A crisis of political legitimacy is hanging over Malaysia's government just when it needs to make tough decisions to tackle a relentless surge in Covid-19 infections.
It's hard to see the ongoing state of emergency ending in August as promised. Parliament was suspended in January in the name of fighting the pandemic, allowing Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to stay in power without a floor vote to test claims from legislators that he no longer commanded a majority. Back than, daily coronavirus infections were in the low 2000s. On Sunday, they hit a record 6,976.
The steady erosion of his government's credibility was reflected in new measures announced Saturday. They simply aren't up to the magnitude of the crisis given the spiraling daily caseload. Companies will be allowed to operate from 8 a.m until 8 p.m.; until now, they were allowed to open until 10 p.m. Most government officials and 40% of private sector employees will be required to work from home. Police roadblocks and enforcement checks will be increased.
The recent steps look half-hearted. Despite skyrocketing infections, Muhyiddin was subjected to vigorous, even open, lobbying to avoid a full lockdown. His decision indicates he never had the strength to even get close. Historically, business has been loath to take on the state directly for fear of retaliation. They weren't afraid this time. The Malaysian Iron and Steel Federation asked for assurances there would be "no total lockdown." The Chemical Industries Council of Malaysia suggested reducing the workforce on site.
Muhyiddin sounds like a man pulled in different directions. "Life is important; I also don't want the economy to collapse," he told the state-owned broadcaster RTM on Sunday. "If the economy collapses, I may have to spend half a trillion (ringgit; $121 million) now. … We have to balance. The government's decision is based on the situation."
His own situation was precarious going into the state of emergency. Muhyiddin came to power in March 2020 after a group of lawmakers left a coalition government led by Mahathir Mohamad. Subsequent procedural votes showed the prime minister with a majority of only a couple of MPs — at best. Last September, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim claimed he had the support of most parliamentarians, but was never given the chance to prove it. Meanwhile, the United Malays National Organization, which led every government from independence in 1957 until 2018, isn't happy with its junior role in Muhyiddin's bloc and will campaign against him when polls are called.
The longer this barely disguised war within the government persists, the harder it is to take bold steps to combat Covid and, eventually, end economic hemorrhaging. Gross domestic product fell for a fourth consecutive quarter in the first three months of the year.
What's the way out of this political and economic morass? If the state of emergency is prolonged, which looks like a fair bet, then Muhyiddin needs to find a way to broaden his appeal. A government of national unity might be in order. Invite Anwar's People's Justice Party and perhaps its partner, the Democratic Action Party, into a much broader coalition. This would acknowledge political weakness, but once inside the tent, it would be hard for opposition parties to keep sniping. Such a move carries its own risks. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which is part of Muhyiddin's existing bloc, regards the DAP as too multiracial and urban and views Anwar, though he comes from the ethnic Muslim Malay majority, with almost as much skepticism. Parts of UMNO also resist Anwar and the DAP.
Muhydiddin should take the risk and try, anyway. Almost anything is better than inertia. Fewer than 3% of Malaysians have been fully vaccinated. That tally trails neighbors such as Indonesia and Singapore. The government has said the pace will accelerate from next month with the arrival of new batches. About a generation ago, Malaysia aspired to have a standard of living on par with Switzerland by the end of 2020. But you can't fill a syringe with the world's tallest buildings or longest airport conveyor belt, two of the state-funded infrastructure boondoggles designed to create the appearance of progress. On something as basic as public health, the country is way behind where it once saw itself. Repairing political shortcomings won't change that, yet would make adjustments a slightly easier sell.
Whatever its flaws, Malaysia pre-state of emergency was significantly more democratic than at almost any point in the past several decades. When the history of Covid in Southeast Asia is written, will Muhyiddin be the leader who presided over political debacle as well as public health tragedy? The prospects are not encouraging.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.