Malaysia seems to have taken a “cursed” path in that whenever everything generally looks all right, the politicking of politicians always has a way of dragging the country down into the abyss, and the pattern is repeated every now and then.
In February last year, at the peak of the victory against the war on Covid-19 when there were nil daily infections for 12 consecutive days, the politicians at the same time went on a rampage by creating a political crisis that resulted in a change in government, along with the emergence of the second wave of Covid-19 a few days later. It took three months for it to be manageable with the introduction of the recovery movement control order (RMCO) in June.
Again, while things seemed to be rosy in early September when daily infections were brought down to a one- and two-digit level (the threshold getting higher from 0 infections), a power play among politicians resulted in a snap state election in Sabah – the cause of the emergence of the third wave of infections which still bedevils the country today with a four-digit daily infection figure and cumulative infections breaching the 100,000 mark at the end of December.
And as the New Year was ushered in with things in general looking good, apart from a record-high 2,525 daily infections of Covid-19 and the compensation Malaysia has to pay Singapore for the cancellation of the High-Speed Rail (HSR) project – both on New Year’s Eve – the politicians are at it again, which may just unravel the good things to come in 2021.
In the first place, there was already the positive carryover effect on the economy with the passage of Budget 2021 in December and the announcement on the availability of Covid-19 vaccine in February.
On Jan 4, there was a troika-load of more good news. First, the ringgit opened on a firm note on the first trading day of 2021, trading higher against other major currencies and leading the regional charge against the US dollar on vaccine optimism by breaching RM4 against the greenback for the first time since June 2018.
It was quoted at RM3.995 against the US dollar compared with last Thursday’s close at 4.0200/0250. It was as if the ringgit also gave its blessing for the cancellation of the HSR project, despite the compensation that needs to be paid.
According to Axi chief global market strategist Stephen Innes, the market continued to build in boatloads of optimism about a global growth recovery in 2021 and an accompanying downward trajectory for the US dollar as the primary consensus view.
That optimism hinges on the projected impact of the widespread Covid-19 vaccine distribution which will provide the ultimate economic kick-start, offering a massive booster shot to corporate profits.
Then came the news on improved indicators showing recovery in Malaysia’s manufacturing sector despite difficult conditions when the headline IHS Markit’s Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for December rose to a four-month high, pointing to stability.
IHS Markit chief business economist Chris Williamson said: “Encouragingly, job losses have eased and manufacturers remain optimistic on balance that output will continue to recover in 2021, led by the rollout of vaccines helping to restore trading to more normal conditions.”
The IHS Markit survey also found that Malaysian producers signalled a broad stabilisation in employment levels, in preparation for the requirement of additional capacity in relation to future orders which pushed the survey’s employment index to the highest in nine months in December.
Consequently, the requirements of additional staff reflected pressure building on operating capacity, as backlogs of work fell to the lowest extent since June.
Finally, the third troika of good news was when Bernama reported that investment bank Credit Suisse projected Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) to grow at 6% this year, ranking second-highest in Asean after the Philippines.
Its Asean securities research co-head and Malaysia research head Danny Goh attributed this optimistic projection to private consumption, which accounts for 58% of GDP and is the single-biggest contributor.
“We believe that as long as the government implements the 2021 Budget measures, such as cash handouts and initiatives to reduce the unemployment rate, private consumption should rebound, barring further lockdowns,” he added.
However, the key risks that could derail the pace of an expected V-shaped recovery in 2021 are political instability, execution of the proposed budget for 2021, and failure to contain Covid-19 outbreaks.
There you go, political instability emerges again as the number one risk. Just over the New Year weekend, there was a war of words between Umno and Bersatu, started by Umno Youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki who accused Bersatu of “stealing and buying” off its members based on the many complaints and concerns about it from among Umno members and grassroots leaders nationwide.
This led to a rejoinder from Bersatu information chief, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who denied the accusation and asserted that the latter’s allegations were not backed by evidence.
What’s interesting about these two characters is that their war of words was done through Facebook when matters such as this are best brought to and resolved through the mechanism of Perikatan Nasional’s presidential council.
A recent event in politics where allegations were made without being backed up with evidence was the recent US election where President Donald Trump’s allegation of massive fraud without any solid evidence almost paralysed democracy there.
From such a trivial and childish war of words, it escalated into an existential issue when the Umno leadership saw Bersatu for all intents and purposes as out to destroy Umno.
And yet, both parties are members of the Perikatan Nasional government.
This culminated in a clarion call by Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for all Umno MPs to leave the PN coalition, which could lead to a snap election, although Umno later denied its president making such a statement.
The present political drama is reminiscent of last February’s political crisis. Back then it was politicking within Pakatan Harapan that led to its downfall. Now, it is the politicking within PN whose ending has yet to be ascertained.
Back then, as the drama unfolded, the opposition politicians including those from Umno stood quietly and opportunistically on the sidelines until the demise of the PH government was confirmed, whereby they joined the winning party for a feast; now it seems the opposition PH is also standing quietly on the sidelines – but whether they’ll join the winning party in a feast is yet to be determined.
Unlike back then, when a dark horse was triumphant, this time around many will surely think it is opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim who will be the victorious white horse. But is this so? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, it is the people who will suffer just like they suffered back then during the second wave of the Covid attack, and then the third wave of infections which were all the outcome of the politicians’ Game of Thrones.
Will the third wave of Covid-19 morph into a more deadly fourth wave because a snap election is going to be held amid a four-digit daily infection pandemic? Will the economy collapse because this never-ending politicking affects the fundamentals of the economy and may result in investors voting with their feet and moving out of the country to cut their losses?
Or will sanity prevail among the politicians, seeing that floods and the pandemic are all over the country, and will they finally agree to let the present government continue in peace to focus on the fight against Covid-19 and the recovery of the economy, and then pick up their battle again once all these challenges are overcome? Again, only time will tell.
Jamari Mohtar is Director of Media & Communications at independent think tank Emir Research.An independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.