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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Can “The New Normal” be “The New Age”?

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for September 2020, Penang Monthly.

AS EXAMPLES INCREASE of countries getting new spikes in Covid-19 cases, and as some sustained green zones in Malaysia, like Penang, start turning yellow, it is understandable that the public begins to worry, and to take the SOPs more seriously again.

Takeaways from restaurants seem to have become more common, and traffic outside of the shortened rush hours in the morning and afternoon is evidently improving.

Understandable behaviour.

Overall, we do not really know what to expect. Domestic tourism is being encouraged while SOPs are being strongly enforced. The former puts pressure on the latter in many cases, especially on weekends.

Penang definitely benefits from this new trend in tourism, but it seems to encourage residents to stay home more.

But balancing heightened public health concerns with the need to increase economic activity becomes an administrative art that can only be clumsily performed, given how the pandemic situation can change over a day.

Here and there, one hears of some hothead calling for blood at news of “superspreaders” being selfishly careless, but Malaysians seem able to remain rational and to behave responsibly.

By and large, fear for one’s own physical safety and that of one’s family has overshadowed the anger at political shenanigans that coincided with the outbreak of the pandemic in Malaysia. Keeping safe now comes first.

Power-holders no longer get to manipulate or ignore public sentiments the way they used to before March 2020, and one or two of them have recently had to discover the hard way that they cannot ignore public sentiments the way they had become used to, not when public health is at stake.

To be sure, sowing distrust between ethnic groups – the staple of Malaysian politics – presumably will not work as well as it had always done, not during a pandemic that persists and persists. Fear and distrust have found a new and common target. For that, we thank you, Covid-19.

But will it last?

Well, we don’t want the disease to last, and we know that most politicians have nothing beyond race and religion in their speech repertoire; so, this year is probably just a respite. Unless we do something about it.

The public can be manipulated only if it allows itself to be manipulated. When our mind-set makes us see each other as stereotypes of ethnic collectives, it also allows politicians to be seen as stereotypes of political collectives, i.e. parties. It collectivises them and takes away their individual responsibility. It places power-holders beyond accountability, and disempowers the public.

In war as in peace, the charlatan plays the same game – divide and conquer.

In a pandemic of the slow, persistent and global type that we are now experiencing, dividing and conquering will not work as well.

Living under the shadow of Covid-19, we should be able to inculcate new and more promising and positive ways of thinking about each other, based on how we now have to behave as Covid-19 winds social interactions down towards a bare minimum.

Instead of seeing one another as representatives of collectives, we now have to treat everyone equally, even as equally suspect. Every one of us is now equally and potentially a spreader of disease – whatever one’s race, religion, age and class.

This levelling effect is a positive trend in social interaction – the philosophical insight offered us – that we need to adopt. It individuates us, in a word.

As individuals then, the public can act to transform the political arena into one where power-holders fear accountability, and where ethnic diversity is a joy to behold, not a weakness to exploit.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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