Projek Dialog

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. 

 

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