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Amid pandemic, Malaysia’s democracy in intensive care

Rising Covid infections and cynical political scheming have left many profoundly disturbed

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We are entering the second year of the pandemic and the signs are that the spread of the coronavirus continues unabated.

The number of daily infection cases in Malaysia has reached an alarming four figures.

The coronavirus has already immersed itself in local communities. The government has taken concrete measures to stem the tide, namely a second movement control order.

The ongoing lockdown has serious repercussions on the national economy and ordinary people’s livelihoods. The lower-income group and the middle class are struggling to make ends meet in the face of layoffs, pay cuts, mounting debt, business closures and job losses.

With infection cases spiking, the healthcare system is said to be reaching breaking point, if not past it. Hospitals designated to treat Covid-19 patients are approaching full capacity – if not already there. The government is now seeking assistance from private hospitals in the country.

We are familiar with the frontline health staff’s in the relentless battle against the coronavirus.  They have put in so much time and energy, even placing their lives on the line.

So it is alarming to learn of a few doctors’ grievances in the media. They complained about their working conditions – insufficient medical facilities, human resources and funding, outdated equipment and overcrowded wards.

A few of them said they were suffering from burnout. Frontline health staff are overworked; they have not seen their immediate families for months, and a few have even slumped into depression. They pleaded to be treated humanely. Yet, will their grievances be heard?

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The Yang di-Pertuan Agong recently called on Malaysians to show their appreciation and support for the frontline staff’s tireless work and sacrifices. If the authorities don’t improve their working conditions, it would disappoint many of us.

The government may want to pour more money into the public healthcare system to ensure that hospitals attend to Covid patients promptly and improve the frontline staff’s working conditions.

Amid this pandemic, the Perikatan Nasional government secured a royal assent for a proclamation of a state of emergency for the entire nation on 11 January. The goal? To contain the pandemic. This proclamation came one day after the announcement of a second movement control order.

The proclamation was made in the wake of Umno MPs’ continual threats to leave the PN government, culminating in a couple of MPs actually announcing their withdrawal: Machang MP Ahmad Jazlan Yaakob and Padang Rengas MP Nazri Abdul Aziz. This left the government with just 109 seats in the 222-seat Parliament, including two vacant seats.

That left many wondering whether the PM sought a declaration of emergency to prevent his government from suffering the same fate as the previous Pakatan Harapan government, which was brought down by a wave of defections last February.

The PN government insisted that the emergency proclamation was purely meant to arm the administration with enough powers to combat the pandemic – and not for political objectives.  

In response, certain opposition leaders, activists and legal experts have expressed doubts that the emergency is merely for health purposes. Ten former Malaysian Bar presidents issued a public statement that the government’s action has set a dangerous precedent as the emergency ordinance has suspended the rule of law and violates democratic principles.  

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The mention of democratic principles reminds us of the then-Lord President of the Supreme Court, Tun Salleh Abas, who recently passed away. He earned the wrath of the Mahathir administration in 1988 for his unyielding defence of judicial independence against executive interference. He was unceremoniously dismissed, followed by five other Supreme Court judges.   

The recent emergency proclamation has prompted Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim to mount a legal challenge against the emergency on the basis that Muhyiddin had “wrongly advised” the Agong.  

Equally disenchanted, Umno secretary-general Ahmad Maslan has reportedly sent a letter to his party MPs, calling for a special parliamentary session to be held regarding the emergency proclamation.

Concerned Malaysians are equally disturbed. Agitated by this development, Aliran’s P Ramakrishnan argued that Muhyiddin’s political position has become untenable with the two MPs withdrawing support for the government. This explains why Ramakrishnan insisted that Muhyiddin had not only “stolen” the government but also disrespected the Federal Constitution.

Whatever the case, the Muhyiddin administration is not only plagued by the pandemic, but also has to tackle severe economic challenges and navigate an uncertain political path.

Sure, the emergency proclamation may provide some breathing space for Muhyiddin to consolidate his position, but the future remains murky. Not only that, our parliamentary democracy lies in critical care and must be saved.  

Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
20 January 2021

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