JULY 12 — When I came across the (in)famous Bloomberg article being shared all over social media over the past few days, I found it quite ludicrous. Here we go again — a foreign press, carries an opinion piece about how we are headed towards a “failed statehood” and Malaysians, agitated by the government’s actions in attempting to remedy the pandemic, take the first chance they get to jump at this notion.
The result? All week, we were inundated with one proclamation after another that under the current administration Malaysia is now a “failed state.”
I sure hope that the brouhaha caused by this “failed state” assertion is not because some white guy said it, which somehow lends it a ridiculous amount of legitimacy. An assessment which concurs with quite a popular notion to some Malaysians who perceive the West and their ideas and opinions as far more superior to their Malaysian equivalents. This was, after all, an opinion piece and not a data driven and well-sourced article.
Before I begin, this is not an assessment of the government’s handling of the pandemic. It is a response to the unjustified use of a label which the author himself admits as being a “slight exaggeration.”
Firstly, the concept of a “failed state” in itself has been largely criticised on numerous theoretical, normative, empirical and practical grounds. There have been plenty of concerns raised by many about its ambiguity in definition and how it affects the motivations of those using that term. Because of this, the use of the term “failed state” especially by Western policy groups, think tanks and governments are easily politicized and suited for their own needs.
American adventurism in the Middle East come to mind here. Iraq was perceived as a “failed state” by American policymakers which then justified an invasion to — in the words of US President at that time, George Bush — “free the Iraqi people.”
However, lets for argument’s sake appraise the use of that label in the present context using the definition provided by Fund For Peace, an American education and research institution which annually publishes the popular Fragile States Index (renamed from Failed States Index). According to their website, state failure fulfils the following conditions — the loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; an inability to provide reasonable public services; the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.
Has the current government lost physical control of any part of Malaysian territory since the pandemic? No. Instead, control has been further enhanced, evidenced by the ban on interstate travel and a host of other lockdown related measures.
Has the government’s legitimate authority to make collective decisions eroded? The matter of the state of emergency and the Prime Minister’s confidence in the Dewan Rakyat muddies this further. But what is evident here is that despite accusations that the prime minister does not have the adequate support of MPs, he is still currently recognised as the head of government by all Malaysians, including the opposition MPs. He is referred to as “PM” in the media as well as literature on him written by his detractors.
Has the government been unable to provide reasonable public services? No. Public services are operating as per normal. On the healthcare front we are stretched, yes. However, we still have a functioning health system and thanks to the superb work of our frontliners, we are witnessing a surge in our vaccination rates.
Has Malaysia been unable to interact with other states in the international community? An obvious no. Not only are we actively engaged with other countries in vaccine procurement schemes under the COVAX scheme and bilateral agreements, but we have also sent help to other nations which are in much dire situations like Palestine.
Suffice to say that the “failed state” label is an extremely problematic label to use. At the very least, it is applicable to a narrow subset of countries, but even that comes with its own caveats due to the vagueness of the term. At its worst, it is a neo-colonialist diatribe, applied disparagingly to portray non-Western states as “lesser” to their Western counterparts. Its use to characterise Malaysia is nothing short of irresponsible journalism.
We are many things.
We are a nation lumbering under the weight of an administration whose Covid-19 recovery measures have been hit-and-miss thanks to politicians — across the divide, mind you — who have been politicking non-stop amid a global public health crisis. We were leading Covid-19 recovery efforts, but now we have had to redouble efforts. We witnessed a slow start to our vaccination rollout but now it is improving.
We are a nation whose people, fed up with political incompetence, rallied together to help each other at a time of need. We have people who care deeply for the welfare of each other so much so that they go above and beyond to help their fellow Malaysians.
What we are not, is a failed state.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.