Malaysia’s COVID Reckoning

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Picture Credit: Carla Cometto

We were doing so well. Yes, there were some initial blunders: a failure to prevent or manage an Islamic missionary gathering that became a superspreader event, delay in banning mass prayers in mosques. But the government finally got its act together and, in March, implemented a strict lockdown. People were prohibited from travelling outside their districts, from dining in restaurants, from going out unmasked, even from jogging outdoors. It sucked, but most of us understood why it was necessary, and it worked. The coronavirus’ spread was arrested, daily new infections never went above 300, and from July to August often dropped to single digits. The government was praised for its success, and the Director-General of Health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, who spearheaded its efforts, was hailed as a hero.


Then, an irresponsible attempt by the ruling party to wrest control of the opposition-controlled state of Sabah triggered a snap election there in September. During the run-up to the election, politicians and their supporters from across the country converged on Sabah. Mass political rallies were held, and standard operating procedures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were neither widely observed nor enforced, leading to a spike in cases there. After the election, the government failed to quarantine those returning from Sabah, allowing the virus to spread through the rest of the country in a third wave, far larger than the ones that came before.


Since late October, daily new infections have usually exceeded 1,000 and, of late, have sometimes exceeded 2,000, and doctors I’ve spoken to say the government isn’t testing near enough, that the real numbers are almost certainly much higher. For the first time since the virus arrived in Malaysia, I feel a real sense of it closing in. For the first time, people I know personally have been infected, the virus turning up everywhere in Kuala Lumpur, in restaurant districts I frequent, in country clubs I belong to. Infections here have spread well beyond mere “clusters” and into the populace as a whole. The health system is overwhelmed, hospitals are full and aren’t taking new COVID-positive patients: a friend of mine tested positive last week along with around 10 other people after they attended a party – for many days not a single one was admitted, and even now only some of them have been.

Daily new COVID-19 infections in Malaysia, 2020

What’s the government doing about this? Not a lot. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has refused to implement another lockdown, saying the economy cannot bear it. On the contrary, in the past few months, the government has actually eased restrictions, including lifting the ban on interstate travel. Two days ago, Noor Hisham even had the gall to claim that the spread of COVID-19 has been successfully curbed.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has refused to implement another lockdown, saying the economy cannot bear it.

If this is “success,” I shudder to think what failure looks like. Most worrying of all is the attitude of the public. Whether due to trickle-down complacency from the government, pandemic fatigue, or premature optimism over the vaccine, or, most likely, a combination of all three, the Malaysian people are reacting to these increasing infection numbers by becoming increasingly reckless. People are gathering in large groups again. People have told me of their close calls with COVID – how a friend didn’t show up to a gathering last-minute because he’d just tested positive, how they’d left a party just minutes before someone positive showed up – and then proceeded to attend even more social events in subsequent days. Taking advantage of the resumption of interstate travel, Malaysian tourists have flocked to Penang Island for the Christmas holidays. I’m beginning to rethink the notion that Asians are culturally more disciplined about epidemics than Westerners. With New Year’s Eve looming, and Chinese New Year in February after that, things are set to get a whole lot worse.


This complacency on the part of both the Malaysian government and the people is indefensible. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this plague year, it’s that the idea of a tradeoff between public health and the economy is false. Countries, like China, that prioritized public health and implemented strict lockdowns as early as possible are now doing much better economically as life returns to near-normal. By contrast, countries, like the US, who dragged their feet on lockdowns for the sake of the economy, who sacrificed public health for economic growth, have ended up with neither as the rampant spread of the virus cripples whole swathes of the economy.

This complacency on the part of both the Malaysian government and the people is indefensible.

Another thing we’ve learned is that, with COVID, you can get away with having an irresponsible government, or you can get away with having irresponsible citizens, but you can’t get away with both. Countries with governments who didn’t (or couldn’t) implement lockdowns when things got bad, like South Korea and Japan, but whose citizens were responsible and took precautions and social-distanced, were able to control the spread of the virus. Countries whose citizens were not as disciplined, but with governments that took COVID seriously and implemented lockdowns, like Australia, were also able to control it. Countries with both an irresponsible government and irresponsible citizens, like the US and the UK, have seen cases spiral out of control.


Earlier this year, Malaysia had a responsible government and responsible citizens, at least as far as COVID was concerned. Now, it has neither. Unless this changes soon, a reckoning seems imminent.