THE year 2021 was welcomed by humankind on the smallest scale for any new year’s countdown in generations, judging by images of cities around the world at the stroke of midnight. (It is a personal tradition to watch the London fireworks when I wake up, but this year’s edition was more explosive for its overt political messages than its actual pyrotechnics.)
For some, the need to party – especially at island resorts, although fireworks were heard around Kuala Lumpur too – was based on the reasoning that if we want 2021 to be better than 2020, it needed a suitably energetic start. I can’t fault that optimism, but overall the subdued tone encapsulated the focus and determination expected to be required for months to come. Hardly anyone has asked about new year’s resolutions: we are now conditions to adapt to changing circumstances.
Just as well, because the first fortnight of 2021 has already delivered unprecedented events. One succinct meme declared, “If you thought 2020 was strange, here is day 6 of 2021”, above pictures of the mob that invaded the United States Capitol, many dressed with horns, animal skins, or superhero costumes, lounging in the Senate, taking items ranging from letters to lecterns, and confronting police officers (themselves criticised for adopting a gentle approach against these rioters compared to Black Lives Matter protestors).
Since those scenes of an assault on democracy egged on by a man unable to admit defeat, Donald Trump looks set to become the first President to be twice impeached by the House of Representatives. Declaring a state of emergency for the District of Columbia ahead of riot threats at Joe Biden’s inauguration, it is clear that the boundaries of what is possible in US politics have permanently expanded, even as the country reports over 200,000 cases of Covid, and over 4,000 deaths from it, per day. (Yes, per day. The totals are 23 million cases and 380,000 deaths.)
I start with the US not to make Malaysia look good by comparison, but to highlight that things could get as bad if we make reckless mistakes. A widely-circulated graph of Covid cases makes it abundantly clear that our current 3,000-a-day surge stems from the September Sabah election. This, together with perceptions of politicians’ endless power-grabbing manoeuvres, enrichment through appointments, and abuse of office despite a pandemic, has fed disdain and disgust of politicians.
As more locations were notifying of Covid-positive cases, it became widely known that public health professionals were pushing for a stricter MCO to reduce the basic reproduction number (R0), though the business sector was pushing back against overly restrictive measures that would kill them off, especially in the crucial period before Chinese New Year.
Thus, the Prime Minister’s declaration of the re-augmentation of MCOs on Jan 11 was hardly surprising. Though painful, everyone I spoke to agreed that it was necessary. Malaysians on the whole still trust and respect the advice of the medical community, and understand the urgency of alleviating the burden on our hospitals and front-liners as we await the much-anticipated drive to inoculate the population. At the same time, much sympathy and charity was shown for the victims of floods hitting the peninsular east coast, although such scenes have sadly become all too familiar.
But just as citizens, businesses, and organisations were adjusting routines accordingly, we learnt that an Emergency was declared, with the Covid surge and floods – and extra powers needed to deal with them – being cited as the justification. The use of this constitutional provision, used rarely in our history at a national level in times of conflict, has caused alarm, and further feeds existing suspicions. As per the statement of my colleagues at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), I wonder if these extra powers could be conferred by regular orders and legislation instead. The Prime Minister has given his assurance that the judiciary will continue to operate, and that an independent, bipartisan committee will advise the Yang di-Pertuan Agong when it safe to end the Emergency and hold general elections.
That opportunity for the public to pass judgment safely and peacefully will provide crucial catharsis. I pray it comes soon, lest polarisation, distrust, and anger foment to cause scenes similar to the US Capitol invasion.
Now more than ever we should remember the words of the third Yang di-Pertuan Agong who, upon opening our Parliament Building in 1963, said, “There can be no grander witness than this great structure itself of the ideals and hopes that people of Malaysia share – no finer gesture to the future of the faith and confidence they have in the continuing peace and happiness of Malaysia.”
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.