How the UN is supporting Malaysia’s post-Covid and climate recovery

By Yun Xuan Poon Ming En Liew

Interview with Niloy Banerjee, the United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.

The world’s recovery has so far been “bandaid solutions”, says Niloy Banerjee, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei Darussulam.

“Wherever the bucket is leaking, [politicians will] just put one bandaid. But the whole bucket is sinking,” he adds. Niloy’s team is working closely with governments to make sure the gaps are properly plugged. He highlights two priorities for Malaysia to tackle: post-pandemic economic recovery and climate change.

Niloy shares how the UNDP has partnered Malaysian authorities to address two of the most pressing global challenges of our time.

Redefine poverty

Citizens’ needs and lives are changing, and policies need to keep up. Malaysia has to change the way it defines poverty to make sure it includes everyone who needs support, says Niloy.

“We realised when schools moved online that a child sharing one room with three adults and two children cannot have an education. The whole household probably has one or no computer, and a weak broadband connection,” he illustrates. “That is also poverty.”

The Malaysian government now recognises digital access as a measure of poverty. This led to policies that can benefit citizens like making it compulsory for contractors to build homes with digital access, he shares.

The UNDP is also working with the government to redraw the poverty line. “The whole country has one poverty line now, but the cost of living in Kuala Lumpur city is very different from the cost of living in Miri, Sarawak,” he points out. This has to be adjusted so it takes into account the different standards of living across the country.

Supporting the people in times of crisis

When the pandemic came crashing, Malaysia faced a problem. 78 per cent of employees in the private sector worked in micro, small and medium enterprises, Niloy notes. Almost 90 per cent of them were not on digital platforms, and could not function when Malaysia entered lockdown.

These are “literally, the factory that's operating in two living rooms, making mosquito coils or small plastic parts for big corporations,” he explains.

The UN prioritised connecting these SMEs with the right digital tools and training them in e-commerce skills, says Niloy. “How do they become little Lazadas or Amazons so they can sell their products online?”

They started a programme in Sabah and Sarawak to train business owners to use Whatsapp and online payment to sell their products. They ran these programmes out of community centres, which provided high speed internet for businesses who did not have access to it.

Fight climate change


Climate change is another priority at the top of the UN’s list. Malaysia, along with Singapore and Brunei, has to “win the war on energy transformation”, Niloy says.

“All three of our countries are massively fossil fuel dependent,” he adds. “We are easily the most polluted part of the world.”

The Malaysian government has begun taking steps in the right direction. Its law now mandates that state governments who support conservation efforts, for instance by stopping logging exports, will receive compensation from the federal government.

Deforestation is a big concern in Malaysia given how profitable logging is, he explains. This law could help incentivise authorities to slow harmful activities.

The UNDP worked closely with the Malaysian government over the years to encourage the implementation of such incentives by law. This scheme was successfully introduced as part of Malaysia’s Budget 2019 and 2021, where RM60 million and RM70 million respectively was set aside to encourage state governments to participate in conservation.

The UNDP is also working with Malaysia’s environment ministry on climate models, which he hopes will urge the government towards stronger climate action, Niloy shares.

Reimagine futures

Algorithms and quantitative analysis have been great at preparing for the future, but this isn’t the only way, says Niloy. “Why don't we ask people to just dream, what kind of future do they want? And what kind of future do they not want?” he asks.

That was the premise behind UNDP’s KISAH Futures Competition, where they collected stories from the Malaysians on the future they wanted to see.

The competition received nearly 700 submissions, which was later compiled into an anthology of 50 stories. Over 70 per cent of submissions were from authors below 30 years old, and the stories covered themes like social cohesion, the future of work, and the environment, says Niloy.

One story pondered over how humans were becoming more like computers as technology becomes more integral to our lives and work. Another story imagined a fictional future where wet markets no longer existed, as shopkeepers did not know how to move their business online.

These stories demonstrated how disturbed young people feel about where the world is headed, says Niloy. “Reading these stories revealed how we need to adjust our work,” he continues.

This approach of involving citizens in building their desired future has found promise. Years ago, Singapore roped in citizens to find solutions for public transport congestion, Niloy shares.

It ran a competition, which brought up ideas such as giving commuters extra phone credits and incentives to travel during non-peak hours. The core of the solution came from the commuters, says Niloy, “people who knew the real pain”. Singapore also held focus group discussions with commuters and students when reviewing public transport fares in 2013.

The power of government

Niloy is hopeful about the future. Governments have demonstrated remarkable leadership in the pandemic, which led to the fastest vaccines ever created in human history. From zero vaccines in early 2020, the world now has over 2 billion vaccines because of government-funded research programmes, he points out.

Global governments’ joint efforts also helped with vaccine distribution. “If it was left to private distribution channels, I would be paying $2000 for a shot,” he says. “Now, I’m getting it free.”

Bandaids won’t be helpful for much longer. The UNDP is supporting governments to move towards longer term solutions. Updating policies and laws; equipping citizens with digital skills; and bringing citizens on board to dream of a better future could help Malaysia heal.