Three factors help us understand why Malaysia has fared much better than America.
First, the public and private sector working in tandem.
Like other robust democracies, such as South Korea and New Zealand, Malaysia began stockpiling supplies for the pandemic in January based on WHO warnings. Private sector co-operation with the public sector was highly effective in these endeavours.
The spirit of “good capitalism”: for-profit enterprise in which wealth creation and social good (in this case, public health) are motivators in how we do business, truly came alive to support Malaysia’s public sector efforts.
To this end, foundations like my own contributed personal protective equipment, test kits, food and medical aid for low-income groups. Likewise, we are pursuing a microfinance program to alleviate the burden of the economic crisis on vulnerable populations. Both of these are examples of the type of “good capitalism” Malaysia has witnessed much of.
In America, however, good governance is replaced by populist bluster. The Trump administration failed to adequately prepare for COVID-19, which sends mixed messaging and imagines the pandemic will disappear by itself. The private sector can pursue “good capitalism,” advancing the welfare of all, but must do so in the face of a chaotic government whose confusion inevitably undermines all social actors.
Second, equality. There are, of course, differences in Malaysian society. But in Malaysia, death rates do not map out over ethnic categories. In the U.S., on the other hand, Black and brown Americans are likelier victims of COVID-19 than white Americans. Indeed, U.S. commentators have described racism as its own kind of public health crisis.
Third, science. In a recent New York Times editorial, Thomas Friedman suggested presidential candidate Joe Biden campaign on a slogan of “respect science.” He only made this suggestion because, in the U.S. today, science is not only widely disrespected, but a matter of partisanship. One’s political affiliation influences what science one believes. Prior to the pandemic, this was unfortunate. During a pandemic, it’s disastrous.
Like many countries, Malaysia took COVID-19 seriously, incorporating expert opinion and guidance from its Health Ministry into its national response. In the spirit of “good capitalism,” companies aided this effort, guided by best medical practices. In the U.S., companies seem unsure of how to respond, their good intentions torpedoed by a muddled government. That turmoil leads to uncertainty with a result that’s painful to see.
Malaysia and the United States had much in common. But one is going up and the other, I fear, is headed elsewhere.