Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



COVID-19, Indonesia, Malaysia, public health policies, lockdown, federal, sub-national


In an effort to understand why two Southeast Asian countries with similar freedom scores, religious demographics, and cultures took a different approach to the novel coronavirus, this paper identifies and analyzes Indonesia and Malaysia’s public health policies from March to May of 2020. There was a stark difference between the two government’s attitudes toward a nation-wide lockdown. Whereas Indonesia refused to implement national stay-at-home measures despite legislators and citizens’ call to do so, its counterpart adopted comprehensive, nationally mandated lockdown policies. This paper argues that Indonesia’s political elites’ denial of the pandemic threat and incumbents’ economic and religious anxieties as well as the nation’s federal institutional design dictated its lackluster policy response. Comparatively, after the resolution of Malaysia’s political turmoil, the new incumbent was enabled by the country’s federal institutional design to create effective policies that prioritized health and safety over the short-term political concerns.