concern when he talked about his experiences with drugs, they generally recognize his independence as an adult and understand that he has the conscious ability to control his drug use. He believes that if the situation were different and that if his sexuality was totally rejected by his family, that there very well might be a stronger push to cope through the use of drugs. He also believes it is when drugs are used as a form of relief from the stresses of not being accepted and being alienated even from within the family itself that drug use has a much larger opportunity to become an addictive and destructive presence in a person’s life.

Noel has also said that our drug laws have no effect on his access to drugs, only on the purity of his drugs, which do concern him. He believes that a heavily regulated level of legality would allow for at least a safer experience for the users.

I prodded Noel further on the narrative that surrounds meth—that it is something that people end up using with no self-control, that it is a drug which is inherently destructive and addictive. He responded with, “I think because it has such a reputation it’s only certain folks that chase after it and so it becomes a chicken egg sort of thing. Is it really the meth or is it the kind of people it attracts?” I thought this was an interesting statement that brought up more questions. Do the narratives we form around our drugs also direct their use? Are people more likely to binge on meth, to use the drug in a more self-destructive way because this is how we have portrayed the drug? MDMA otherwise known as ecstacy and a drug which has a few similarities to meth has been viewed for a long time as an addictive party drug which only harms the body. However, after recent research, MDMA is now seen as a valuable therapeutic drug which could help combat prevalent mental health issues such as PTSD. How many of our narratives around MDMA have directed its use as something which is only meant to be used as a clubbing-dance-mood-enhancer even by users themselves?

Perhaps if we moved away from the narrative dichotomies of abuse, recovery, and relapse, we can have a better understanding of the drugs themselves and the people who use these drugs. With a more nuanced understanding of both people and the drugs they use, I believe we can also treat the people who actually suffer from the addictions of these substances with a better sense of understanding; instead of leading first and foremost with the stigma and narratives which obfuscate and cloud our vision to the actual, much more human problems which underlie substance abuse and addiction.