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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Malaysia’s Post-2020 Future Must Be Built from Below

By OOI KEE BENG, for The Edge Malaysia, 26 February 2022

How has Covid changed you?

It’s been two whole years now since Covid-19 began affecting the lives of all of us in Malaysia. The first MCO, which lasted four weeks, began on 18 March 2020.

“2020”, the year that had held so much promise for the country for over three decades, brought instead a health crisis that disrupted all our daily routines, much of our social behaviour, and many of our dreams. To makes things even more depressing, the accompanying political crisis, which began with the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government in late February, dissipated for many whatever hopes they had had for Malaysia. For them, 2020 was the year their dreams turned to dust.

After two years during which travel was greatly limited, interactions with loved ones were curtailed and cautious, and meetings online made the depressing norm, how have we individually changed?

The concrete socio-economic challenges have varied greatly between different segments and classes of society. Being in a health crisis, many of us have suffered in silence, trying to be tolerant and understanding and imagining that we are all in the same boat anyway.

We have therefore suffered in silence as well, and we have changed in silence, imperceptibly even to ourselves. As any psychiatrist will tell you, suffering in silence leads to us thinking that our situation is unique, and of little interest to others.

Not meeting up with confidantes and close friends face to face makes it more likely that we keep mum about how we are slowly changing. And changing in social silence is seldom a positive process.

Much has been lost

Needless to say, life changed drastically for many of those who lost loved ones to the pandemic. And losing them without a proper well-attended funeral and burial cannot but have left more trauma than would normally have been the case. Sadly, Malaysia has suffered the most deaths per capita in the whole East Asian region. The long-term psychological and economic costs of this will never be known.

Economic difficulties that do not seem to end lead over time to a total change in individual lifestyle as well. Jobs lost, incomes evaporated, hopes disappeared. Either one moves on, or one sinks into depression. Low-income households, single mothers, foreign workers and maids have had to endure more than before.

Those functioning in the informal sector—and Malaysia has an unenviably large informal sector—or in the gig economy, have largely had to manage without social aid of any kind.

Those with secure incomes, as in the civil or public service, have had at least economic security to contemplate, which their fellow beings in the private sector, notwithstanding the very few sectors that did gain from the pandemic, seldom have had.

Studies have been disrupted, and the repercussions of this may actually be greater among the youngest. Campus life has been drawn down greatly, while social contacts, team sports and physically engaging games have been almost non-existent for quite a while. From kindergarten kids to post-graduates, something essential has been lost from their training and their growth process.

Getting the Most out of the Recovery

For those getting on in age, retiring has been an attractive option. The business insecurities caused by the pandemic SOPs and lockdowns were just too much for small businessmen, and those approaching retirement age.

There is only so much resilience one can summon without paying a lasting psychological cost. Ironically, throwing in the towel on their profession has for many been the best way to survive psychologically.

The above list of depressing conditions is far from complete, but I mention them here just to exemplify the ubiquity of silent suffering—economic and social, psychological and psychosomatic—most members of Malaysian society have been going through. And they went through this, beginning in the key year of 2020—with the country plummeting through the air without a proper nation-building vision to replace the deeply disappointing one they just experienced.

This is one key reason why a strong sense of disgust with public figures, especially politicians, now pervades the country. There are many others, of course, too boring to reiterate here.

Health considerations will continue to concern Malaysians for the rest of 2022, whether or not the country’s borders are opened soon.

In a dark room, we naturally seek out places that are least dark. And it is now that we need to acknowledge each other’s difficult situation, and offer support to neighbours even if it is but a kind word, a smile or a fist punch.

We have suffered in silence, and been scarred in isolation. A healthy recovery will need a coming together at all the levels we can individually imagine. Building the post-2020 Malaysia should not be left to politicians or the political class. The country’s post-pandemic future depends on Malaysians transcending the barriers created by that class of people, and realising that their future lies in their willingness to reach out with their hands, across divides, to other hands.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (2018). Webpage: wikibeng.com.

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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