Monday, August 10

Covering beyond Covid


THE best traits of Malaysians continue to support front-liners in the fight against Covid-19, with diverse individuals and groups working together to become familiar with and source different types of personal protective equipment, distributing foodstuff that provide nutrition and immunity for medical and security staff, and coordinating deliveries so that the maximum number of people can be reached with fewer journeys.

Behind those frontlines, innovative technological solutions have enabled students to continue being educated, life-saving transactions to be conducted, and crisis meetings to be held so that foundations can continue caring for children in their shelters, and distributors of food aid can reach their intended recipients.

Beyond the short-term, however, the right policies are key to ensuring our country’s ability to emerge from the storm. While utmost priority must be on the health and safety of citizens, longer-term survival – let alone prosperity – depends on jobs and consumer confidence.

The intersection of businesses and policymakers is busy at the best of times, but it has been frenetic since the MCO. The government seems to be listening, with policies being adjusted every few days that take into account measures proposed by business leaders, think tanks, and the wider public mood.

Naturally there will still be mishaps. Some of these may be rooted in flawed attitudes and assumptions, such as providing misogynistic advice for women to imitate a 22nd century feline robot. But others will inevitably result from the complexities of urgently dealing with an unprecedented emergency.

One example is on whether Ramadan bazaars will be allowed to operate in Kuala Lumpur, while Negeri Sembilan and Selangor are already clear that there will be no such bazaars. This example also serves to highlight the usefulness of decentralised decision-making as the pros and cons can be weighed according to local conditions and civil society pressures (one petition against has garnered tens of thousands of signatures).

Another example is the over-hasty directive from the Defence Minister requiring NGOs to only distribute food to the homeless and vulnerable through the Welfare Department. A compromise is being reached, but it seems obvious that the experienced (and in the eyes of the recipients, familiar and trustworthy) NGO volunteers would be more efficient at such distribution, even while observing health-protecting measures. Many donors also expressed a concern of potential leakages of supplies, indicating the extent of a lack of confidence.

On the stimulus packages as a whole, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) welcomes the measures that have been announced. As we enter the second phase of the MCO, the government must create a sustainable economic plan that will pave the way to recovery. Three components should be included in this longer term plan.

First is the need to establish an SME Distress Centre to act as a one-stop information and business support platform to process applications for stimulus package programmes. Apart from wages, businesses face liquidity challenges in meeting rental payments and credit terms with suppliers. Special relief measures should be considered to address this, while professional support should be given to businesses facing insolvency to explore funding options.

Second is a clear strategy to bring the economy back to normalcy. With advice from public health authorities and coordination with state governments, geographical areas, industries and supply chains can be gradually reactivated. At the same time, incentives could be provided for businesses to take precautionary measures for employees before they return to work.

Third, longer-term thinking should be embedded into the stimulus measures. For instance, the wage subsidy programme is aimed at the near-term welfare of employees, but further incentives are needed for businesses to enlist employees for re-skilling and digitalisation that will ultimately strengthen the Malaysian economy.

Other institutions will also play important roles: banks have already begun to execute Bank Negara’s measures to help loan and credit card repayments, and we should look closely at just-announced Singaporean legislation to help those unable to perform contractual obligations at this time. There has also been leadership from the private sector – for example, the waiving of rent to business tenants forced to close shop during the MCO – that could be emulated more widely.

And in an example of the free market still at work, when farmers had to discard their produce due to supply chain issues, an e-commerce company stepped in to figure out the technology and logistics to make the produce available to consumers.

Like I wrote last week, there are still some contemptuous individuals out there trying to exploit the situation for their personal benefit, but the inspirational combination of purposeful problem-solving, community solidarity, charity, and responsive policymaking help overcome the continuing backdrop of existential anxiety.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.