The world will never be the same. Not because of the public health impact or economic fallout from Covid-19, but because of the psychological and cultural changes triggered by reflection and recalibration brought about by restrictions on movement around the world.
The last time humanity shared an experience on such a global scale was during the 1969 moon landing, when 600 million people tuned in to watch “a giant leap for humanity.” Earlier, the Apollo astronauts had taken a photo of the earth emerging from the darkness. She is now considered one of the most influential images of all time.
Life Magazine also claimed that Earthrise marked the start of the environmental movement, which unexpectedly connects to the current situation. If it remains to be seen the emblematic image that will mark the pandemic in the annals of history, it is clear that the crisis has shone the spotlight on our relationship to the land and the excesses and vulnerabilities of modern industrial society.
This is a crucial point. Covid-19 is a product of the global economic system. It is not something that has arbitrarily happened to the world. A new virus transmitted to humans from nature, continuing to silently traverse the whole world – this has only happened because of the hypermobile and interconnected economic system that we have created and have become dependent on.
Our relationship with nature must fundamentally change if we are to successfully manage the risk of new pandemics or the extremes associated with climate-related crises. It involves reconfiguring the way we plan our cities and rethinking consumption patterns. It will affect supply chains, business models and employment, to name a few. Foods, in particular, will require careful consideration, including the amount of waste, disposal of unsustainable packaging, industrial farming techniques, and the health impacts of high-meat diets. In short, the new normal requires a new economic model.
Many world leaders are starting to realize that the Covid-19 crisis offers an opportunity to make improvements. In Malaysia, the pandemic has been managed extremely well – a collaborative effort between government, business and the community. There is an opportunity for Malaysia to be a shining light in the region.
However, the marathon effort must go beyond just living with the disease and its impact on the economy. We must move on to the idea of building a new economic model based on trust. Not just confidence in the government and the system, but confidence in the future. Trust the idea that Malaysian society is resilient enough to cope with all kinds of crises, disruptions and uncertainties.
Malaysia’s new economic model must first focus on reopening and engaging local communities in the system. He would then have to move to capture more of the nation’s historical and cultural advantages. Finally, the nation must strongly accelerate investments in technology while simultaneously moving towards a more nature-centered approach to development. With that in mind, the following five key thrusts are proposed to help the nation move beyond the new normal and lay the groundwork for a more prosperous post-pandemic future.
Local economic stimulation
Along with national economic stimulus plans, we need to focus on local economic development initiatives. It should be about generating activity in the neighborhood, in local supply chains, involving local producers and vendors. Investments could include improvements and the transformation of wet public markets into green buildings with stronger links to the local community. Community centers and schools could become centers for retraining and upgrading laid-off workers. State governments could also invest in the cultural economy with a focus on meaningful and educational activities and facilities for locals, which will later serve to attract higher-value tourism.
Investing in trust and inclusiveness
The economy isn’t just about money, it’s about trust. Trust that the person you do business with, work for, or ask for help with is going to give you a fair price, a fair wage, or a fair chance. When the company gets to a point where it can’t be guaranteed, then you start to look like parts of the United States right now. Vulnerable people need a good start to ensure that they are not left behind or left behind. This may require a combination of ‘safety nets’ to protect those in difficulty and ‘cargo nets’ to provide the tools to harness the potential. Empowerment of communities and community leaders should be complemented by participatory budgeting and investments in platforms to learn new skills and build confidence.
Leveraging History and Culture
Malaysia is historically and geographically at a crossroads – at the confluence of the archipelago’s Chinese, Arab, Indian and European trade routes. This heritage permeates and shapes almost every aspect of Malaysian life. The diversity it creates in terms of language, culture and tradition is unique in the world. But the potential of this historical legacy has not been fully exploited economically, perhaps with the exception of tourism.
It has added value in the current environment. Malaysia is a multicultural country with 33 million inhabitants and the ability to linguistically connect with the five billion people who speak English, Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu or Arabic around the world. That’s almost 70% of the world’s population. This untapped potential must be translated into everything from business services to logistics, prototyping and design. At the national level, diversity and intercultural collaborations should be a key driver of new ideas and innovation. Cultural intelligence – the ability not only to work with diversity, but to thrive in it – should be a measure companies aim for.
Invest in digital infrastructure
While Malaysia has strong institutions supporting the digital ecosystem, it lags behind when it comes to infrastructure. There is a need to accelerate the shift to 5G and become a gigabit nation. High-speed and reliable digital networks will open up a series of new opportunities. For example, the country is well positioned geographically, culturally and diplomatically to become a regional hub for high-tech logistics and procurement. Large-scale sorting and repackaging centers, linked to sophisticated delivery and tracking systems, could catapult Malaysia into a highly strategic international partner. Projects like KL Internet City and Digital Free Trade Zone need to be dissected and recalibrated. The country also has the potential to capitalize on its ethnic and linguistic ties to drive, organize and produce online services, from film to education classes. We have the opportunity to inspire culture, art and ideas.
Building resilient cities
Cities will continue to be important in a post-pandemic world, but they will need to be more resilient to cope with and mitigate future shocks and crises. The urban sprawl development model that prevails in Malaysia is no longer financially and economically viable and has never been socially or environmentally. Stagnant property prices and overhang as well as pollution, traffic jams, loss of habitat and traditions indicate that a new path is needed. It should go beyond the primacy of the Klang Valley. Smaller cities can be reconfigured into clusters with complementary functions that allow them to attract businesses, jobs, investment and talent. The natural spaces between them could have additional protection to build resilience. Cities and townships themselves should simultaneously strive to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing their carbon footprint and building features capable of adapting to the likely increase in heat waves and flooding. Streetscapes suitable for pedestrians and cyclists must go hand in hand with landscaping to cool the city and naturally absorb or retain stormwater. Environmentally friendly building techniques must become the norm, and excess unplanned and unwanted development must stop.
Thinking beyond the new normal
Going beyond the new normal doesn’t mean that the drivers of the nation’s past successes – including manufacturing and tourism – should be ignored. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of over-reliance on these sectors and the need to build resilience for the future. We need a fundamental and perhaps systemic change in the way we see, experience and live with nature. The foundations for this change must be laid in the coming months, and new images of an alternative future forged and displayed where possible and possible.
Hamdan Abdul Majeed, former investment banker, is the Managing Director of Think City, a social-purpose organization dedicated to making cities friendly and resilient by being a catalyst for change in the way cities are planned, organized, developed and celebrated. Matt Benson is an Australian geographer specializing in complex systems and human settlements and is Program Director for Think City.