The Politics of Food Aid in Sarawak, Malaysia.

AuthorIk-Tien, Ngu

For Malaysia, the COVID-19 outbreak has been unprecedented in terms of the scale of the crisis. The virus has indiscriminately spread to all areas of the country, from metropolitan areas such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang on Peninsular Malaysia, to fishing villages on the coast of Sabah in East Malaysia. Quick and coordinated efforts among federal government agencies, local enforcement units, civil society organizations and political parties are required to effectively control the spread of the virus and channel a massive volume of disaster relief to hundreds of thousands of affected individuals and households. The sense of urgency arising from the need to tackle the coronavirus outbreak has meant that large government spending plans have avoided the usual scrutiny.

Among all the resultant government programmes, food aid is probably the most politicized. Transparency levels in the government planning and implementation processes at both the federal and state levels in Malaysia are generally low, and the agencies or officers in charge are rarely held accountable. (1) When asked about the details of the food aid provided, the government agencies and officials involved have only revealed the numbers of beneficiaries and total spending. Most of them have declined to provide details of how their plans were drawn up and implemented, including soliciting aid (some of which was sponsored by private entities), selecting food items and vendors, and packaging and delivery. These officials and agencies have generally ignored demands from the public to release lists of recipients, the selection criteria for vendors and the value of food packages distributed.

Opposition politicians have exposed political interference in federal-government food-aid programmes, usually at the delivery phase. They have also cried foul at being excluded from the entire process and for the marginalization of their constituencies. Local ruling-party politicians control the purchase and delivery of foodstuffs and other aid. In an initiative organized by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development in March 2020, many elected representatives from the opposition parties claimed that they did not receive promised food baskets for their constituencies from the federal government. (2) Some Members of Parliament (MPs) have complained that politicians from the ruling-party in their constituencies "instructed" the local welfare departments to work with them rather than with opposition-party representatives in distributing foodstuffs. State governments have rolled out programmes to supplement or make up for shortfalls in federal aid. These programmes have demonstrated similar patterns of political interference in most states.

Politics in the Food-Aid Programme

This article highlights the politics of a food-aid programme implemented by the Sarawak state government during the pandemic. The case study reveals how the food-aid programme marginalized opposition parties and weakened government institutions, especially the grassroots bureaucracy. The relatively low incidence of COVID-19 cases in Sibu District in Sarawak enabled the author to conduct some brief fieldwork there...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT