Fear and loathing in Malaysia

Commonsense takes a backseat as politics, not recovery, is the main agenda

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Putrajaya seems preoccupied with matters other than mitigating Covid-19 despite the country being under emergency rule and lives and livelihoods flatlining due to the pandemic.

The country, except Sarawak, is under a second movement control order (MCO 2.0), which ends February 4. The pretext is reigning in the coronavirus.

But Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government seems more focused on consolidating power than actually dealing with pandemic-induced problems. Emergency orders are expected to be lifted in August.

Signs of heavy political interference remain. EU-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Eurocham) yesterday in a statement denied talks of an “immediate lockdown” post-MCO 2.0 with the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti).

That was a peculiar remark to make because the leaked January 22 meeting summary between the two was clear over the lockdown threat:

The secretary-general of the International Trade and Industry Ministry, Datuk Lokman Hakim Ali, chaired the meeting and informed us that the Health Ministry (MOH) has made a clear stand on the matter of a complete shutdown of the economy.
With 99 Covid-19 clusters related to manufacturing out of more than 300 in the country, MOH believes that the manufacturing sector is the main source of infections.
Construction was also mentioned, but since not under the purview of Miti, we did not discuss the sector in detail. Should the infection rate not decrease, the Malaysian government will announce a shutdown/strict lockdown immediately after February 4, 2021.
This is the current situation we are facing and Miti is appealing to all companies, foreign and local, to join the effort in reducing infections, breaking the chain (of infection), to keep the economy open for business.

The reason manufacturing was the target was because the sector had been the main source of infections, comprising 30%, or 99, of the 318 active clusters.

Miti has yet to officially issue a statement on the matter. But this sense of urgency was also conveyed in the Federation of Manufacturers Malaysia where the trade body specifically told members in a January 23 advisory to tighten Covid-19 standard operating procedures or risk going through a similar lockdown in March last year, something which “the business sector cannot afford”.

A source familiar with such goings-on said things have gone haywire in the ministry.

“There are two problems here. The first was triggered by the emergency, which brought uncertainty due to unclear guidelines. The second is Miti’s approach to dealing with the business community. You’d expect this ministry to be more diplomatic but not in this case.”

A migrant rights consultant panned the entire episode as the “blame rests firmly on businesses and the government for failing to ensure the welfare and housing standards of workers, as well as very poor social distancing (ongoing) at the workplace, which has led to this crisis.”

Malaysian manufacturers, the source said, “are claiming to comply with SOPs (standard operating procedures). That is a very loaded and questionable statement.

“Many migrants contract Covid-19 from Malaysians in the workplace as much as Malaysians contract Covid-19 from migrants, again, in the workplace. Malaysians don’t live hostels generally, so the only place for the spread of the virus is in poorly socially distanced workplaces.”

More than a shitstorm

Miti is not the only crucial but problematic outfit. At the Health Ministry, it is believed staffers are tired and frustrated with the political interference that has come to define the government’s dealing of the pandemic.

The double standards in enforcement, the lack of data transparency and the inability to rollout mass testing plans were some of the issues they highlighted.

“It’s been a year-ish that we have been dealing with the pandemic. We have not even broached topics about new norms in schools. But it’s a shitstorm over here. Everyone’s scared to talk or question,” a source said, adding that outspoken staffers risk being transferred to other departments, put in cold storage or being forced to resign.

Official disclosures and their veracity are being scrutinised due to a spike in fresh infections, which had been on a steady uptrend since the Sabah election in September last year. The cause was not so much the election but that political and business elites were accorded double standards coupled with weak enforcement throughout.

Science publication Our World in Data ranked Malaysia as the 20th country with the quickest rate of increase in confirmed Covid cases, outpacing its regional peers except Thailand.

Malaysia has been seeing recoveries outweigh positive cases yesterday. The country registered 4,427 discharges against 3,346 fresh Covid-19 cases.

But an insider questioned whether such good news should be celebrated. “Could this be because of reduced testing, where we are detecting less positive cases? Remember that now they are only checking the symptomatic, not asymptomatic, cases.”

The bigger picture isn’t just about the positive cases anymore, the source added, instead the focus should be more towards the number of deaths.

“What we should be asking is how we control the pandemic? Are the numbers just to delude everything like what former US president Donald Trump said where if you reduce the number of tests, you get less number of cases?

“For me, it’s the number of deaths. Last year, average number of deaths were around 1.7, but this year we are already dealing with close to nine days over average. Because it is these figures — deaths, intubation and ICU — that will stress our capacity.”

The patron saint of wasting time?

Muhyiddin, however, does not seem perturb by the chaos. The prime minister is busy pumping patronage with an eye towards the next general election, such as the case of his office urging the Public Works Department on January 11 to expedite RM35.43 million construction of three halls in his constituency, Pagoh.

When the letter went viral on social media, the Prime Minister’s Office clarified the matter, stressing that the construction of the three halls were to “meet the needs of the local communities” and that tenders were not awarded through direct negotiations but in accordance with the procedures laid out by the Finance Ministry.

Judging by Muhyiddin’s track record with mega projects, taxpayers have every reason to be worried. Millions have been wasted under initiatives he oversaw, including the National Feedlot Centre, 1Bestarinet and the Pagoh Higher Education Hub.

Meanwhile, Malaysians are fuming over their employers not being sensitive to them risking infection. Some claim that despite having jobs suited for remote work, their bosses still compelled them to show up to the office.

Speaking up, too, is dicey, one said, as she is now the sole breadwinner of her family. Her husband has been laid off due to the pandemic.

“Am I afraid of contracting Covid? Yes. But what can I do? If you ask me, what I’d like to receive from the government right now is cash handouts. But Muhyiddin is telling me and a whole lot of us to bail ourselves out.

“Every time he makes a public appearance, I’m thinking, ‘Why is the government wasting our time?’ Because we need recovery and time is not on our side.”

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