On the evening of Monday 16th March 2020, the Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced measures, in response to the novel coronavirus crisis sweeping the world, that were widely reported as putting the country into lockdown.

I’m not sure that’s really quite the right term. Essentially all they are really doing is formalising (or enforcing even, if you like) much-needed social distancing. But lockdown is the word being used. The steps broadly amounted to two weeks of:

  • Preventing large public gatherings;
  • Shuttering non-critical places of work;
  • Closing schools, colleges and universities;
  • Blocking international travel.

I think on balance this is a sensible and measured response. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.

On the same day as this announcement, it was also reported that Malaysia’s number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases has risen to 553, up 125 from the day before. Over the weekend, the number had in turn jumped by 190, all believed to have arisen from a single large gathering on Friday 13th March. These increases meant Malaysia’s numbers were pretty accurately following the predicted pattern of doubling every three days. Left unchecked, this exponential growth would be expected to result in 800 cases by Wednesday (when the lockdown takes effect – so we will likely still reach that number), 1600 on Saturday, 3200 next Tuesday, 6400 next Friday, and so on, up to well over a million by the middle of April. And that’s just the reported cases. Globally, the total cases is generally thought to be anything from ten to fifty times higher. Malaysia’s population is around 30 million.

Social distancing was desperately needed, and evidently the government decided this couldn’t be left to the public to do on their own voluntarily. That’s perhaps not surprising, particularly given that (as even the most casual observer may notice) many Malaysians are not in the habit of practicing good personal hygiene – while certainly not unique to Malaysia, spitting in the street, coughing forwards into thin air, and not washing hands properly or even at all, are all widespread behaviours here. Whether that will change remains to be seen – old habits die hard and I’m not sure the message of why they need to change is getting through; but at least for a while they’ll mostly now happen in private. 

What the measures mean in practice is that, for starters, no-one’s getting in or out of Malaysia. Well, that’s not quite true – there will be Malaysians coming back and foreigners getting out, but essentially Malaysians are not allowed to leave, and foreign visitors and tourists are not allowed to enter. Foreign holders of work, residency, or social visit passes are a bit of a grey area – one would hope they’ll be treated in the same way as Malaysians coming in and foreigners going out. But note that anyone arriving will be expected immediately to spend two weeks in self-quarantine.

Within the country, all but essential shops – supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores and the like – are closed. Similarly restaurants, bars, clubs and similar venues are all shuttered. Food deliveries are apparently permitted though, so hopefully that might help some restaurants stay in business.

Large events, conferences, religious gatherings, and such like are suspended. Mosques, churches etc are closed. Friday prayers are off.

Business premises are closed, unless they are deemed critical infrastructure or essential services. Utilities, transport, food and healthcare supplies, and the like. 

Not sure which side of the fence hairdressing, beauty salons and massage parlours etc come down on. I dare say we should take heed of the story of the Golgafrincham Ark Fleet Ship B (and the eventual fate of the remaining Golgafrinchans arising from the absence of telephone sanitisers) in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy…

I suspect the big winners here will be GrabFood and Netflix…

But the ‘lockdown’ does not mean you’re confined to home and can’t go out at all. You’ll still need to go shopping for food and essentials, and will be able to, though perhaps many will now choose delivery instead. I see nothing to say you’re not allowed to visit friends and family (though not for large social gatherings, and we should probably all reduce social contact as possible; definitely no hand-shakes, hugging or kissing). And of course if you’re employed in one of the businesses allowed to stay open, you’ll still need to go to work. Just take sensible precautions and practice good hygiene. But obviously do isolate yourself if you know or suspect you’re coming down with the virus. 

So it’s not really a  strict lockdown. More of a plea to be a good citizen and do the right thing – basically, keep your distance. 

And wash your hands. Carry hand sanitizer. Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your inner elbow. And stop spitting. (And get a haircut! Wear a tie! Get a proper job! You’ll never amount to anything dressed like that! Oh wait, sorry. Bit of a flashback there.)

Obviously this is going to have some huge effects on some businesses, but also perhaps some opportunities.

A lot of food & beverage, retail, entertainment, leisure, and consumer-discretionary businesses are at risk of failing. A lot of jobs will likely be lost, especially at the lower-paid unskilled or semi-skilled levels (I’m thinking waiters and waitresses, bar staff, tourism and hospitality roles, shop assistants, taxi drivers and the like). It’s not going to be pleasant.

But perhaps some businesses, maybe those in the creative or professional service sectors, might find that actually they can still operate pretty well remotely, once they get past the initial transition. Maybe they won’t feel the need to return to big expensive offices.

Aviation in Malaysia is already in trouble. Malaysia Airlines has long teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and even the huge goodwill and love for it that Malaysians have may not be enough to save it this time. There are rumours of Air Asia being in difficulties too, and potentially a merger with Malaysia Airlines – much as it’s hard to see how that could work in practice. Talk about a clash of business models, target customers, brands, cultures… Around the world, airlines are massively cutting back their schedules, temporarily or even permanently grounding aircraft and laying off staff. Chances are, more than a few will not survive and the aviation landscape will look very different this time next year.

On the other hand, Malaysia Airlines had for many years a world-renowned Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility; it paused that a few years ago but as of last year had plans to bring it back in a big way. Could be a huge opportunity there. Now is arguably a perfect time for airlines to carry out work on their fleets – assuming they have the cash of course. Malaysia Airlines should be well-placed to serve that need. Their MRO schedule ought to be overflowing.

As an aside, I personally think IAG is the logical home for Malaysia Airlines if it can’t survive on its own. If the mooted deal with Air Asia doesn’t happen (and to be honest, I really hope it doesn’t), that’s the direction I’d be looking in. We’ll see, I suppose. 

I wonder whether the huge shopping malls so prevalent all over Kuala Lumpur and other cities might become a thing of the past? I suppose it depends how long the situation goes on for – I’ve seen murmurings that back in the UK it could be eighteen months. But if people get used to staying home, shopping online, and having everything delivered, perhaps they will come to value the convenience above whatever pleasure they get from physically visiting real-world malls? Habits may change. Which of course creates opportunity for online retail, logistics and delivery services. We have pretty good high-speed internet connectivity here (which quite frankly puts the UK to shame). Perhaps, notwithstanding the “Digital Malaysia” marketing one can see dotted around KL, Malaysia really will become a truly digital nation…

Will it be enough? It’s only two weeks. And if the virus’ incubation period really is up to 14 days, and potentially asymptomatic for some of that time, surely we’re going to need more like four weeks of social distancing to have any confidence that we are indeed slowing down the spread? It wouldn’t surprise me if the measures get extended through April…

Ultimately though, this short-term inconvenience might bring about long-term changes that are actually quite positive. 

If businesses do find they can operate quite well with their staff working remotely, then employees may find their work-life balance much improved. That should lead to fewer people commuting to work, and hence less traffic and congestion on the roads, fewer road traffic accidents, less pollution, better air quality… People might live longer. 

Maybe people will find themselves weaned away from spending their lives and money in malls, and will choose to buy less, be less consumerist, and in turn perhaps find they don’t need to earn quite so much money, or work quite so many hours. Maybe people will find themselves with more free time, and learn to enjoy it. Slow down. Spend more time with and for each other.

Perhaps aviation will stop being a race to the bottom, competing on lowest-possible price, and always verging on bankruptcy. Maybe it will reduce in size but become a more viable, sustainable business. The environment will be grateful, I’m sure. Perhaps flying might even become a pleasant experience again – for those who are able and willing to pay for it (and let’s face it, much as I hate to say it, flying needs to get more expensive, for all sorts of reasons). Maybe people will travel less but value it more when they do?

Of course there is also the potential for some negative consequences too. The global economy is (temporarily, one hopes) in tatters. Locally, one can easily imagine demand for commercial property – retail and office space in particular – plummeting. Quite possibly, Malaysia’s much anticipated property crash may finally come to pass. But in the long-term, would that really be such a bad thing? Arguably there’s a already far too much construction going on in KL, and far too much jungle being lost. Might be good to pause for a while and take stock of what we really need.

If the outcome of this is that we all become a little more socially and environmentally conscious, perhaps slow down our pace of life a little, and maybe realise that economic growth is not the be-all and end-all of our existence, then maybe the world after this (hopefully) short-term individual inconvenience and (admittedly severe) economic shock might turn out to be a much better one for us all?