Malaysia’s new prime minister ordered treasury and economic affairs authorities Tuesday to accelerate the release of a $4.7 billion stimulus package, as the central bank slashed its key interest rate, in twin moves aimed at fending off the economic impact of the coronavirus.
Muhyiddin Yassin issued the directives during his second day on the job, as Malaysian health authorities confirmed seven new cases of COVID-19 – the official name of the virus that has killed more than 3,100 people worldwide – bringing the nationwide total to 36 cases detected with no deaths recorded so far.
“The prime minister has ordered the government machinery to pay serious attention to implementing and accelerating the execution of Budget 2020 and the economic stimulus package,” Muhyiddin’s office said in a statement after the meeting that focused on “strengthening domestic economic activities.”
Referring specifically to COVID-19, the statement said “the Prime Minister advised all citizens not to panic-buy and to take healthcare measures as outlined by the Ministry of Health.”
Muhyiddin’s second day in office conveyed a semblance of relative normalcy after days of domestic political turmoil and whirlwind backroom deals that followed the collapse of Mahathir Mohamad’s reform-oriented government on Feb. 24.
However, police confirmed on Tuesday that they were investigating human rights activists, including Mahathir’s daughter, for their alleged involvement in a pro-democracy rally on Sunday, the day the non-elected Muhyiddin was sworn by the king as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister.
Meanwhile, the central bank said that economic growth would be affected by the viral outbreak, mostly in tourism and manufacturing sectors even though Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, grew faster than expected in the first half of 2019.
The announcement by the central bank that it had reduced its key interest rate by 0.25 percentage points to 2.5 percent – its lowest level since 2010 – took place after China and Australia announced similar moves.
Bank Negara Malaysia, as the central bank is known in Malay, said in a statement Tuesday that the economic stimulus package, which then-interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad had announced last week, would help mitigate the impact of the virus that first emerged in China’s Wuhan city in December.
Malaysia bucked a global cooling trend and posted a growth rate of 4.3 percent last year, but Mahathir unveiled the stimulus package on Feb. 27 as officials braced for the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact to the nation’s economy. The package includes financing measures, such as cash aid and tax breaks to help support small businesses.
Activists summoned by police
Muhyiddin, 72, was sworn in as premier on March 1, after saying he was the most likely candidate to garner a majority support in parliament following Mahathir’s resignation as prime minister six days earlier. But Mahathir and his Pakatan Harapan alliance disputed the monarch’s decision, claiming they had secured the support of at least 112 lawmakers in the 222-member parliament.
The new premier has not publicly revealed the total number of lawmakers backing him, while rejecting criticisms that he betrayed the nation by joining forces with the scandal-plagued United Malays National Organization.
On Tuesday, police said they were investigating rights activists Ambiga Sreenevasan and Marina Mahathir, the daughter of the former prime minister, in connection with the pro-democracy demonstration on Sunday.
Mohd Fahmi Visuvanathan Abdullah, police chief of Dang Wangi district, told BenarNews that authorities had summoned several individuals for questioning. He said he could not say how many had been questioned but he identified Marina as one of those under probe.
“I am unable to confirm the exact number, but some like Marina Mahathir will come tomorrow,” he said.
Officials from the human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) said that 19 people had agreed to give their statements to investigators related to a series of protests last week that were not permitted by police.
“Yes, the list is correct. We are preparing lawyers,” Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of Suaram, told BenarNews, referring to the list of 19 people, which has been shared widely on social media. Authorities said five of the 19 people were being investigated on suspicion of sedition.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) said the police probe could be considered harassment.
“Police investigations against expressions of dissent may constitute a form of harassment and, if left unchecked, may create a chilling effect in which citizens self-censor or restrain themselves from fully exercising their right to freedom of expression in fear of threats of legal sanctions,” Suhakam said in a statement.
Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.