Home Commentary Malaysian ministers show disdain for COVID-19 restrictions

Malaysian ministers show disdain for COVID-19 restrictions

With the holy month of Ramadan upon us, ordinary Malaysian Muslims are adjusting to even tighter restrictions.

The country is in its sixth week of a nationwide lockdown set to run until at least May 12, with 60 percent of the population now having to fast during daylight, while the lockdown also prevents them from the tradition of gathering to pray at local mosques.

It is another hardship ordinary folk have to endure and, by and large, they abide by it, understanding the necessity of social distancing and avoiding unnecessary contact with others.

They listen to the daily updates from the government and follow instructions, believing they are winning the fight against the COVID-19 menace.

However, this does not apply to a handful of ministers, who have become the target of an online onslaught for breaching the lockdown.

Of course, they have a get out of jail free card for conducting affairs of state, but media reports tell a sorry tale of something else entirely.

Social media users have vented their fury at three ministers in particular: Deputy Health Minister Dr Noor Azmi Ghazali, Deputy Rural Development Minister Abdul Rahman Mohamad and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mustapa Mohamed.

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Noor Azmi went to a gathering at a local mosque with up to 30 people and they enjoyed a meal together, taking food from shared dishes with their hands.

Abdul Rahman celebrated his birthday at his house with a group of well-wishers showing little, if any, regard for social distancing or other required hygiene practices.

Mustapa went to press the flesh with his constituents in their homes.

How do we know all this? Well, they posted pictures of their activities on social media; only deleting them after they realized they had ignited a social media firestorm.

Their scandalous behavior drew a barrage of criticism from opposition MPs, human rights groups and ordinary people alike.

Yet, the silence from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the National Security Council, which administers the lockdown and had been championing the swift and merciless punishment of people caught in its defiance, was deafening.

Eventually, after the press and social media users harangued Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob for days, he said the Noor Azmi case “would be investigated” and “no one was above the law”.

However, it has been a week since he said that — and nearly two since the incident — and no charges have been brought.

To put this into context, at the time of Ismail Sabri’s statement, more than 9,000 ordinary citizens had been arrested and either fined MYR1,000 ($229) or jailed for up to three months for breaching the lockdown.

Furthermore, these people were all arrested, charged, hauled before the magistrate and sentenced with 24 hours.

This includes two men from the impoverished east coast of the peninsula jailed for stealing mangoes from a nearby orchard to feed their families and another two men similarly punished for fishing together.

Now, national news agency Bernama has made a song and dance about the aforementioned swift and merciless manner in which people are brought before the courts, paying lip service to the fact many of these people were trying to get much needed food.

No doubt, it is a misguided attempt to show the efficiency of the Malaysian legal system at work but, reading between the lines, it points to something ultimately more troubling.

When ministers openly flout their transgressions without repercussion, while those at the other end of the scale are facing the sharp end of the criminal justice system, human rights groups are right to say that Malaysia is returning to a society of ‘us and them’, where an elite social group can do as it pleases, while everyone else outside these privileged circles is subject to rigid application of the law.

The Perikatan Nasional administration has, in effect, drawn a line between itself and the people it serves after barely two months in power, which appears to be a return to the dark days of Barisan Nasional (BN, from which Perikatan evolved), notorious for its corruption and cronyism, ousted in 2018 by the short-lived Pakatan Harapan opposition.

BN was equally notorious for its lack of accountability, where government lawmakers could, and did, act as they pleased, from the foolish, to the incompetent to the criminal.

Today, aside from the disdain Perikatan Nasional ministers have shown for a law that has caused so much hardship and misery for the people, they have also racked up a litany of blunders in a short, eight-week period.

This includes, but is not limited to, Health Minister Dr Adham Baba saying people could help ward off the coronavirus by drinking a cup of warm water and Women’s Minister Rina Harun’s public service announcement that women should behave like Doraemon to get husbands to help with household chores.

Most recently, an opposition MP has accused the Women and Family Development Ministry of scrimping in its MYR100 food aid packages to the poor.

Rasah MP Cha Kee Kin claimed he examined the packages and found only MYR35 worth of food, while only receiving 150 of 1,000 packages he was promised.

This is on top of repeated accusations that food aid to opposition-held constituencies has been withheld and that the government is playing politics with hungry citizens. The ministry has yet to respond.

Whichever way you look at it, something, somewhere is amiss.

Beyond the lockdown, this behavior on the part of the government has wider implications in how the law and governance will be applied, or even influenced.

Several senior members of the BN administration — including former prime minister Najib Razak and his righthand man Ahmad Zahid Hamidi — are still on trial for multiple cases of graft and abuse of power.

Scrutiny is now likely to fall on these trials and whether judges will indeed convict based on the evidence.

In the old days, when BN asserted its will with virtual impunity, acquittals would have been all but guaranteed.

Yet, in a new Malaysia, Muhyiddin — with a government hanging on by a thread — is still to show whether he will stick to the transparent principles of the Pakatan Harapan administration he deserted two months ago or go a more politically expedient way.

However, BN cronies — who before the change in government were trying every slippery, malingering trick in the book to get out of or postpone trial dates — are now puffing out their chests, fluffing their feathers and relishing their day in court.

With Muhyiddin applying the familiar BN whitewash to his cabinet’s misdemeanors, this renewed confidence from those in the dock points to them expecting another hallmark of the former BN administration: Crony justice.

Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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