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Malaysian strains put leader to test

By PRIME SARMIENTO in Hong Kong | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2020-03-20 09:59

A woman wearing a protective mask walks past empty shelves at a supermarket, following the outbreak of coronavirus, in Kuala Lumpur, March 16, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

Pandemic adds to pressures on new premier struggling to impose stability

A new government that came to power amid political upheaval in Malaysia has been dealt fresh challenges with the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

Analysts said Muhyiddin Yassin, who was sworn in on March 1 as prime minister, has been busy enough dealing with the bickering and varied demands of the members of the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition. But he took office just as the virus outbreak was straining Malaysia's public health system and threatening its economic growth.

The World Health Organization said that Malaysia has for weeks had the most cases of the virus in Southeast Asia. To stem the rise, Muhyiddin locked down the whole country. Mass gatherings were banned, classes canceled and government and private-sector offices shuttered, along with houses of worship. The country's borders have been closed, which also prevents people leaving.

Bridget Welsh, honorary research fellow with the University of Nottingham Malaysia's Asia Research Institute, said Muhyiddin's response to the COVID-19 outbreak is "a test of governance".

"The challenge is how the new (coalition government) would manage the outbreak," Welsh said.

Azmil Mohd Tayeb, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in the northwest state of Penang, said an unabated rise in cases might severely damage investors' perceptions of Malaysia.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies, stressed the importance of political stability in managing the outbreak.

"Political stability has become even more important because of the COVID-19 outbreak that has caused Malaysia to go into lockdown mode," Izzuddin said.

He said the outbreak has caused great anxiety, hence the need for strong political leadership that can keep Malaysians safe amid the pandemic.

Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah appointed Muhyiddin as the country's eighth premier a week after the surprise resignation of Mahathir Mohamad.

A slower economy will further hurt the bottom 40 percent of Malaysia's population of nearly 30 million that have to get by on less than $686 a month.

Welsh said the Muhyiddin-led government's "main task is to put aside their differences to solve the problems that Malaysia is facing".

She said Malaysia would be hard pressed to earn revenues amid the pandemic that is battering the global economy and pushing down crude oil prices.

Malaysia is a net exporter of oil. By Tuesday, crude had slumped to a four-year low of $28 a barrel as the impact of the pandemic hit demand.

"Where will the growth come from? Malaysia is vulnerable to external conditions," Welsh said, adding that Malaysia's manufacturing tourism sectors are dependent on the global economy.

Tayeb said the political uncertainty might also dampen investor interest, further pressuring economic growth.

Analysts pointed to Muhyiddin's Cabinet, which he introduced on March 9, as being dominated by Malay Muslims-the majority group in a multiethnic society.

Welsh said the Cabinet makeup could create a perception of exclusion among ethnic minorities.

Izzuddin said that, aside from the lack of diversity in the Cabinet, the key issue is whether Muhyiddin and his team can deliver services and implement policies that will improve the livelihoods of Malaysians and keep them safe.

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