How Malaysia Took 50 Years to Prepare for COVID-19

by Sharan Raj

Malaysia is doing extremely well in terms fighting the Covid-19 crisis, but it took 50 years to prepare for this. In 1969, the UMNO-led Alliance Party (Barisan Nasional’s predecessor) lost their 2/3 supermajority in Parliament, thanks to an unexpectedly strong performance by leftist parties. The 1969 election centred on the rising inequality, poverty and miserable working conditions in European-owned mines, estates and factories.

The newly opened Genting Highland casino-resort where elitists flaunt their extraordinary wealth raised the resistance towards the Alliance Party. Malaysia’s inequality peaked in 1969 just before the election. The UMNO-led Alliance Party was hoping to win on racism, but this did not materialize.

The opposing left parties assisted by the Universiti Malaya Students Union (UMSU) put forward a manifesto that included free education, healthcare, minimum wages, nationalization of strategic assets etc. The Alliance Party lost many seats to newcomers like PPP, Gerakan, SUPP, SNAP, USNO, and PESAKA.

The politically motivated May 13 riots were triggered to suspend Parliament. Parliament was only restored after leftist parties were forced into coalition with UMNO-MCA-MIC, forming Barisan Nasional. Subsequently, Tunku Abdul Rahman left and Malaysia shifted from neo-liberal capitalism towards state-welfare socialism.

Tun Abdul Razak would take cue from the Soviets and the People’s Republic of China to launch the New Economic Policy (NEP) and Red Book. Malaysia would also copy the Cuban public healthcare system, for example by implementing rural clinics and Cuban vaccination strategies. Razak set up diplomatic missions to house analysts to learn from socialist nations including China and Cuba in 1974 and 1975.

The NEP made primary education free nationwide for our parents and eradicated adult illiteracy amongst our grandparents. The expansion of Fully Residential Schools (Sekolah Berasrama Penuh – SBP) and the introduction of the MARA Junior Science College (Maktab Rendah Sains Mara- MRSM) allowed rural children to further their education in science. Billions of dollars would be spent in the next 40 years to send Malaysians overseas to train in foreign universities.

The public education system program allowed Malaysia to create tens of thousands of doctors and medical personnel. Today, a majority of Malaysia below age of 60 years have completed secondary education, possessing a great understanding of basic science and rational thought.

Thousands of public healthcare infrastructure projects were implemented, such as polyclinics, dental clinics, rural clinics, nurse training colleges, district hospitals, district health offices and medical research centres (among them the Tun Hussein Onn National Eye Hospital, National Institute for Health Management, and Institut Jantung Negara). Prevention and public hygiene was at the centre of our national health policy. The government employed tens of thousands of public hygiene workers such cleaners, trash collectors and gardeners to keep the environment clean and hygienic.

Today, basic science knowledge has empowered people to break the chain of COVID-19 infection. The compliance rate in Malaysia was over 90% on Day 1 and 97% within 14 days of the Movement Control Order, beating most First World Nations. This success was due to people’s voluntary cooperation, not forced compliance by the police.

The police were powerless and outnumbered in nations with poor education, including the United States when masses refused to stay home These people consumed fake news and conspiracy theories to resist MCO including torching 5G towers. Malaysia would be no different if access to education was treated as a commodity, available only to those with money.

Our public education system trained tens of thousands medical personnel to serve in thousands of public hospitals and clinics. Developed nations without public healthcare resources or which have privatised their healthcare are performing miserably. Malaysia’s centralised public procurement system also allows us to purchase equipment and medicine at lower cost.

The Mahathir-Anwar government privatised public hygiene workers in the mid-1990s into a contract system to force these workers to be under-paid but over-worked. Yet, these ‘invisible’ cleaners relentlessly continue to clean and disinfect our public spaces and schools. It is time for Malaysia to look into the welfare of these ‘invisible’ front-liners.

A string of historical events in the past half a century has prepared our society to face the Covid-19 crisis. If people did not revolt against race politics to vote against the race-based Alliance Party and against neo-liberal capitalism, Malaysia’s fate would be no different than that of the “developed nations”.

Special thanks to all front-liners fighting this war!”

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