Malaysia will undertake a medium to long-term reform of its healthcare sector while gradually aiming to increase healthcare spending every year, finance minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said on October 13.

Speaking during a virtual briefing on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest ASEAN Youth Survey – organised in collaboration with the Straits Times – Zafrul admitted that Malaysia’s public healthcare spending needs a review after the country reeled from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have a blueprint, we are looking at a new way forward, and a study will be undertaken to reform the healthcare system,” Zafrul said.

“We are committed to reforming the healthcare system in the medium to long term,” he said during the briefing on the survey titled “ASEAN Digital Generation: Pathway to ASEAN’s Inclusive Digital Transformation and Recovery”.

Malaysia’s overall healthcare spending is still below five per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), way below the projected average of close to 10 per cent of GDP for Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

It is projected to hit five per cent of GDP in 2021 ahead of Malaysia’s next federal budget to be tabled on October 29, Zafrul had previously said.

Among the policy directions being considered is increasing public healthcare charges for higher-income earners, and incentivising people to buy health insurance. Social protection schemes should also provide health benefits for informal workers, Zafrul said.

Malaysia’s public healthcare system is almost free for all citizens. Zafrul said about 70 per cent of the 32 million population rely on the public healthcare sector.

The spread of the Delta variant had stretched the healthcare system in Malaysia, which last year was one of the early success stories in containing the pandemic.

Hospitals were overstretched, while Covid-19 bed utilisation was consistently beyond 100 per cent during its peak two months ago, leading to the construction of field hospitals.

Zafrul also said that as the virus now progresses from the pandemic to endemic stage, there is a need to improve the ability of ASEAN countries to coordinate an effective response.

“The region also needs to spend more on public healthcare,” he said. “We must increase our preparedness through ASEAN resource pooling.”

Zafrul said that the region needs to invest in regional disease centres, vaccine development and develop better understanding of communicable diseases.

Another panellist, La Hieu Hue, a businesswoman from Vietnam who is also part of WEF’s Global Shaper community, said that her country was not prepared for the spread of the Delta variant this year.

Vietnam was also seen as one of the early success stories in containing the pandemic, but like much of the region, has struggled with the Delta variant and a slower roll-out of vaccines compared with other ASEAN nations.

“We were unprepared, and this has caused a heavy disruption in the supply chain,” Hue said.

Both Malaysia and Vietnam are currently exiting their recent peak of infections.

Malaysia recorded 7,950 new Covid-19 cases on October 13 – the 11th consecutive day that cases had remained below the 10,000 mark – a sharp drop from the 24,599 cases recorded on August 26.

Malaysia has fully vaccinated 90 per cent of its adult population and lifted travel restrictions across the country after nine months of curbs. Sixty-six per cent of its total population have been fully vaccinated.

Vietnam reported 2,949 new cases on October 12, the lowest since July 15.