The ‘New Normal’: What it means for Malaysians – Part 2

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Author: Leslie Andres

In the second of this two-part series, we take a look at how the ‘new normal’ will affect our social interactions – how we eat, play and pray. If you missed the first part, read it here.

Malaysians are, to put it mildly, a social lot. We revel in our lives. We hang out at mamaks, we really celebrate at weddings, birthdays, and religious feasts and festivals. 

In short, we look for any excuse to meet up for a chat, have a teh tarik (or something stiffer?), and generally drink, eat, pray, love and be merry.

All that came to an abrupt end when Covid-19 hit our shores. Our way of life, as we know it, was disrupted in a major way.

The movement control order (MCO), with its travel restrictions and lockdowns, left us in isolation, some even from family and loved ones. Video chats became as close to physical contact as we could get for months. That, and interacting with the cashier at the kedai runcit.

As stated by Mercy Malaysia Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) team lead Dr Hariyati Shahrima Abdul Majid in our previous report, “many people are grieving over the loss life as they knew it”.

Thus it’s not an understatement to say the significant easing of regulations with the Recovery MCO (RMCO) this month has been cause for celebration. Especially as the government seems to be announcing the lifting of more and more restrictions with each passing week.

Yet, we have come to realise, there is no going back to our old lives, where a salam, hug or a meeting were just those, and not means of spreading fatal diseases. Now, parents fear more than kidnappers and molesters when letting their children play outside or go to school, and the allure of the jet-setting lifestyle for work or play has significantly dimmed.

It’s the dawn of the “new normal” and it involves more than just temperature checks, social distancing, sanitisers and face masks.

Last week, Between The Lines (BTL) explored what new normal will likely be at work and at schools. In the second part of this special report, we examine how Covid-19 has affected us in the way we “play” and “pray” – that is how we Malaysians can interact with one another in social and religious settings.

How we play

The government has allowed many sporting and leisure activities to resume during the RMCO, while live indoor sporting events, meetings, cinemas and more have been given the green light to resume from July 1, albeit under stringent conditions.

But how we play, or interact with one another in the context of this piece entails more than limiting the number of people you allow at your function or how far apart we stand from each other.

Take, for instance, how we greet one another. Malaysians have a variety of ways of greeting, like the salam, the handshake, the très Français pecks on cheeks or the more intimate hug. 

Salam. Photo source: Flickr/ @phalinn

Like the rest of the world, however, we will have to ditch these methods as we work to navigate our new non-verbal spaces and boundaries. 

The BBC had this great little piece on physical greetings that have had to be dropped, and new trends which have yet to take off. Meanwhile in Malaysia, it remains to be seen if one doctor’s suggestion of the “salam Malaysia” will be adopted as part of our new norm.

In case the confusion on how best to greet someone in this coronavirus landscape isn’t clear, watch Kepong MP Lim Lip Eng’s failed attempt at getting a local trader to forsake the handshake for the ‘salam siku (elbow greeting)’.

Physical greetings are not the only way we are affected, of course. As we know, Malaysians love a big do – whether it’s open houses for one of many religious holidays celebrated in the country such as the upcoming Christmas and Deepavali, kenduris or weddings.

But as the recent Hari Raya Aidilfitri showed us, such gatherings would have to be more modest affairs. This may be a tall order in Malaysia, where it is not uncommon for open houses and weddings to have over a thousand guests, but it is a necessary one, at least until a vaccine is found.

The latest measures and expected new norms have even taken the leisure out of travel. And though domestic tourism has since been allowed with the RMCO, our borders are still closed to most foreigners while Malaysians seeking international travels would have to wait too, as most outbound travel is restricted still.

Top 10 Theme Parks according to Traveloka prior to Covid-19:

But what happens when more flight routes across the globe eventually reopen and more steel birds take to the skies again? The horrific Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States already drastically changed the face of air travel back in 2001 and Covid-19 is set to do the same.

The International Air Transport Association’s Covid-19 guidelines allows for flights to operate at full capacity, and Malaysia is following these guidelines.

Among the new norms we will have to get used to are longer check-in times as stringent health checks are put in place, mandatory use of face masks and even cabin crew dressed in full protective gear.

However, while some new norm measures are distant considerations, Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Dr N. Ganabaskaran is more concerned about the here and now.

He says adopting a healthy lifestyle should be a new normal right now. The pandemic, he says, has been a wake-up call for many of us to reflect and start thinking about our health.

“Those with weak immune systems (are) at higher risk of Covid-19 infection and complications. A strong immune system is your body’s defence against infections. 

“All it takes to build a strong immune system are simple daily habits of getting proper rest, exercise, staying hydrated, eating more whole plant foods, healthy fats and by reducing sugar intake. 

“Malaysia is also blessed with an abundance of sunlight where we can get Vitamin D free of charge daily,” he says.

But does the new norm, where contact sports will no longer be in play, at least for a while, mean there is a danger that this could lead to a more sedentary lifestyle among Malaysians all in the name of “social distancing”? Ganabaskaran doesn’t believe so. 

“We can still be physically active under such restrictions. Even light to moderate exercise can be beneficial for health,” he says.

Another medical expert, who declined to be named, concurs. The expert, with more than two decades of experience in the sports medicine field, tells BTL that while many are still “champing at the bit” to get back to more rigorous forms of sports, others may adapt to new activities to keep fit.

“Take football for example. It’s our national sport, more so than hockey or badminton.There really isn’t any substitute for those who love football, not even futsal. 

“So, (it goes to reason) that these people will start up just as soon as they can. I’m not saying everyone is going to be like that… maybe some people may stop playing football or other more rigorous forms of sports, but they will likely take up less demanding sports and still keep themselves relatively fit,” he says.

Even gym culture will be affected. Fitness studios and other training centres will adopt distancing and hygiene guidelines and offer up online classes for those uncomfortable with the thought of returning to packed studios in the coming months.

It is not all related to fun and games. New normal in the post-Covid landscape will have a marked effect on our democratic process too. The fast-approaching Chini state by-election in Pahang will provide us a taste of elections in time to come.

Already potential candidates are told to forsake the traditional ceramah gatherings and house-to-house visits as part of the new SOPs. Instead, potential candidates are advised to maximise their online presence. 

As Election Commission chairman Azhar Harun succinctly put it, Malaysians must come to terms with the fact that the new norms will affect all aspects of life, including how we vote and campaign. 

One silver lining is that this could compel government agencies and telcos to finally find ways to provide steady and reliable internet access to rural Malaysia, and not just in Chini. At least children such as this kid from Sabah need no longer spend the night in trees in search of that elusive internet connection just to take a test.

Now apply this to other forms of civil liberties we have fought to enjoy, such as our rights to petition, even hold demonstrations and protests. We may not see any gatherings as big as the Bersih rallies, which drew anywhere between 20,000 and a million or so attendees, depending on which source you believe.

Still, many would think the current cap of 250 people for most events is still large enough to encourage the spread of Covid-19. Here’s where proper hygiene plays an important part in helping us keep the curve flat. As Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah says, even without a vaccine, it’s possible for Malaysia to beat the pandemic, provided we follow the SOPs.

How we pray

Taking Malaysia’s religious and cultural plurality into consideration, it’s no surprise that the ban on religious congregations and closure of places of worship were bitter pills to swallow for many citizens.

Many religious groups have turned to other ways of worshipping. For example, Muslims were told they could carry out Aidilfitri prayers at home while Catholic Church, for instance, took the celebration of Mass to higher digital levels. Once a novelty, online masses have become the new norm. 

Breakdown of religions in Malaysia:
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica
Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism:

Buddhist

  • Malaysian Buddhist Association
  • Buddhist Missionary Society Malaysia
  • Sasana Abhiwurdhi Wardhana Society
Christian
  • Christian Federation of Malaysia
  • Council of Churches of Malaysia
  • National Evangelical Christian Fellowship
Hindu
  • Malaysia Hindu Sangam
Sikh
  • Malaysian Gurdwaras Council
  • Khalsa Diwan Malaysia
  • Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia
Taoist
  • Federation of Taoist Associations Malaysia

Thankfully, under the RMCO, all places of worship will now be allowed to open but must operate at a third of their respective capacities, a decision welcomed by over 6,000 mosques and more than 5,200 non-Muslim places of worship including churches, temples and gurdwaras. 

Yet, with the cloud of novel coronavirus hanging over us all, these are still subject to decisions by the respective state governments, especially in the case of mosques and suraus.

Again, however, worshippers can expect more than face masks, social distancing and temperature checks as they settle back to their routines in the new normal.

In the case of the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia, for example, there will be no holy water fonts for crossing one’s self when entering or leaving the churches, and Holy Communion will have to be received in hand and not directly in the mouth.

The government, too, have constantly engaged leaders of the various religions in Malaysia, especially via organisations such as the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), to work with them to come up with the measures needed for the reopening of places of worship.

“We have had positive talks and the various religions are supportive of the measures put forward. Apart from the usual measures like temperature checks, face masks and social distancing, we have told them about the need to regularly sanitise their premises, especially after each gathering,” a top National Security Council official tells BTL.

MMA’s Ganabaskaran says the fact the government has engaged various religious organisations is important to ensure SOP compliance in all places of worship. 

Crowd control is a key concern that must be addressed.”

But what about religious gatherings? It’s a key concern considering St Anne’s Feast, which attract tens of thousands of worshippers each year, is fast approaching next month and Thaipusam, with over a million pilgrims nationwide, is slated to fall in January next year.

Obviously, one step is for the government to limit the number of devotees allowed to attend such processions and gatherings. And depending on whether Covid-19 is still a huge threat or a small one would determine what this limit would be.

“Let’s face facts. While the government has JAKIM (the Malaysian Islamic Development Department) and the various state religious affairs departments to work with in terms of things that affect the ummah in Malaysia, we don’t have the same thing for other religions.

“This is why working with non-Muslim religious organisations is important. Not only do we get their views, but by getting their input, we also get their help in enforcing decisions that are made,” the NSC official says.

Embracing the future

There is no telling how long we will all live under the threat of Covid-19. 

But new norms being crafted today will be in place for a long time to come, not just to ward off new waves of infections, but also to stave off new diseases.

The NSC official adds: “Yes, it will take some time before we see a vaccine. But we have to ensure that we don’t see another wave and that means keeping up these measures… that may mean we will have certain measures in place until the pandemic ends globally, and not just in Malaysia.

“Having said that, however, there is also the possibility that, if Malaysia is declared Covid-free – and that’s a zero-case scenario for both local transmissions as well as imported cases – that many of these restrictions will be eased or even done away with. It’s up to the government, really, based on recommendations from the Health Ministry,” he says.

Hari Merdeka celebration in the years before Covid-19

In the meantime, however, the NSC official says the restrictions currently in place under the recovery movement control order (RMCO) will remain.

Perhaps we would do best if we bear in mind the words of Mahatma Gandhi. “The future depends on what you do today.”

It’s a simple little quote, but one which holds deep meaning, especially these days.

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At Between the Lines, we summarise and contextualise the most important Malaysian news for you.

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