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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

In a Pandemic, Science and Statesmanship Must Tactically Converge

By Ooi Kee Beng

For The Edge Malaysia, 30 January, 2021

In times of political crisis, minds are moved to investigate fundamental concepts such as power and representation—and legitimacy, the shorthand for the relationship between these two terms. This bearing is more pertinent than ever during a pandemic.

Our age—the era of the nation state—generally proffers two public arguments for political representativeness. One is the periodic vote, meant to be as universal as possible; and the other are variations on authoritarianism, usually based on a person, a family, a religion or a party being the manifestation of the nation. There is a third now quite obvious dimension though, and this stems from the critical contingencies of the moment—that which falls to technocrats and experts.

Throughout the last 12 months of crisis, leaders have had to manage the advice of health experts without allowing themselves to look weak, lost and incompetent. This has been obvious in democracies where the mass media and social media are most challenging. Political meanderings around the safety measures recommended by international health officials were common enough, and were most clearly publicised in the USA under President Donald Trump.

Those leaders who have done relatively well did so by not perceiving these challenges as private effrontery, but instead they kept to scientifically informed policies.

Happily, science-denying trends in the USA seem to have turned a corner after 20 January with the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Proactive and concerted global policy-making regarding climate change and support for multilateralism in trade should now pick up speed again. Domestically, for Americans, data-based arguments should now gain prominence and lead them out of their present chaos.

Representativeness during a pandemic naturally shifts away from politicians towards technocrats and experts. In the USA, Trump tried his best to side-line the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci. In Sweden, where a top-level decision was made early on to let the disease run its course, adaptive scientific approaches were side-lined from steering the country through the pandemic.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Malaysians found it more meaningful to follow the daily pandemic situation report provided by the Director-general of Health Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, however lacking in detail those reports were, rather than comments of politicians, be it Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin or his cabinet members.

Political leaders fear being reduced to mere managers, and this is not something they excel in, especially not in Malaysia where elusive political rhetoric is preferred to the straight-forward stating of facts.

Fighting the Crisis with Good Information Flows

Having that said, it is far from certain that technocrats and scientists are necessarily proficient in handling a pandemic however good their scientific expertise may be. Far from it. There lies the crux.

The politician cannot go it alone; nor can the health administrator or the medical scientist. The politician may continue to have formal legitimate power, but his competence and representativeness with regards to what is good for the country, shifts during a pandemic towards the contingently important medical technocrats and experts. Each is in need of advice from each other—and of information to and from society in general.

To my mind, representativeness is as much an adaptive quality as it is a formal one. A crisis sharpens priorities mercilessly for people in power. In a health pandemic, a country is turned into a crisis zone, and the country’s top health technocrats and experts gain strong relevance. The situation assigns legitimacy for them to represent the critical interests of the people, something politicians understandably consider to be an unfair intrusion into their daily power routines.

These power routines, especially in a weak democracy like Malaysia, often involve incessant one-upmanship and populistic messaging, a habit not helpful in a socio-political crisis, and often very careless with facts.

Social media during the Covid-19 pandemic has been of great assistance to governments in all countries, and keeping information flows reliable, fresh and easily available is critical to a good fight against the pandemic.

In Malaysia, given the parliamentary coup in early 2020 in the early stage of the pandemic, measures taken to contain the disease, especially with the declaration of national emergency until August this year, have confused the notions of power and representation quite thoroughly. Emergencies affect freedom of speech, freedom of information flow, and accuracy of information.

How necessary the declaration of emergency is remains a matter of controversy, as is always the case in such situations. Some consider it a suitable move to nullify the destructive politicking that the country is prone to engage in, while others fear the long-term risks to democracy, especially given the weak support that the Muhyiddin Yassin cabinet has.

A national emergency in a democracy is a Time-Out measure, taken to provide the regime with time and space to reformat the political landscape, and in this case, to purportedly fight the pandemic more effectively. Given that we will beat Covid-19, the vital development to consider is how Malaysia will emerge from the emergency. More to the point, “What decisive changes in political dynamics will take place over the coming six months?”

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest books include “Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia” (Penang Institute & SIRD, 2018).

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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