Governments around the world have had to scramble to find ways to manage an unprecedented crisis with varying levels of success. While Malaysia has done well compared to its peers, do we have the institutional capacity to manage present and future crises to come?

The scale and pace of how COVID- 19 has evolved from a localised public health crisis into a full-blown global pandemic has caused major reverberations and even upheavals throughout the world. The situation has clearly outpaced the 2003 SARS outbreak, leaving governments scrambling to save lives, economies and struggling healthcare systems.

Judging from their reactions so far, it is fair to say that many policymakers did not expect such a quick deterioration of conditions from an outbreak that only four months ago seemed well contained in Wuhan specifically and China broadly.

Various measures have been taken globally to “flatten the curve” of exponential transmission rates so as to not overwhelm healthcare systems. These range across stay- home notices, partial lockdowns and outright travel bans.

Malaysia’s initial two-week Movement Control Order (MCO), which began on 18 March 2020, restricted interstate and international travels; it has since been extended until 14 April 2020 following continued increase in cases.

While full credit should go to our first responders and frontliners – from both the public and private sectors – we need to reflect upon our institutional capacity to manage current and future crises.

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

Can we handle this crisis and the next one? The current crisis has certainly 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 relatively successfully implemented and the RM250 billion stimulus package was well-received.

As a whole, it seems that Malaysia has done better in managing this pandemic compared to some more developed Western countries. However, as many countries are struggling to best manage 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 proactive 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 stagnating at a crossroads for numerous years, where solid economic growth has not led to concurrent growth in the nation’s technological and institutional capacities. Perhaps this global pandemic will force us to recognise and make the changes necessary, especially in institutional reforms.

Let us be clear, however, as important as institutional reform is, it is also an overused phrase – often employed without meaningful appreciation for the exact type of reforms to be undertaken. We end up engaging in repetitive surface level discourse without doing more to broaden and deepen institutional capacities. As this pandemic is likely to continue dominating the headlines in the weeks and perhaps months to come, the government must prepare its institutions and the civil service to deal with continued and long- term disruptions. 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 institutions think, plan and act.

As Malaysia practices a parliamentary democracy, elected politicians play a role in lending legitimacy and accountability to the decision-making processes of the executive. However, we cannot rely solely on politicians, who are usually measured by their ability, to be elected and re-elected. This needs to be balanced with institutions – led by competent technocrats – that craft policies based on scientific and empirical evidence.

Given how COVID-19 has played out following the political crisis that led to the formation of the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition, there is a heightened perception that experts should lead the way in these uncertain times because a government is more than just its political leaders. Despite what some may have thought, the peaceful transition of power in the government has become an accepted norm.

The next steps in reform that must take place need to be less political and focus instead on competence. The broad thinking and policies that guide strategic issues, 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 times.

Malaysia used to excel in this through its five-year Malaysia Plans, Vision 2020 and Multimedia Super Corridor. However, countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan 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 projections to decision-makers for informed policy planning.

Future studies is not the same as gazing into a crystal ball. It is based on empirical methods studying various emerging trends to gain insights on potential and probable futures that lie ahead. There is a need for a similar setup within our own government, which will better prepare us for the possibilities to take advantage of and build resilience against different risks.

For example, it may have allowed the government to take heed of the warnings of scientists that had tracked the “re-emergence 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 policymaking 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 quickly and easily 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”, as stated by the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) in its website. In simpler terms, it means collaborating together to act as a whole entity instead of separated silos to resolve policy issues.

For example, in this current COVID-19 crisis, the Ministry of Health has to work in tandem – through deeply integrated policy processes – with the law enforcement under the Ministry of Home Affairs, as well as with other relevant portfolios, such as defence, and communications and multimedia.

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 from different domains.

It also needs a clear reporting structure and culture to support error reporting and the identification of potential issues – delivering feedback that is 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.

“In the face of a global pandemic, it has become imperative to ask ourselves: What is the role of government and institutions today and tomorrow?”

More questions will be askedof the government, for instance, whether the rules of today will become our new normal, whether technology will be utilised for mass testing or if the technology developed could be an invasion of privacy. These issues need to be on the mind of our policymakers and 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 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 article first appeared in Malay Mail on 29 March 2020

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