KUALA LUMPUR: The automotive workshop owned by Mr Wong Tung Khong in Sungai Besi was quiet on Tuesday (Jan 26), with only a few employees servicing customers' cars.
"This time last year, I wouldn't even have time to answer your questions because people wanted their cars serviced before going back to their hometowns for Chinese New Year," Mr Wong, 36, told CNA.
This round, he said, his staff had remarked how quiet and less busy the workshop was.
Unlike during the first movement control order (MCO) from March to May last year, Mr Wong's workshop is operational as usual in this current MCO, which is enforced nationwide in Malaysia except for Sarawak until Feb 4.
Last year, when his workshop reopened as the country transitioned into conditional MCO (CMCO), he was busy with a backlog of requests from before the shutdown.
Business then slowed down by October, when COVID-19 cases surged following the Sabah state election in September.
With Malaysia recording a four-digit spike in daily cases despite the current MCO, talk of a return to a strict lockdown was rife.
The speculation was fuelled by a leaked letter from the EU-Malaysia Chambers of Commerce and Industry (EUROCHAM) to its members, stating that the Perikatan Nasional government was set to announce a total economic shutdown after Feb 4, if the number of COVID-19 cases did not show any improvement.
EUROCHAM immediately clarified in a press statement last Sunday that there was no mention of an immediate lockdown after the stated date during its discussion with the International Trade and Industry Ministry on Jan 22.
On Tuesday, Senior Minister and Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the National Security Council has not decided on the next course of action, while noting that a total lockdown similar to last year's would run the risk of 2.8 million people losing their jobs.
However, the speculation of a total lockdown has caused jitters among business owners like Mr Wong, who are worried about the negative consequences on their business' survival.
Some are also drawing up backup plans, in case restrictions are tightened once again.
On Wednesday, Malaysia registered 3,680 new COVID-19 cases, bringing its nationwide total to 194,114. Active cases stood at 42,389.
"WE WANT TO KNOW THE REAL DIRECTION"
When Malaysia was first placed under the MCO last year, almost all economic activities ceased, except for essential services such as food and beverage outlets and pharmacies.
The lockdown saw the country reduce its COVID-19 cases to single digits in the first half of 2020.
By contrast, this current MCO, dubbed "MCO 2.0", has allowed more economic sectors to continue functioning, such as the automotive sector and retailers like gold and jewellery shops.
Nonetheless, with people encouraged to work from home and travel limited to a 10km radius within their own districts, many business owners have seen a drop in customers.
"Nobody wants a lockdown, but to be honest, business is so bad right now that a lot of us are wondering how this style can be sustained."
"If you drag this (MCO) until May, then it’s almost as bad as a full lockdown for a few weeks,” Mr Wong lamented.
Before Jan 1, Mr Wong said, his shop used to service 10 to 15 cars a day. Now, at best, he only gets five to six customers a day.
“And there are days I have no cars coming in for servicing at all,” he said.
If a lockdown were to be enforced, running costs such as rental and salaries still had to be paid, he said.
But more worrying for Mr Wong was the duration of a strict lockdown.
“We need to be clear. If they say two weeks, it’s two weeks. If four, then four. Basically we want to know what’s the real direction for managing the situation,” he said.
READ: Malaysia's traders anticipated a sales boom before Chinese New Year, but the MCO has dented their hopes
ANOTHER LOCKDOWN WILL IMPACT SALES FURTHER
In Jalan Sultan, near Petaling Street, decorations store manager Chan Poh Keng, 61, said many of her neighbours were planning to close, or have already closed.
It has been a quiet 10 months for Mdm Chan's store, which depends on major festivals like Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Mid-Autumn Festival and Christmas to boost sales.
Revenue from other sources, such as supplying seasonal decorations for malls and hotels, have also evaporated since last year.
When asked if the business could survive another lockdown, Mdm Chan, who has been with the shop since it first opened 13 years ago as a branch of its parent store further down the same road, took a deep sigh.
"Yes, it probably could.
"But take a look around, you can see a lot of shops already shuttered. I think after Chinese New Year, it will probably be our turn," she said, citing rental as a push factor.
"Better to experience short-term pain than long-term agony," Mdm Chan added.
She said if the government wanted to bring back a full lockdown, it could at least let traders wrap up their festive sales first.
"We would like to have a decent Chinese New Year at least. Because after Chinese New Year, everything's quiet anyway, there's nothing to celebrate," she said.
Likewise, Mr Syed Naquiz Shahabuddin Syed Abdul Jabbar, who owns several food and beverage outlets in the Klang Valley, told CNA he had to close one outlet in an office area.
"It was virtually empty because people are now working from home. There was virtually no foot traffic at all," he said.
His other outlets are located inside hospitals in the Klang Valley. As it is, sales from these outlets had dipped considerably since the first MCO. He estimated the decrease to be between 30 and 80 per cent.
Mr Syed Naquiz said another lockdown would result in even worse sales.
STRICT SOPS INSTEAD OF FULL LOCKDOWN: TRADE ASSOCIATIONS
Mr Michael Kang, the president of the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Association of Malaysia, said a total lockdown like the first MCO was not the solution to stemming Malaysia's COVID-19 surge.
Rather than a full lockdown, solutions balancing the public health and the economy to sustain Malaysians’ lives were needed, he said.
“When I saw the leaked message (from EUROCHAM), I took it as a warning message for the industry to strictly follow SOPs (standard operating procedures) if they need to operate their businesses,” he said.
Instead of a lockdown, Mr Kang suggested strict SOPs and a trace and monitor digital system for those on home quarantine.
“If clusters emerge, lock down those clusters to prevent their spread, but not a full lockdown,” he said.
Most SMEs would not be able to sustain their businesses or survive should a full lockdown like the previous MCO take place, Mr Kang said. His association has about 15,000 members.
“The supply chains will definitely be damaged and costs of goods will go up,” he said.
READ: ‘I want to buy my children a good meal’: Some Malaysians relieved they can now dip into retirement funds, others pledge prudence
Bumiputera Retailers Association president Ameer Mydin said he believed the government understands that another lockdown would be “catastrophic” for the retail sector and SMEs.
"We understand why (this current MCO) is done, so hopefully the numbers go down by Feb 4, and hopefully, the government goes ahead with the proposed CMCO.
“But even three months under CMCO might be too long. Because sales would still be down by 50 to 60 per cent. That is loss-making, but still better than a total lockdown."
Personally, Mr Ameer added, a month-long CMCO, but with strict enforcement to ensure SOPs and social distancing, would be better to lower case numbers.
"And even if you don't allow interstate travel, but at least (allow) inter-district within the state. At least the economies within each state can survive," Mr Ameer said.
In Kota Kinabalu, Nadea Leong, a gym owner who also runs a physical vape retail business, said she has to draw up backup plans.
“If a full lockdown is approved, I have other plans, like shifting the vape business online,” she said.
As a business owner, Ms Leong said, no one wants to deal with another strict MCO.
“But we have to face it and cope with it,” she said.