Malaysia will reopen nearly all businesses under strict controls next week, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced Friday, as the country looks to start bouncing back from almost U.S. $15 billion in lost revenue tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
In an address to the nation marking Labor Day, Muhyiddin did not lift the movement control order (MCO) set to expire May 12. Schools are to remain closed, mass gatherings including religious and sporting events will not be allowed as will travel across states for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
“We have to find ways to balance our needs to revive the country’s economy and the importance of curbing the COVID-19 pandemic,” the prime minister said.
“[T]he government has decided to reopen economic sectors with caution by enforcing a strict health standard operating procedure (SOP),” Muhyiddin said, citing advice from the Health Ministry based on data and best practices set by the World Health Organization. “Beginning May 4, 2020, almost all economic sectors and business activities will be allowed to operate based on the terms and SOP set by the authorities.”
On Friday, Malaysia reported 69 new COVID-19 cases and one new death, bringing the totals to 6,071 and 103. Globally, more than 3.2 million have been infected by COVID-19 and nearly 234,000 have died, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Muhyiddin said Malaysia had absorbed losses of 2.4 billion ringgit ($558 million) each day during the MCO, adding that accumulated losses already totaled about 63 billion ringgit ($14.6 billion). The movement control order began on March 18.
“If the MCO continues for another month, our country will face an additional 35 billion ringgit ($8.1 billion) in losses, making it a total of 98 billion ringgit ($22.8 billion),” he said earlier in his speech.
In late March, the World Bank sharply revised its GDP growth projection for Malaysia from 4.5 percent to -0.1 percent, compared to 4.3 percent growth in 2019. The last time Malaysia’s economy contracted was in 2009.
On April 23, the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research reported that job losses could total 2.4 million, of which two-thirds or 1.6 million would be unskilled workers.
Muhyiddin’s announcement led former Prime Minister Najib Razak to question whether it was too soon to open the country. Just last week, Muhyiddin had extended the MCO until May 12 and hinted that another extension could affect Eid, set for May 24.
“We wonder, what is the need for the mass relaxation that is being granted all at once next Monday when the fourth phase of MCO is only slated to end on May 12?” Najib asked in a Facebook post.
“Slow and steady, sector by sector, one by one, there’s no need to rush. Not all at once, later it will be hard to control,” said Najib, whose corruption trials linked to the financial scandal around the 1MDB state fund were delayed because of the lockdown.
‘We shall see’
A medical doctor said he supported Muhyiddin’s announcement, because the government’s plan for beginning to resume business activity had built-in public health safeguards such as social distancing, the wearing of masks and washing of hands.
“[T]here is always a possibility – like aftershocks following a major earthquake – but I think if we strictly follow the guidelines given by the Health Ministry, we are ready to handle those subsequent [coronavirus] spikes accordingly,” Daud Sulaiman, a cardiologist at KPJ Damansara Hospital, told BenarNews.
“We have to remain vigilant and resilient as the war is not over yet, but our lives have to go on.”
Razak Kechik, the former director of Kuala Lumpur General Hospital, also responded positively to the announcement.
“It is possible, but social distancing must be observed, mass gatherings avoided and the wearing of face masks must be compulsory,” he told BenarNews.
On the economic front, economist Nazari Ismail of the Universiti Malaya said the government was considering the lockdown’s economic costs in taking a risk to reopen businesses.
“I think the government realizes the economic costs are too high. Scores of hotels are closing for example, and while full data is not yet available, most likely many are facing bankruptcies,” he told BenarNews.
“Therefore unemployment is going to rise, maybe in the millions and tax revenue for government will also go down. Companies suffering losses will not pay taxes and revenue from sales tax will go down because people will be cautious about spending.”
Meanwhile, some citizens were not sold on easing restrictions, starting Monday.
Yoges Raman, 47, said she relied on the rail service to go to work in Kuala Lumpur.
“It’s clear that the government ministers have no idea what it is like for us to go to work by train, it is always packed. If they reduce the occupancy of the trains, then it would take us hours to get on board and to work. I will not work,” Yoges told BenarNews.
Shop clerk Pomela Lian, 30, said she was marking May 18 on her calendar to see how many positive COVID-19 cases would be recorded by then.
“May 18 is 14 days after May 4. They say the virus takes that long to incubate, so we shall see,” Lian said.
Also on Friday, the Malaysian Immigration Department, joined by Royal Malaysia Police and other enforcement agencies, detained hundreds of refugees and migrant workers in a Kuala Lumpur neighborhood.
When contacted by BenarNews, an Immigration Department source who asked not to be named because he did not have permission to speak to the media said no official statement had been released explaining the reason for the operation because it was still ongoing.
“This is not a raid, just a routine inspection,” the source said.
Previously, officials had said they would not take such action during the COVID-19 pandemic against the migrants from countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar.
Rights groups including Tenaganita, a local human rights NGO that deals with issue of migrants workers, challenged the government action.
“While it is understandable that steps are needed to curb the COVID-19 outbreak in the future, to target and hold these individuals … is unreasonable, and not the only solution available,” Tenaganita director Glorene Das said in a statement.
“The Malaysian government cannot take the easy approach and consider that an authoritarian stance is the ideal response.”
Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.