Is Malaysia really on the path to becoming a failed state?

The collective pushback against a recent article making this claim has been very illuminating

Politics in Malaysia has always been noisily adversarial, as was shown when the country’s parliament met for the first time this year on Monday, after a state of emergency was declared in January. MPs talked over each other, the speaker of the lower house received a verbal battering from the opposition, and some observers described the session as ending in chaos when the government refused to allow a full debate on its Covid-19 recovery plan.

While politicians rarely agree on anything, one thing that did unite them earlier this month was a Bloomberg opinion piece. Titled “Malaysia is staggering down the road to failed statehood”, the outrage at the slur on national dignity was felt across the spectrum. It wasn’t just the government fighting back, led by Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz, who wrote a rebuttal that was widely published, including in The Straits Times in neighbouring Singapore.

The sting was perceived by government critics as well, including one analyst who, referring to Bloomberg’s American origins and headquarters, messaged me her irritation: “Did anybody in the West come to the failed state conclusion when the US was in the throes of the pandemic?”

Tengku Zafrul pointed to the signs of Malaysia’s good standing. In June, the ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s had retained Malaysia’s ratings as A3 and A- respectively. “Such ratings are not typical of a ‘failed state’,” he wrote. The vaccination programme has been revved up (close to half a million people per day are getting the jab now) with the country doing “five to 10 times more testing than our neighbours”, he said, going on to praise the “outstanding” volunteers who have been helping out at medical centres.

In the US-based Index of Fragile States, Malaysia is listed in the one-third of least fragile – or most stable – countries. Tengku Zafrul was justified in countering that the Bloomberg writer had ignored Malaysia’s “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".

It is perfectly true that the country has been very badly hit by the pandemic, but Tengku Zafrul was also right to say that “impacted businesses, struggling households and a government working under imperfect political conditions” made up a scenario hardly unique to Malaysia.

Another of the many who reacted to the insult was Dr Hazmi Rusli of Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia. He pointed out that it has been reported that “about 700,000 UK citizens were driven into poverty due to the pandemic” in 2020. “Based on this data, is it fair to conclude that the UK is a failed state?”

Others managed to find some humour in the brouhaha. Referencing a veteran opposition leader who has been making doomsday predictions about Malaysia – including that it was becoming a "failed state" – for as long as anyone can remember, one online commenter wrote: “Oh please tell me Lim Kit Siang is the owner of Bloomberg now.”

What prompted this strange – and offensive – judgement on the country’s health appears to have been that Malaysians who are in dire need of food and money have taken to waving white flags outside their homes. This, the writer thought, was “a shorthand for discontent at the atrophying state and troubled economy”.

It is tragic that many Malaysians have lost jobs and income through the pandemic. It is also the case that the government’s response has been mixed. But few developing countries have the wherewithal or capacity to provide for absolutely everyone in the face of such an unexpected catastrophe. The truly uplifting side to all this is the way that so many Malaysians have been coming forward to help.

Civil society figures such as Dr Hartini Zainudin, the country’s leading child activist, have leveraged their contacts so that those who can afford to send money can buy meals for families who are going hungry. A major web portal, Free Malaysia Today, has a tab for “the White Flag campaign”, which lists individuals and organisations around the country who are providing assistance.

In my own neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur, many cafes have signs indicating times of the day when they will give out free food. Ordinary people are buying sacks of rice, bottles of oil and other essentials that those in hardship can collect from petrol stations. This is a Malaysia to be proud of and a society that is showing resilience and a sense of community in exceedingly trying times.

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After the despair of lockdown, a glimmer of hope is now on the horizon

This all seemed to escape Bloomberg’s columnist, who also bizarrely characterised key infrastructure projects of the last century, such as Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the Petronas Twin Towers, as “boondoggles” that “suggested waste”. Being married to a Malaysian, I may be biased, but the sparkling and spacious international airport is far superior to Singapore’s Changi in my opinion, while the population takes deserved pride in how the stunning Twin Towers have become world-renowned.

The reality is that while many structural weaknesses have been near impossible to address politically for decades, Malaysia has and continues to do well. Like many governments around the world, the current administration has bungled some aspects of the pandemic and performed quite well in others. If Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s target of immunising the whole population by October is reached, that will be a real achievement.

Opposition politicians have been invited to join the government’s new National Recovery Council, which also includes corporate titans such as AirAsia Group chief executive Tony Fernandes and independent figures whose voices will not be silenced, such as Dr Hartini. After the desolations and despair of lockdown, endured particularly harshly by lower socio-economic groups, a glimmer of hope is now on the horizon.

That cautious optimism is justified above all by the actions of a citizenry that has displayed solidarity and compassion under the severest of strains. Malaysia a failed state? Not if its magnificent people have anything to do with it.

Published: July 28th 2021, 5:00 AM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National