Since arriving in St Andrews, one of the most common questions I am asked as an international student is ‘how was quarantine?’. My answer is simple: I didn’t have to quarantine. This is often followed by confused looks. If I flew from Malaysia, surely I had to quarantine?
Malaysia is certainly not a High-Income Country (HIC), with a median income of roughly £1,204 a month. On top of that, Malaysia struggles with certain developmental aspects such as corruption, high gender inequality rates, and racism. However, with a 33 million population, Malaysia consistently records less than 100 daily new cases of COVID. Furthermore, since the pandemic has begun, there have only been a total of 130 deaths attributed to the virus.
Currently, most media coverage commends Sweden for their response. With a population of 10 million, their daily new COVID cases are usually more than twice the amount of Malaysia’s, and Sweden has had nearly 6,000 deaths. By no means am I condemning their response, but we should take the time to consider the inconsistency in media coverage on Covid-19.
Part of Malaysia’s story:
In my opinion, two main aspects have contributed to Malaysia’s successful response to COVID: tracing and accessible testing.
The idea of track and trace is not new to anyone who currently studies at The University of St Andrews. In Malaysia, it has become a governmental requirement for every shop to use ‘MySejahtera,’ which is the official government track and trace form. However, unlike the one we have to do at university, it is highly convenient. With an app, an ID can be created, so all that is required is to scan the QR code, and the form fills itself up immediately. Though some may be skeptical of the idea of this app due to privacy rights, it does more than track where you’ve been but allows you to see whether anyone who has recently tested positive has been within your area, making the information transparent to the community. Upon doing so, they can choose to self-isolate or do a COVID test. This is particularly effective in ‘breaking the circuit’ as it leaves citizens informed of if they are at risk of encountering someone who has tested positive for COVID.
The other aspect is accessible testing. Though Malaysia offers free healthcare, with an emphasized priority on helping the bottom 40% of income earners (named B40), private healthcare is relatively cheap, available, and encouraged for the top 20% (T20) to help release the burden of costs to provide a more equitable society. Testing is free in Malaysia; however, with ‘drive through testing,’ you can pay roughly £100 to get tested. Malaysia also believes in mass testing and efficiently treating marginalised communities who are at a larger risk of infection, particularly the migrant and refugee community. As of August 6th, the Ministry of Health had conducted tests on 72,736 migrant workers, and care was provided to those who tested positive. Though the health director Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, claims that Malaysia does not discriminate against undocumented migrant workers, it is worth noting that Malaysia has been condemned for their treatment of illegal migrant workers during the pandemic by AlJazeera; however, the information in the video has been criticised for being inaccurate.
These aspects combined were particularly effective in tracking down clusters and efficiently providing treatment to areas most vulnerable, making it easier for the country to combat the virus.
The deeper political meaning
After hearing part of Malaysia’s response to the virus, it would not surprise me if the majority of you would not be in favour of the set restrictions, and some may even classify Malaysia’s approach as ‘draconian.’ However, evidence implies that the majority of Malaysians have been supportive of these approaches. The Health Director of Malaysia, Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, has been highly commended by Malaysians and has been internationally recognized. Dr. Noor Hisham was also recently awarded the title ‘Tan Sri’ which is the 2nd highest title to be given in Malaysia (an equivalent to a Sir in the UK).
I believe that part of the reason many people, particularly in the West, have struggled to commend these efforts is with the strong presence of liberty and individualism as key ideologies in Western culture. Even Boris Johnson has admitted that ‘it is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in a way that is necessary’ because the UK is a ‘freedom-loving country.’ Unlike in the West, Confucianism is a prevalent ideology or system of philosophy in most Asian countries, which supports the belief that humans are inherently good. Thus, there is an emphasis on supporting the government’s role and the belief that the state has moral intentions. This provides trust in the government’s implementation. Malaysians feel that if anything, the track and trace provides them with more freedom, as they can walk freely into a store with a peace of mind that no one with COVID has recently entered the store. Therefore, despite the harsh regulations, the Malaysian community believes in the importance of the short-term struggle for the long-term gain.
Malaysia’s response is by no means perfect, there are areas for criticism, and the Malaysian economy is expected to shrink by 3.1% this year. However, I think we should question the media coverage on COVID-19 more and consider the underlying reasons countries such as Sweden have been deemed ‘successful’ and countries such as Malaysia and Thailand have been swept under the rug.
Here are some videos I recommend watching to understand Malaysia’s situation further:
Editor’s Note: Due to delays between writing and publishing, certain statistics may be slightly outdated. The general message of the article still holds.