MySay: Some longer-term lessons

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 4, 2020 - May 10, 2020.
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Over the past two weeks, the press conferences by Ministry of Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah have shifted in tone somewhat, from briefings where Malaysians waited in fear and worry to ones where we now wait with some hope and relief.

It is a great credit to the Malaysian public health system and everyone involved in it, especially the frontliners who are risking their lives every day to save lives. They are all true heroes.

But as the DG himself has said on more than one occasion, the fight is not over and we need to continue being vigilant. Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I am particularly bearish on the impact that the novel coronavirus may have on our economy and, more importantly, our society, and I do worry about repeated multiple waves that may still yet come as we move forward without a workable vaccine. In addition, there is also no guarantee that we will find a vaccine — to this day, there are no vaccines for both SARS and MERS. It really may be that one effective vaccine for this novel coronavirus and the Covid-19 disease is social distancing.

In any case, the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on many of our society’s strengths and, if we are to be honest with ourselves, society’s weaknesses as well. Some of the short- to medium-term impacts have been well documented by many commentators. In my last article for this newspaper, I, too, joined in this “your guess is as good as mine” punditry with respect to changes in social behaviour in the aftermath of this pandemic. But I do think that there are some lessons that we may want to take with us moving forward, particularly for the much longer term. These are things that we may want to consider building on now to be better prepared in the years or even decades to come.

Here, I’d like to discuss four of those lessons. The first is our national strategic resilience. In times like these, one very natural reaction — particularly with regard to restriction of movement — is to ask if there are enough stores of food for everybody. Do we have food security in a crisis? Extending this concern, it isn’t just food that we need in a crisis — it could be anything from ventilators and PPE (personal protective equipment) to medicine and vaccines to backup batteries and whatever else. The point is about true crisis preparedness.

We didn’t run out of food but we did have some problems securing some medical supplies. And, in a crisis, the worry is whether we can continue sourcing those necessities from our regular sources. In a world where, say, Malaysia is the only country in the world facing a particular crisis, international trade is a straightforward solution.

But as we have seen, when the crisis hits a whole bunch of countries all at once, they naturally tend to become more insular, restricting exports of necessities to ensure adequate supply for their own citizens. To be fair, the answer isn’t also to be 100% self-sufficient — it may be totally inefficient and an unwise use of resources. But we do need to think carefully how we ensure strategic sufficiency — increased production is an option, but so are international trade agreements, corporate deals and strategic stockpiling.

The second long-term lesson comes from a natural response that you might be thinking. “But, okay, Nick, how often are we going to have a situation where a whole bunch of countries simultaneously face a crisis?” It’s true — a pandemic such as this is likely a one-in-a-century event though the frequency and severity of it may increase in today’s times because of the ease of travel and also biological warfare. But the real problem with the Covid-19 pandemic is it necessitated lockdowns of various forms. Many countries can face crises simultaneously — financial crises are easy examples — but there are particular scenarios where they face lockdowns on top of those crises as well.

These include wars, future pandemics and, perhaps most concerning of all, the widespread effects of climate change. Floods, earthquakes, droughts — with increasing frequency — can lead to a situation such as what we have now too. We need to ensure that we do a much better job at both preserving our environment and ecology and building climate resilience. Climate change is global or national; even if we behave, other countries, especially much larger ones, might not and we would still face the same dire consequences. We need to be prepared.

The third long-term concern I have is over education. The case that the digital divide exacerbates educational inequalities in our society is well-made. But I have a different concern as well. We know that as automation gears up and machines become even more intelligent, the more rote-based, routine work — whether using brain or brawn — will be displaced far more easily. Thus, we need an education system that trains our students to have stronger critical and people skills.

A digital education where students simply receive instruction, facts and knowledge in front of a screen will not do that. It’s the visual equivalent of making someone just read a book for facts and facts alone. Digital education is part and parcel of a new way of life, but it is also important to craft how it is implemented to ensure that students are able to learn critical thinking and people skills. Human interaction is still crucial for education. Schools are still crucial.

The fourth lesson is the one I am most hopeful about. It is one which always gives me a lot of encouragement every time our country or society faces serious adversity. That lesson is, simply, trust the rakyat. When the chips are down, the best of our society always shines through.

Think of our frontliners. Think of the delivery folks who banded together to provide food for disadvantaged folks in Kuala Lumpur. Think of how entire communities have come together to take care of one another and other communities as well. Every time we face serious problems, Malaysians come through for one another. This is an incredible blessing. The sense of community and belonging and pure generosity is rare. Covid-19 has shown, yet again, that collectively, we can trust each other. We must not squander that trust.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy Division

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