At any other time, a fun run on the grounds of Parliament would have been a mundane affair.
But then this was no ordinary run: it was none other than the Deputy Speaker of the Lower House who was running in haste to mark the start of the Parliament Virtual Run 2021 – amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Rashid Hasnon officiated at the recent event, organised by the Parliament National Association of Wives of Civil Servants and Women Civil Servants (Puspanita), and the Parliament Welfare and Sports Club (Kespa).
Members of Parliament, however, were not invited to the 10-day virtual event. Perhaps this was to send a message that Parliament, suspended since an emergency was proclaimed in January, cannot have the physical presence of MPs – even if it is just for running.
For the record, the last time these MPs ran was in the 2018 general election, after which most winners became losers eventually, while a few leaped famously.
Rashid’s parliamentary run caught the attention of social media users. Many felt it was inappropriate or insensitive of him to be involved at such an event, when many others do not have the luxury of time to relax, let alone run.
So many people are struggling to make ends meet. Some have lost their jobs. Others are working in jobs they have not been trained for. Many others have joined the ranks of the poor.
That explains the unhappiness over the government’s decision to hike penalties for violations of anti-Covid measures from RM1,000 to RM10,000. These heavier penalties would make vulnerable groups even more impoverished and crushed. It is not loose change for them – that is, if they have spare cash to begin with. Such punitive penalties place a heavy burden on them.
The enforcement of the pandemic restrictions has also been concerning, even among those who are financially stable. The instructions given to the enforcement agencies after all these flip-flops are not clear. Violators, it would seem, have not been equally penalised. This has given rise to confusion when measures to contain the pandemic should have been clear.
The unclear guidelines have also hit businesses. The enforcement agencies’ varied interpretations of the standard operating procedures have made the public wary of visiting business establishments. This is obviously bad for the already battered economy, which is struggling to recover.
Faced with public outrage, the government is now giving discounts to offenders. This may not solve the problem. The fear is that an element of arbitrariness could creep into the enforcement agencies’ decision-making in the award of discounts.
The apparent double standards in enforcing the pandemic restrictions on members of the ruling elite have also sparked public disquiet.
This uneasiness has prompted calls for Parliament to reconvene urgently. The House would provide an avenue for lawmakers to debate on matters such as the standard operating procedures and the ongoing vaccination. They would be able to craft clear guidelines for enforcers and the public.
After all, the pandemic affects everyone. Policymakers should consider input from all stakeholders before enacting laws and drafting guidelines. We must put our heads together to tackle the current challenges.
Given all this, Rashid and his colleagues should have worked towards reopening Parliament instead of holding the run. This virtual event reveals where their priorities lie and thumbs their noses at the people’s suffering.
If lawmakers cannot be physically present in the august chamber – to avert a ‘Parliament cluster’ – they should then meet virtually. Such virtual sessions are no longer a novelty as others have successfully organised hundreds of webinars – and even a Parlimen Digital – since the start of the pandemic. If there’s a will, there’s a way.
If there had been a parliamentary session, MPs could have improved on the hurriedly crafted Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance, supposedly meant to stem the tide of ‘fake news’ on Covid and the ongoing emergency rule. They could have avoided the chilling effects of the legislation.
The ordinance, if necessary, should have been designed to ensure justice and fairness in enforcement, with the legislature providing checks and balances.
As it stands, this ‘fake news’ ordinance has been defined so broadly it might lead to potential abuse of power. People found guilty of spreading ‘fake news’ in writing, videos, audio recordings or any other forms that may convey “words or ideas” will face action.
The penalties for flouting this law are heavy-handed and disturbing – a fine of up to RM100,000 or a prison term of up to three years or both. For a continuing offence, a further fine of up to RM1,000 per day will be imposed for each day the offence continues after conviction.
The people’s representatives also need to tackle the economic slump. While some handouts have been given to vulnerable groups as temporary relief, the nation also needs policies and strategies to revive the sluggish economy, which has hurt ordinary people and businesses.
These are some of the issues that MPs need to mull over in Parliament.
Hopefully, the virtual run that Rashid officiated could be turned into a dry run for the reopening of the august House – an institution that is so vital to our democracy.Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
20 March 2021