I grew up in Ipoh Malaysia in a multicultural community. Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Punjabi families lived side by side. The children played together, everybody joined in to celebrate all festivals – Hari Raya, Christmas, Deepavali and Chinese New Year.
The older members of our community ensured we all belonged to a very large family, where each one of us was valued. They did not pretend that we were all the same. They did not sweep any differences between us under the carpet. Instead, they created a community in which everybody belonged and felt valued.
In times of need, we looked out for each other. Social scientists call this a community’s social capital. It is the network of relationships that holds people together through good times and bad.
Whenever there was a death in a family, a marriage, birth of a new child or some other important event, the whole community banded together to help out. Leaders in my youth actively nurtured social capital: they knew we relied on each other in times of need.
Picture credit to projekdialog.com
Today Malaysia is a very different place. It is more complex, more uncertain, more conflicted and more disrupted. The arrival of Covid-19 has changed Malaysia. Everybody understands that Covid-19 is a disease that will have severe to long-term impact on the economy. The likely social and emotional impact of Covid-19 is not widely referenced or understood in the media.
These effects will need to be dealt with for many years. Does Malaysia have the social capital necessary for all communities to support each other? Are leaders of today even aware of this? If so, are they doing anything about it? How can leaders harness our social capital to deal with the effects of Covid-19 on our society?
Leaders, show us how
Mostly, we don’t know the answers to these questions. Inevitably, we may turn to our leaders for leadership. We are looking to them to assure us that all is going to be okay. We want our leaders to tell us, to show us, how we can all help each other through this pandemic.
To do this, leaders need to build trust with us, since trust is at the heart of social capital. Merely being a head in a village (penghulu in the Malay language), a manager in a company, a director-general in a government department or minister in the government does not win people’s trust.
If trust doesn’t come with the office, then it must be earned. Leaders can earn trust by making the first move. They start by showing empathy for people’s anxieties, fears, frustrations, confusions and disappointments.
Leaders have to show that they truly care about people whose lives have been turned upside down and inside out. Some have lost loved ones, others may be nursing sick relatives, many families have lost livelihoods and may not be able to feed their loved ones and younger Malaysians may find their studies and careers disrupted.
Leaders must genuinely connect with these people at a deep level to assure them that they are not forgotten and that they will not be left behind. Empathy which builds trust is essential for leadership success in times of crisis.
Leaders must also show that they can take decisive action. Decisive action will further strengthen the trust between leaders and those they serve. If their decisions are successful, all well and good, but if they are not, then leaders must quickly apologise, be transparent about their learning and take new decisions to redress the situation.
Leaders should seek the best talent in the country to respond to Covid-19, recognising that most contemporary problems require specialists from diverse disciplines who need to work collaboratively.
Leaders should facilitate, encourage, support, inspire and remove obstacles as these specialists go to work to find ways forward. At the same time, leaders must also continue to listen and learn from people who are living with the pandemic on a daily basis.
In turn, leaders must communicate with all communities, providing them with regular updates about actions taken to contain the pandemic. Collaboration between leaders, specialists and communities will be confirmation that the nation’s social capital is working.
The leaders’ real test is whether social capital is working at the community level. Are people observing the Movement Control Order (MCO)? Are they caring for loved ones while in isolation? Can they still provide support and care for members in their neighbourhood even if they can’t see them face to face?
Leaders should encourage people to reach out to members of their community to provide emotional support. We are social beings and are nourished by contacts and interactions that we have with each other.
MCO has restricted physical contact between people. But this does not exclude emotional contact. Simply seeing people from a distance, talking to people online or exchanging gifts contributes to a huge emotional high.
For those who live alone, those who live in remote places or those with limited human contact for other reasons, any kind of contact is welcome. Leaders should not just encourage people to stay in contact with others, they should demonstrate how they are doing it themselves.
When leaders show how it is done, people are more likely to follow. This may sound trite, but the power of a leader’s behaviour cannot be underestimated.
Read also: Importance of Transparent Leadership
Covid-19 has put our social capital to the test. It is a test we cannot afford to fail. Against a pandemic of this magnitude, the importance of leadership cannot be overstated. As has been said many times, this is uncharted territory.
Nobody in living memory has been here before. No individual or group has all the answers, so the way forward requires trial and error. If we take small tentative steps together, there is strength in numbers.
If we stay together, we will make it as a nation. If we are only prepared to look after our own, this is a recipe for failure. As a nation, we want to think we are capable and resilient and there are pockets of social capital across the country.
Overall however, our social capital was under stress even before Covid-19. Can leaders strengthen social capital and mobilise it to lead us out of this crisis? Only time will tell.