Miao Zhang, Xiamen University: As of 25 November 2020, Malaysia has reported a total of 60,752 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The first wave (from 25 January to 16 February) and second wave (from 27 February to 30 June) saw a total of 10,219 infections. The highest number of confirmed cases (50,533) was recorded in the current and third wave, which had been occurring since 25 September. Despite its relatively good management of the pandemic in the early stages, this sudden rise in the number of infections recently has sharpened the urgency for the Malaysian government to enforce more effective measures to level the current wave of the pandemic. While the government faces great challenges in managing the public health crisis, it must also try to strike a balance between lost lives and lost livelihoods, which is especially pertinent for the relatively small and open economy of Malaysia.
Against this backdrop, this paper by Muhammed Abdul Khalid provides an informative account of Malaysia's experience in the successful management of the public health and economic crises in its early stages. Such examination is informative to policymakers to identify the key factors that contribute to the successful management of the pandemic on both fronts, providing a reference to not only other economies in Southeast Asia but also other developing nations.
Although the paper has done well in examining the government's enacted measures, there are a couple of related issues that may also be considered to appreciably improve the analysis.
Having broached the topic on the government's management of the crisis, the author has managed to synthesize much of the policy instruments introduced by the government to tackle the pandemic and strengthen the economy. While such efforts are deemed to be necessary, an in-depth assessment and constructive appraisal of their actual effects could deepen our understanding of government performance. One way to capture the impact of the stimulus packages and financial aids would be to briefly discuss the country's macroeconomic indicators and relating it with the policy instruments introduced. By doing so, readers would become better informed as to: (i) whether, and to what extent the macroeconomic situation was improved by the stimulus packages (in areas such as job creation and consumer sentiment); (ii) whether, and to what extent the rendered financial assistance was translated into real spending power for the socially disadvantaged; and (iii) the sustainability of the current rendered assistance, given the country's weak financial position? While a suitable answer to the latter question may be difficult to ascertain, the analysis could be simply focused on fiscal incentives to create a new growth engine such as the digital economy and innovation-driven manufacturing, which are considered conducive to the creation of immediate jobs and the sustainability of long-term development.
Aside from the above point, the severity of the third and current wave of COVID-19 calls for us to consider the impact of the country's political unrest on the government's performance in crisis management. As noted by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in his live broadcast on 18 November, the current wave of COVID-19 infections was largely caused by the Sabah state elections. The election was held on 26 September after the then–Chief Minister Shafie Apdal dissolved the state assembly due to weeks of political struggle that resulted in the exit of a slew of elected lawmakers from the ruling coalition. The Sabah election generated not only a spike in the number of positive cases, but also brought about questions of whether, and for how long, the Muhyiddin-led administration would stay in power. Such queries are relevant, as the recovery of the economy relied on the country's political stability and the ability of the government to curb the virus. While the tackling of COVID-19 requires a powerful government for policy planning and implementation, handling economic downturns requires political certainty and policy continuity to attract foreign investments and fuel the economy. Political implications must, therefore, be considered in discussions involving the government's performance in terms of virus containment and economic recovery.
While the focus on the current analysis has centered on the federal level, an extension of the analysis into the sub-national level would shed in-depth insights on the financial arrangements between federal and local authorities. The fact that most patients were treated in local hospitals emphasizes the need to direct financial resources to the upgrade of local medical facilities and resources. As the battle against the virus has proven to be more complex than envisaged by officials in Putrajaya, adequate resources at the local level could ensure an immediate response to real-time challenges. This line of questioning would also consider political dimensions, as state expenditures allocated by the federal government are largely determined by political considerations. As opposition-controlled states have been observed to receive budgetary allocations much smaller than their counterparts, policymakers in Putrajaya would become alert to any delay in immediate responses caused by the shortage of necessary resources (such as medical facilities, hospitals, and medical professionals), which could further exacerbate the crisis.
Last but not least, the fight against COVID-19 requires the government to adopt a socially inclusive strategy. Given the fact that a large number of infected clusters involved prisoners and migrant dormitories, containment measures such as screening and quarantine procedures, and welfare provisions such as fair living conditions and medical insurance coverage to the socially neglected and disadvantaged, is crucial to curb the spread of the virus. If the government can properly address these social issues, this would help minimize current infections and also prevent any subsequent advancement into a humanitarian crisis, thereby resulting in both short-run and long-run benefits to the country.
Despite the highlighted issues, this properly structured paper benefits from its illumination of Malaysian policy instruments in response to the pandemic during the early stages of the outbreak in Malaysia (February 2020 to June 2020). In general, this is an informative work for interested readers, although the expansion of the pandemic later became much more complicated and went far beyond what the author's analysis had detailed.