Many Malaysians Upset Over ‘Confusing’ Lockdowns, Rising Infections

S.Adie Zul and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
2021-07-19
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Many Malaysians Upset Over ‘Confusing’ Lockdowns, Rising Infections Activists place dummy corpses of COVID-19 victims in front of a Malay banner that says “We Die in Rebellion,” and “Come Out and Fight,” as they call for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation over his perceived failure to stem the pandemic.
S.Mahfuz/BenarNews

Many Malaysians are upset and irate about what they see as confounding and endless pandemic-related lockdowns, combined with unseemly political wrangling, as their country reels from the COVID-19 health crisis and its economic fallout.

Public resentment is growing against the members of the broad ruling coalition, some of whose politicians have made insensitive comments about the hardships that people are going through, and have flouted pandemic restrictions with minimum fallout.

On top of that, Malaysians’ stress levels are rising due their being cooped up at home, or losing much-needed income, or both, due to the lockdowns – with record-breaking infections in the latest shutdown – as mirrored by hundreds of citizens’ comments on Twitter.

“I just can’t do anything. I just can’t stand being locked at home anymore, my parents are arguing almost every day,” a Malaysian user with the Twitter name Comelgebugebu, said recently on the social media platform.

“It has been months, it is getting very tiresome. Please, I am so fed up with this world!”

In a move to kick-start the pandemic-battered economy, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a fourth stimulus round last month, of 150 billion ringgit (U.S. $36.2 billion), which included 10 billion ringgit in cash handouts for middle- and low-income households by the end of this year.

That, however, has failed to dispel Malaysians’ anger, as 36-year-old Rahimah Ramli made amply clear.

“Thanks for the aid, but people just need to get back to their normal life. I do,” Rahimah, a vegetable vendor and mother of two, told BenarNews.

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Deserted roads are seen during a COVID-19 lockdown, in Kuala Lumpur, Jan. 13, 2021. [Reuters]

The stress has already taken a toll on Malaysians’ mental health, said psychiatrist Norliza Chemi, who is seeing rising anxiety- and stress-related illnesses, especially depression.

“Even the lockdown itself could trigger anxiety because people are made to stay at home, thus in general we are seeing soaring cases of mental illness,” Norliza, who leads Kajang Hospital’s Psychiatry and Mental Illness Department, told BenarNews

‘More and more confusing SOPs’

Complicated lockdown protocols – and conflicting government statements on it – have contributed to people’s anxiety and anger.

These restrictions are called “standard operating procedures,” or SOPs, and Malaysia institutes several levels of SOPs – each with their own initials – that can confound even the most dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats.

“More and more confusing SOPs  ...MCO3.0 vs FMCO vs Phase 1 vs EMCO Phase 1 vs Phase 2? …Who am I? … Where am I? … I don’t know about other countries, but I’m pretty sure Malaysia has the most complicated and confusing panjang lebar [long and tedious] SOP.  #KerajaanGagal,” one exasperated Malaysian said on Twitter earlier this month.

#KerajaanGagal, or “failed government,” is a social media campaign that has been among Malaysia’ top Twitter trends since April. That’s when it became clear that an emergency imposed by Muhyiddin, purportedly to contain the pandemic, had not resulted in a drop in COVID-19 infections.

When the campaign began, Muhyiddin had not imposed a strict lockdown, which many were calling for. He finally did so on June 1, but new infections kept rising.

On Monday, the Southeast Asian nation reported close to 10,972 new COVID-19 infections – slightly lower than last Thursday’s 13,215 – with the cumulative caseload inching close to a million.

With 129 virus-related deaths – following a record high 138 on Saturday – pandemic fatalities rose to 7,148.

Like activist and lawyer Lim Wei Jet, many Malaysians are wondering what is going on.

“A ‘lockdown’ is supposed to (a) reduce the number of infections & (b) buy time for our healthcare system. Neither is working – numbers are skyrocketing, our healthcare system is collapsing. How long more must the rakyat [public] tolerate this #KerajaanGagal?” rights activist and lawyer Lim Wei Jet asked on Twitter last week.

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A woman wears a mask as she looks outside her home during an enhanced lockdown, in Kuala Lumpur, July 3, 2021. [Reuters]

‘Use science-based information’

Critics note that when the so-called strict lockdown was imposed on June 1, all businesses were ordered shut, except those in 17 “essential” sectors. In addition, more than a dozen manufacturing sectors were allowed to continue operating at 60 percent capacity.

Allowing these sectors to operate during the purported strict lockdown has generated “a lot of debate and bitterness,” Munir Majid, chairman of the independent think tank CARI ASEAN Research told National Public Radio in the U.S. recently.

“Some people are saying, ‘What lockdown, when you allow 92,000 companies to continue to operate?’ And so many workers continue to go to work,” he said.

In late June, Mohamed Azmin Ali, the minister of trade and industry, said it was unfair to say that workplaces were the main contributors of new infections.

“[T]he number of positive cases recorded from the manufacturing sector and factories are between five to 10 percent only. So, it’s not right to place the blame on the economic sector, specifically on the manufacturing sector,” local press reports quoted Azmin as saying.

But the problem isn’t the number of workers who get infected, it’s the numbers of people the workers infect when they go back home to cramped living quarters, said Ong Kian Ming, a former deputy minister at Azmin’s ministry.

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Halijah Naemat, 74, puts away a white flag after she received help from others at her home during an enhanced lockdown, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia July 6, 2021. [Reuters]

‘A delusional prime minister’

Malaysia is not alone in grappling with a debilitating pandemic, but what is happening in the country alongside the pandemic has fueled Malaysians’ anger, political scientist Bridget Welsh noted in an essay on Sunday in East Asia Forum.

“[W]hat makes this crisis different is how it is playing out politically. Malaysia is arguably experiencing its largest broad crisis since the 1969 racial riots,” Welsh said in her essay titled “Pandemic failures will transform Malaysian politics.”

Political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi said the unelected Muhyiddin government, which has a razor-thin majority in parliament, has been focused on maneuverings to survive rather than to stem COVID-19 infections.

In January, when the king imposed an emergency on Muhyiddin’s advice, the PM also suspended parliament.

So not only has the government ignored opposition entreaties on the lockdowns and vaccine policy, it has also actively ignored health experts’ recommendations, Azman said.

“The people are of the view that politicians are still playing with politics to gain power while the COVID-19 infection is worsening, which has distracted the government from properly managing the pandemic,” he told BenarNews. 

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A police officer checks a driver’s papers at a roadblock during a lockdown ahead of the Eid celebrations, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 10, 2021. [Reuters]

It isn’t only social media-savvy Malaysians who are upset with the government.

Vegetable vendor Rahimah, for instance, said she had lost respect for politicians.

“Politicians are only bothered about themselves. All they care about is how to look after their own interest and their cronies,” she told BenarNews.

Welsh agreed.

“There has been a growing perception that those in power don’t care,” she wrote.

“Ministers have been serial offenders of health protocols, accepting modest fines while imposing devastating penalties on ordinary citizens.”

Welsh was referring to photographs and videos showing various ministers without masks, dining with friends in restaurants and the like, and being given little to no punishment for their violations, even as ordinary Malaysians are fined heavily for lesser violations.

In addition, comments made by members of the ruling coalition’s parties have not endeared them to average Malaysians.

For example, Muhyiddin and senior Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) member Nik Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz’s comments on an initiative called the “White Flag” movement were widely criticized.

The “White Flag” citizens’ initiative urged Malaysians in need to fly a white flag on their houses if they were desperate for food or medicines. The initiative proved to be extremely successful.

In response, Abdul Aziz said people should pray instead of raising white flags.

Muhyiddin said his government was providing enough aid so no one needed to raise flags for help.

“It’s okay to put up a blue flag,” the prime minister said.

The color of Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition is blue.

“I wish to remind him [Muhyiddin] that there are many living in hunger, with only one meal a day in Malaysia, right now,” opposition lawmaker Charles Santiago said on Facebook.

“I think we have a delusional Prime Minister who is quite divorced from what’s happening on the ground.”

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