Sunday, July 25, 2021

Tengku Zafrul answers ‘failed state’ claim

Those who describe Malaysia as a failed state may not have taken into account factors such as the country's vaccination rate, spirit of volunteerism and National Recovery Plan.

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Last week a Bloomberg column piece unjustifiably described this nation as “staggering” down the path towards failed statehood.

The entire piece painted a dismal picture of Malaysia undergoing the Covid-19 pandemic, offering little respite in its doggedness to depict this nation as a land of shuttered factories, military-manned roadblocks and an ineffective government under siege, unpopular and unable to provide for the people. To drive the point home, the accompanying photo showed an allegedly dispirited woman hoisting a makeshift white flag over her apartment balcony – the universal sign of hopeless surrender.

For more than 16 months, over 32 million Malaysians have been waking up each day in quiet despair, concerned for their safety and livelihoods; wondering just how many more lockdowns and how many more months of waiting before “normalcy” returns to our lives.

Since last year, this nation has faced an unforgiving crucible brought about by a deadly global pandemic as it sweeps across the planet wiping out lives and livelihoods. The global recession in 2020 was the deepest since World War II with virtually every country suffering negative GDP growth – Malaysia included.

If it is on account of impacted businesses, struggling households and a government working under imperfect political conditions that we are deemed to be staggering towards a failed state – then the same broad sweep of that disingenuous brush should be applied over the multitude of nations undergoing similar stresses. To this, I am certain, many of them would equally and vehemently disagree.

The Bloomberg piece conveniently turns a blind eye to the fact that just last month, Moody’s and S&P had retained Malaysia’s ratings as A3 and A- respectively. Such ratings are not typical of a “failed state”.

The writer chooses the anecdotal over analysis, ignoring the fact that the fundamentals of the economy remain solid despite the shocks of Covid-19. It forsakes our strong medium-term growth prospects, resilient capital markets, deep liquidity and capital buffers of the financial sector and other traits of our well-diversified economy that has weathered past crises and remains poised to do so with this current one.

Any economic observer of this country would have noticed any of the eight stimulus and assistance packages worth a total of RM530 billion that the government had introduced to support families and businesses throughout this pandemic.

These packages have supported over one million micro businesses and SMEs, safeguarded 2.7 million workers from unemployment, provided direct cash assistance to over 10 million individuals and households, channelled food aid to nearly a million lower income households and mustered the cooperation of the banking sector to provide a six-month automatic loan repayment moratorium for all Malaysians – the first country in the world to do so. We did this not once, but twice – the first in 2020 and yet again this July.

Undeniably, there are those who slip through the cracks of government social aid.

Which is why despite having provided over RM32 billion in direct cash aid programmes for over 10 million households, the government last month approved an allocation of RM300,000 for every MP, irrespective of party. This is to ensure the vulnerable persons in every constituency, especially those who do not appear in official records, can now be helped.

On Malaysia’s effort at the frontlines of this pandemic war, I offer the following facts:

Vaccination rate: top 10 in the world

The national immunisation programme (popularly known by its Malay acronym PICK) has exceeded its initial target of 300,000 doses administered per day. It is now setting its sights on 400,000 doses per day. The latest stats from Our World in Data rank Malaysia among the top 10 nations with highest daily vaccination rate. Meantime, the Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker projects that 75% of the Malaysian population will be immunised within five months.

National immunisation centres & outstanding volunteerism

Social media has been buzzing with glowing reports from the public on the efficient and courteous treatment they received from medical frontliners, Rela and volunteers. It is with pride that we see Malaysians from all walks of life stepping forward to volunteer at centres around the country. In appreciation of our volunteers, the government has allocated an additional RM200 million to raise the allowance for those working extended hours.

To ensure the success of PICK, the government moved quickly to establish vaccination centres around the nation, converting college campuses and even wedding halls. Within weeks, the number of vaccination centres rose from several dozen to nearly 300. Mega immunisation centres were opened in Klang Valley and neighbouring Negeri Sembilan.

The combination of all these – effective government policies, agile fiscal management, committed civil service and the outstanding volunteerism of Malaysians – made it possible to achieve the excellent vaccination pace.

I deeply regret that the writer ignored such a successful massive government-citizen endeavour in his condemning appraisal that this nation is bordering on dysfunction.

Covid-19 infection rate

While the spike in recent cases is a cause of concern, it needs to be recognised that the Delta-plus is a more aggressive variant than that which we experienced last year. Assessment of data should also take into view that Covid-19 screenings are being conducted more intensively around the country.

With the virus already in society and sporadic cases forming 80% of daily infection numbers, it is arguably so that greater testing will detect higher number of cases.

As it stands, Malaysia’s level of testing is by far higher than its Asean neighbours of Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. At the scale of daily tests per million, this country does easily five to 10 times more testing than our neighbours.

Recently, the health director-general assured us that the rise in cases is still within the ministry’s projections and the impact of this current lockdown should yield results soon whereby we shall see a decline in new cases. Couple this with the revelation by PICK’s coordinating minister Khairy Jamaluddin that data has shown that death and hospitalisation rates will start to reduce when vaccination rates reach between 30% and 40% of the population – a figure we all know now is within reach.

All these shine a light at the end of this lockdown tunnel, that the people’s sacrifice and commitment to MCO 3.0 will not be in vain.

National Recovery Plan

Every nation battling Covid-19 today faces a mix of challenges unique to them and this government has met our own set of challenges with a balanced approach to ensure both lives and livelihoods are protected.

The recently unveiled National Recovery Plan (NRP) with its clear set of indicators was formulated to provide guidance to the people and industry on the way forward.

The finance ministry has been made steward of the NRP, and we seek to ensure agility of the plan by inviting wider participation of experts from various quarters of society. I have been clear from the onset that for the NRP to be a success, it needs to take on a “whole-of-nation” approach.

This government, or any administration for that matter, is not flawless. It is in times of crisis that we finally see the fault lines in policy and structure that were not apparent under normal circumstances.

Towards this end, everyone has a role to play: NGOs, industry and representatives of society. Genuine voices of criticism and feedback are always appreciated above mere condemnation, for there is certainly always room for improvement.

The NRP will take on that inclusive approach to ensure that the country moves in unison through the phases of recovery, gradually opening up economic and social sectors. God willing, national milestones and targets will be met.

Intrigued, as it were, with this failed state notion, I looked up the Index of Fragile States maintained by the US-based think tank Fund for Peace. In a list of 179 countries, Yemen was ranked first while the least fragile state according to the index is Finland, ranked at 179. Malaysia was slotted at 123, at the bottom half of the table where notably other “stable” states are nestled together.

I am sure such indices need to be interpreted within a breadth of context, but regardless, by any decent measure, we can rest assured Malaysia is not on a slippery slope towards failed statehood.

I have said it before and I reiterate: failure is simply not, and never has been, an option for us.

Tengku Zafrul Aziz is the finance minister. This piece first appeared on his LinkedIn page.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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