Contradictheory: Let's not get back to normal

A United Nations study that interviewed 500 families in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur revealed that a quarter of the heads of households were unemployed and a third had had their working hours cut – yet more than half were not covered by government social protection schemes. — Filepic/The Star

“America is back”. That’s what US President-elect Joe Biden is telling the world now, and for many outside the United States, it’s a welcome message. It’s a sign of things getting back to “normal” now that the controversial and divisive Donald Trump has been defeated.

Of course, in the last few years, whenever politics in Malaysia got bad, at the very least I could point across to the Trump administration and say, “At least we’re not that bad”.

But on the whole, things are looking up now because if it’s true that “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold”, then imagine a sneeze made up of a Covid-19-triggered economic downturn, trade sanctions, and a president who thinks the more exclamation marks you use, the better the message is.

And with great power comes the thirst for even more. Take, for example, the courts. The Trump administration tried so hard, so very hard, to stack the judiciary in its favour. The Republicans blocked Merrick Garland, former Democrat President Barack Obama’s supreme court nominee in 2016 (because it was during a presidential election year) while pushing through Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 (during a presidential election year).

In fact, Republicans under Obama blocked or denied so many judicial nominations at so many levels that by the time Trump took power four years ago, there were more than 100 circuit and district court judge vacancies to fill. Naturally there was concern that Republican-leaning judges would rule in Trump’s favour when it came to critical judgements – including in lawsuits following this year’s election.

And there have been many. Lawyers representing Trump and the Republican party filed over 30 lawsuits contesting the election results. However, the vast majority of them have been denied, some with judgements so scathing they fall just short of “Why are you wasting the court’s time?” One of the more widely reported judgements was by Judge Matthew W. Brann, who described a claim by Trump campaign lawyers as a “Frankenstein’s monster” that had been “haphazardly stitched together”.

It should be noted that Judge Brann, although appointed by Obama, has been described as a “long-time conservative Republi-can”. This seemingly incongruous pairing is unusual enough that it provoked much discussion and analysis – and shows how partisan the courts in the United States are perceived to be.

Yet, despite all this, the reality is that judges that were appointed on their merits made rulings based on merits. The fear that a presidential candidate that lost by more than six million votes would “steal” the election has now dissipated, largely thanks to the integrity of the institutions involved.

On the other hand, it can feel like the institutions in Britain are barely holding together, at least when it comes to providing for the nation’s children. In October, the British Parliament voted down a scheme to extend a free meal programme for disadvantaged children over the school holidays. Among those disappointed by this result was Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who had successfully campaigned in June for a similar extension over the six-week summer holidays.

Rashford began campaigning again, and within a week, his petition garnered a million signatures. Inspired by this, thousands of restaurants and local businesses pledged to offer free meals to support struggling families. By early November, the government had U-turned on the issue. Prime Minister Boris Johnson phoned Rashford to inform him that the government made funds available to support the scheme.

Although you may correctly laud Rashford for his initiative, the concern I have is that the institutions that are supposed to care for the poorer segments of society (especially the children) have not been doing their duty adequately.

In fact, many segments of the British government are under intense pressure. A confidential Cabinet Office briefing has warned of the likelihood of a “systemic economic crisis” in Britain due to the confluence of Covid-19, Brexit (Britain’s exit from the European Union), and the perennial winter flu season.

There will be issues with food supplies, which will raise prices of fresh produce, pushing low-income groups towards food insecurity. Healthcare capacity is already limited by the pandemic, and, depending on how Brexit goes, there may be inflation that will increase the cost of living, which “may lead to provider failure”. Everyone knew that Brexit would mean a revamp of the government and its services, but to do so while under such pressure is, to put it mildly, challenging.

Long-term effects of these times haven’t been discussed much in Malaysia. A United Nations study that interviewed 500 families in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur revealed that a quarter of the heads of households were unemployed and a third had had their working hours cut – yet more than half were not covered by government social protection schemes.

But so far, I feel that talk of navigating this crisis in Malaysia has been limited to one-off schemes, like the government’s stimulus packages, when we should be discussing what role our institutions should play in the next few years. How does this road to recovery differ from the path we had been on in pre-pandemic times?

Well, Parliament is clearly one of those institutions involved in the decision-making process, and while I really want to write about the rationale behind some of the budget allocations, the truth is that a lot of the debate of what can be done is being overshadowed by talk of “standing orders”, “tactical voting” and “phantom votes” – arguably none of which directly serve the rakyat.

With the promise of vaccination, I am sure the hope is that next year is the one in which we can proclaim, “Malaysia is back”. But I don’t think we should be satisfied that we’re back to what we had before. We should be back with something better.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Covid-19 , Trump , Biden , poverty


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