A recently viral TV interview brought to surface a question that many have pondered upon: Will the Covid-19 crisis in Indonesia become a time bomb to Malaysia?

The short answer to that is yes, Indonesia’s mismanagement of the pandemic will eventually impact Malaysia down the line. The sensationalism of that expression, however, necessitates us to examine closer at how this will be the case.

Nevertheless, such measures, coupled with Indonesia’s abysmal situation, would disproportionately impact some sectors of Malaysian economy and Indonesians in Malaysia.

Let us have a quick look at the situation there. The Joko “Jokowi” Widodo Administration’s misfires have been widely covered, with some projecting it as a potential pandemic epicentre in Southeast Asia. At the time of writing, Indonesia has overtaken Malaysia in terms of highest Covid-19 cases in Southeast Asia with 5,923 positive results and death rate hovering between nine to 10 per cent.

The Indonesian government was in denial of a potential outbreak for too long when it could have fortified its national resilience against the virus. The underperformance of its healthcare system is proven by the rapid spread of the virus, which went from one to 5000 cases in the span of six weeks. In comparison, it took Malaysia around three months to reach that figure.

Some promising steps are taken to rectify the problem, though they are probably too late. Testing has been ramped up with the government aiming to perform 10,000 swab tests daily and operationalising 78 laboratories across the archipelago. Indonesia’s chaotic bureaucracy, however, hampered a smooth distribution of test kits to most affected areas.

A quasi-lockdown measure called “Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar/Large Scale Social Distancing (PSBB)” is also introduced in some hardest-hit zones such as Jakarta. This also suffers problems as companies and the people act in defiance, not to mention that it is only implemented in a handful of areas.

Furthermore, a whopping Rp405 trillion (RM111 billion) of economic stimulus was announced, though only Rp75 trillion (RM20 billion) is allocated for healthcare needs. A huge chunk of the pot goes to social protection and economic recovery, therefore demonstrating the government’s prioritisation of the pandemic’s subsequent instead of immediate impacts, as noted by analysts.

On top of all these, there is also a worrying problem of the mismatch between the central and regional government’s data, which calls into question the foundation of Indonesia’s grand strategy.

With its containment strategy appears to be half-hearted, Indonesia’s recovery timeline would likely be longer than some its neighbours. A projection places Indonesia’s peak somewhere between May and June with cases potentially reaching 95,000. This shows that Indonesia’s health crisis may extend further into 2020 and if this were to manifest, it would create some rippling effects that Indonesia’s closest neighbours, such as Malaysia, cannot escape from.

Let us assume that the current trajectories for both Malaysia and Indonesia are constant for now, with Malaysia’s curve appears somewhat flattening. Even if its situation continues to improve and the movement control order (MCO) is somewhat relaxed, it may still be difficult for Malaysia to open its border to Indonesian workers, students and tourists or to allow Malaysians to travel there. As two-way people movement pattern is curtailed, some socio-economic consequences abound.

Malaysia’s tourism industry, accounting for at least seven per cent of its economy, will be hit. Around 3.2 million Indonesian tourists visited Malaysia in 2018 and the initial objective to increase this number to 4 million in 2020 will certainly be missed. The potential economic loss is expected to be huge, as Indonesian tourists was the third largest contributors to Malaysia’s tourism two years ago (RM2.83 billion), just behind Singapore (RM6.17 billion) and China (RM3.7 billion).

Malaysia’s economic interests in Indonesia are truncated too. Malaysian Airlines and AirAsia are facing potential revenue losses from the normally busy traffic between the two countries. Malaysian business community will also lose confidence to deal businesses there as situation remain murky — some might have closed shops in Indonesia as they try to retain businesses here.

The foreign worker market is especially impacted. Malaysia is a foreign workers-dependent country and, as Bridget Welsh and Calvin Cheng wrote, its post-pandemic economic recovery will rely a lot on these migrants. Thus, a continued ban on Indonesian workers could hamper the absorption of these workers into sectors such as construction, plantation and food and beverages, many of which will need to embark on a recovery path soon.

The quantity of Indonesian workers in Malaysia (possibly numbering more than three million) has dropped over the years and the border closure will not assist in the need to replenish the optimum numbers needed by various economic sectors when recovery period commences. Worse, since the beginning of the MCO, as many as 81,000 Indonesian workers have reportedly departed Malaysia and this exodus trend is unlikely to abate in the immediate future, especially with Ramadhan around the corner.

Zooming closer on these workers, it should be remembered that they did not necessarily return home for brighter prospects — some might have lost their jobs since the implementation of the MCO. Although subjected to screening process upon arrival, they could be exposed to Covid-19 pathogen that may have spread in their respective areas. When Malaysia’s condition improves, these people may not be allowed to go back there and resume their livelihood immediately if the situation in Indonesia remains constant.

Those who elect to remain in Negeri Jiran, workers or students, face a plethora of difficulties. Many will not be able to see their family members until to-and-fro movement is back to normal. Others are subjected to harsh realities brough about by Covid-19, cutting off their meals, lowering lifestyle standard and failing to send money home due to income loss. Logistical assistance has been extended by the Indonesian Embassy, NGOs and the Malaysian Government too, but the problems of job uncertainty and expiration of working permit will continue to loom.

Discrimination is also an issue. Sensational claims such as “Indonesia is a time bomb” feeds into the age-old problem of prejudice towards Indonesians in Malaysia. Examples from other countries demonstrate how the pandemic could lead people to discriminate various concepts — ranging from “ethnicity” (Africans in China) to “religious belief” (Muslims in India) — which are blamed as vectors of the pathogen. Malaysia’s experience in the near future will tell us if “nationality” will be added to that unfortunate list.

The aforementioned socio-economic consequences of the “time bomb” would inadvertently pull in political elements into the dynamic, although how exactly this would unfurl remains to be seen. Politicians are unlikely to manipulate this “time bomb” discourse when both countries are just trying to survive the health and economic crises. If there are negative developments, however, such as Covid-19-related discrimination that lead towards violence or an overextended ban against Indonesians from entering Malaysia, political actors there could exploit this to inflate an anti-Malaysia sentiment as they divert public attention away from ongoing domestic crisis.

The long-intertwined history between the two countries does not allow this pandemic to remain as a domestic problem for each — it will take more than just Covid-19 to suspend the sacred Malaysia-Indonesia bilateral relations. If anything, the virus further underscores the importance of maintaining good communication and cooperation as they both attempt to navigate this crisis. Indeed, expressions such as “Indonesia is a time bomb” only adds further stress to the Malaysia-Indonesia ties, but perhaps all of our bilateral contentions in the past was to prepare us for this greatest challenge in our time.

This article was first appeared on Malay Mail on 18 April 2020

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