New polls reveal Malaysian sentiment on the coronavirus outbreak and their government’s response

by Dr Lau Kong Cheen

Prior to the aggressive rise of the Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia, the country was experiencing a political storm. Many were distracted by the uncertainty in the swing of political power. With a new government installed, the administration would not have anticipated a bigger storm coming their way, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Recent research with solid sampling rigour was conducted by Central Force. It covered 755 respondents across different segments of the socio-economic spectrum in Malaysia to assess their sentiments and attitude towards coping with the pandemic.

Attitudes towards the pandemic

In the initial stage of the pandemic in March, almost half of all Malaysians believed that the danger of the pandemic was exaggerated. Such scepticism was even stronger relative to other societies, particularly USA and Germany who were also rather sceptical on the pandemic. Closely related to this finding is that 1 out of 3 Malaysians were not concerned that they or their loved ones would catch the virus. This is quite high relative to neighbouring countries such as Indonesia (9%), Thailand (22%) and Philippines (16%).

Diving deeper, the study showed that most of those who believed that the pandemic was exaggerated were those who lived in rural areas or villages. One of the reasons is these people were less informed or not well educated to understand the dangers lurking. Generating awareness and education is crucial in combating such pandemics. Both the government and society played an important role to elevate awareness. One interesting social initiative that has triggered huge impact is the #Kitajagakita (we look out for one another) initiative which rallied Malaysians to spread awareness and to support the less capable to take care of themselves during the pandemic. Because of this, the attitudes of more Malaysians changed. This showed itself in the study as 9 per cent more people believed the pandemic had become a threat.

With the new government in place, some would have doubted their ability to manage and manoeuvre through this unprecedented crisis. Surprisingly, the findings of the study exhibited that the Malaysian government received resounding support from the citizens. Those who were interviewed believed that the government was really handling the situation well.  Despite some initial setbacks with the early stages of the Movement Control Order (MCO) being implemented, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Compared to March, the confidence towards the government in handling the crisis has risen by another 14 per cent to 92 per cent.

This could be attributed to two factors. First, the reported figures which showed that the rate of Covid-19 virus patients being discharged improving while the reported cases started to drop. Second, it could be a drastic intervention by the government to allocate USD57.3 billion in funding to provide aid and to assist both the industry and society through this crisis.

Impact of Covid-19 to the lives of Malaysians

Two critical impact of the pandemic crisis to Malaysians concerns their jobs and income.

About 51% Malaysians who participated in the study mentioned that that they have to temporarily stop working as many businesses were forced to stop their operations to comply with the MCO.

This is very close to the Philippines where 55 per cent of those interviewed suffered the same fate. Apart from this, 58 per cent of Malaysians interviewed stated that they lost a serious part of their income.

About 40 per cent of them expressed that they probably had to compensate for their loss of income by taking on part-time jobs.  Relative to other neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Philippines, Malaysia has the most amount of people taking up part-time work. This figure reflected is not too far off the findings from a study by Zurich insurance in early 2020, where it was reported that 38 per cent of Malaysians were already keen to join the gig economy to either supplement their current salary or as a new career altogether. Fortunately, the rise in demand for food delivery as a result of the MCO has given opportunities to many to take up part-time employment with companies like Lalamove, Foodpanda and Grab.

Given the challenges of the pandemic, the majority of the respondents, 81 per cent, felt that they are willing to sacrifice some of their human rights to help prevent the spread of the virus.

In a similar vein, about 43 per cent goes to the extent to agree that “democracy is not effective in such a crisis.”

This may suggest that they would agree to swift and strong measures by the authorities to clamp down the spread of the Covid-19 virus even if they had to deal with various restrictions that will inhibit the kind of freedom and lifestyle which they had enjoyed pre-Covid-19 pandemic. Many Malaysians would have accepted the decision by the government for the MCO extension to mid-May without much outcry and defiance.

Future outlook

Unlike some developed countries like USA and Germany, higher proportions of Malaysians seem to be ready to face a different world when the storm is over. 67 per cent felt that they will expect major changes to follow and will experience a different environment that differs from the pre-crisis era. This mind-set is rather consistent regardless of their age or where they reside (urban or village).

Dr Lau Kong Cheen is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing Programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

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