Preparing for new normals and crises in the age of Covid-19

Ryan Chua
Ryan Chua

MARCH 29 — The world has been shocked by how the Covid-19 outbreak has turned into a full-scale pandemic. Its scale, not seen since the 2003 SARS outbreak, has left governments scrambling to save lives and economies, where they never thought a downturn would come from a public health crisis.

Various measures have been taken globally to “flatten the curve” of exponential transmission rates so as to not overwhelm healthcare systems. 

These measures range from stay home notices, to partial lockdowns and outright travel bans. 

Malaysia’s initial two-week movement control order (MCO) began on March 18, 2020, which restricted interstate and international travels and has since been extended until April 14, 2020 following a continued increase in cases.

While full praise and support should go to our first responders and frontliners in healthcare and law enforcement, we need to reflect upon our institutional capacity to manage current and any future crises. 

We have reached an inflection point, where disruptions due to Covid-19 threaten to become our new normals.

Can we handle this crisis, and the next one?

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the best our institutions have to offer, namely the tremendous efforts of our Ministry of Health. 

Albeit some hiccups at the start, the MCO has been successfully implemented and the RM250 billion stimulus package was well-received. 

As a whole, Malaysia has done better in managing this pandemic compared to its Western counterparts.

As many countries have struggled to prepare for a crisis of this scale, Malaysia is no different. 

Actions thus far have been largely reactive to the issues as they come. 

The discovery of the Sri Petaling tabligh cluster in early March is one such instance — where the scope of government action only broadened after case numbers spiked even though we received our first Covid-19 case in late January. 

From a macro perspective, Malaysia has been standing at a crossroads for numerous years, where economic growth has not led to further growth in the nation’s technological and institutional capacities, additionally hampered by race-based politics. 

Perhaps now, a global pandemic will force it to radically change through deeper institutional reforms.

However, institutional reform has been an overused phrase — often employed without meaningful appreciation for the exact type of reforms to be undertaken. 

We end up engaging in surface-level discourse without doing more to broaden and deepen institutional capacities.

As the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to continue dominating the newsflow in the weeks to come, the government must prepare its institutions and the civil service to deal with more disruptions to come. 

We must ensure that our institutions are resilient and adaptive enough to handle current and emerging crises. 

Hence, there needs to be an overhaul in how an institution should think and act.

Preparing for the next big thing

As Malaysia practises a parliamentary democracy, politicians play a role in lending legitimacy and accountability to the decision-making processes of the executive. 

However, we cannot solely rely on politicians who are usually measured by their electability. 

This needs to be balanced with institutions led by competent technocrats who craft policies based on scientific and empirical evidence. 

Given the way the Covid-19 response has played out following the political crisis that led to the formation of the Perikatan Nasional government, there is a heightened perception that experts should lead the way in these uncertain times, because a government is more than just its politicians.

Changes in government and political masters have become an acceptable norm. 

The next step of reforms that must take place is to be less political and build on competence instead. 

Therefore, strategic matters such as public health and internal security ought to outlast political cycles that typically run for four to five years. 

Institutional capacity must be enhanced to ensure that policies are being developed in view of the long-term instead of the sensational; to be proactive rather than reactive; to adapt to new needs of the time.

Malaysia used to excel in this regard through our five-year Malaysia Plans, Vision 2020 and the Multimedia Super Corridor. 

However, countries such as China, South Korea and Singapore have leapfrogged us through greater advancements in technology and competence. 

For example, Singapore utilises future studies through the Centre for Strategic Futures within their Prime Minister’s Office to build capacities, develop insights into emerging trends, and communicate insights to decision makers for informed policy planning.

Future studies is not the same as gazing into a crystal ball. There is importance in such a set-up within the government, prompting the government to prepare for possibilities and build resilience against different risks. 

For example, it may have allowed the government to take heed of the warnings of scientists who had tracked the “reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories“ way back in 2007.

Future studies has the potential to encourage technocracy and technology as central tenets of policy making and governance. 

It highlights the need for better predictive capabilities to enable our institutions to foresee trends and draw up evidence-based plans in time for the next big thing to come, be they pandemics or new technologies.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted how the issue, at its core a public health issue, can overlap with internal security and law enforcement. 

This further underscores the need for a Whole-of-Government approach to ensure that “government agencies [work] together across borders to share the organisation’s portfolio of actions to resolve specific issues.” 

Crucially, it is not about the individual priorities of separate ministries and agencies, but the collective mission of serving the people’s best interests and catalysing holistic sustainable development.

This requires a clear hierarchy for decision making balanced with appropriate flexibility and interlinkages between different domains. 

It also needs a clear reporting structure and culture to support error reporting and the identification of potential issues, delivering feedback needed at all levels to make informed decisions especially in times of crisis.

Altogether, institutions across the board need to walk the government’s talk to build a systematic approach to address risks and threats to the nation. 

The old ways of working in silos are no longer tenable. Public health issues must now also be framed as a security issue for consideration, as is food security and climate change. 

Rethinking the role of government and institutions

In the age of Covid-19, it has become imperative to ask ourselves, “what is the role of government and institutions today and tomorrow?” 

More questions will be asked of the government, inter alia whether the rules of today will become our new normal, whether technology will be utilised for mass testing or if that could be an invasion of privacy.

These issues need to be on the minds of our institutions where ultimately, it is not about what institutions do, but rather, the impact they have on the people. 

The rakyat rely on institutions to guard against new hazards and to provide opportunities for prosperity. 

Therefore, it is high time to reinvent the wheel of government that better reflects the needs and trends of the present and future times.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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