COVID-19 Op-ed

An Analysis of Social Assistance in Malaysia During Covid-19

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Rashid AtingResearcher at
Social Wellbeing Research Centre, Faculty of Economics and Administration,
University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. This piece of work strictly represents the
author’s personal view, and has not been written on behalf of any institution
or organization. The author can be reached through his

Amid the outbreak of Covid-19, the Malaysian government under
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has announced two different economic stimulus
packages. The first one is a total of RM250 billion ($57 billion) on March 27th
2020 (ASEAN Briefing, 2020a) and the second is a stimulus package of RM10
billion ($2.3 billion) on April 6th 2020 (ASEAN
Briefing, 2020b). The Prihatin Rakyat Economic Stimulus program (PRIHATIN)
broadly aims to provide social support in the form of cash incentives for
marginalised households (MOF, 2020).

The PRIHATIN was launched with
three main objectives targeting three groups: protect and support citizens,
businesses and the economy (MOF, 2020) to ensure an equilibrium point
achieved between curbing the outbreak and promoting the well-being of
citizens. To realize this vision, protecting citizens should be the priority
and the government cannot act stingily at this time. In the meantime, subsequent
stimulus packages need to crafted as the existing now might be insufficient
for the citizens as articulated by an economist, Muhammad Abdul Khalid on 22
March 2020 (Malaysiakini, 2020). It is also important to ensure that no one
is left behind during the crisis as most of the vulnerable groups come from
informal workers, fishermen, daily paid workers, for instance, those in
poultry, electronics, food processing industries, and small food operators
(Mansor, 2020).Nevertheless, the Malaysian government has come under heavy
scrutiny about its treatment of non-citizens, particularly migrant workers
and refugees. As we know, the government stimulus package only acts as a
short-term cushion to assist migrant workers and refugees. With the extended
movement control order (MCO), which later changed to a conditional movement
control order (CMCO) that has lasted for more than a month, sustaining
livelihoods has become a challenge for everyone, especially non-citizens,
living through Covid-19. In this light, the government is compelled to
provide good care and shelters instead of detaining and accusing them of
spreading the virus.Malaysia is the temporary shelter for around 5.5 million
migrants and 3.3 million undocumented workers, most of whom come from
developing Asian countries such as Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the
Philippines (South China Morning Post, 2020a). These medium and low-skilled
workers constitute around 31.3% (or 7,103,000 workers) of the total labour
workforce in Malaysia (DOSM, 2019). With the large chunk of the economic
stimulus dedicated for the recovery of the health sector and local economy,
only a small portion of this government assistance goes to migrants through a
different avenue.To overcome this, migrants are left to look after each other
with the support of non-government organisations (NGOs) and concerned
individuals. For instance, several human rights NGOs collaborated with the
Welfare Department in providing food aid through a programme called “Our
Journey” (South China Morning Post, 2020b). Some other local NGOs worked with
Nahdlatul Ulama, the large Islamic organization movement
in Indonesia, to assist Indonesian workers living in Kuala Lumpur and
neighbouring states (South China Morning Post, 2020c).However, these efforts
are insufficient, as migrant workers and refugees continue to struggle for
survival every day. In this current situation, they are still unable to work,
thus losing their source of income, and this makes them unable to meet their
daily needs and monthly commitments such as house rent payments and
remittances for their families. As Malaysians, we need to accept the fact
that the economic stimulus package both marginalises and violates the
migrants’ human rights. They are also eligible to receive social support
during this time regardless of their nationalities (CIVICUS, 2020). An issue
of the double standard should be put aside because Malaysia heavily relies
upon their services for certain sectors such as construction and
manufacturing.To conclude, the implementation of the MCO and later the CMCO
has its pros and cons in Malaysia. On one hand, they help to curb the
outbreak from spreading widely around the community, and have now shown some
positive results. Nevertheless, it comes with a price, with the country
suffering an economic downturn in which people and immigrants lose their
source of income (South China Morning Post, 2020d). In the worst-case
scenario, Malaysia will be faced with a recession after suffering the decline
in economic growth from a 2% drop to 3-4% (IMF, 2020; New Straits Times,
2020). This outbreak is projected to continue to spread across the globe. One
study (SUTD, 2020) predicts Malaysia could almost be free from this outbreak
at the end of May 2020 (SUTD, 2020). In order to rebuild Malaysia’s economy,
the role of these migrant workers is imperative to expedite the process. As
Malaysia has been put in a bad light of how we treat migrant workers, in the
long-term, the Malaysian government needs to come up with a better protection
mechanism for the migrant workers and recognize their rights as human


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