Commentary: Najib Razak’s fine and a tale of double standards in Malaysia
The news was poorly received because of perceived double standards in enforcement, the haphazard implementation of the MCO and a worry the government is losing the COVID-19 battle, says James Chin.
HOBART: Last week, former prime minister Najib Razak was fined RM3,000 (US$728) for flouting Malaysia’s COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOP) rules in public.
Najib was issued two RM1,500 fines for failing to record his temperature and failing to register his entry to a chicken rice restaurant.
The owner of the offending Restoran Nasi Ayam Hainan Chee Meng, meanwhile, was fined RM10,000 for not enforcing the SOP.
The police issued a media release on this issue, hoping to show that they were enforcing the rules on all Malaysians regardless of their social status.
However, to their dismay, they received a less than warm reception from netizens.
READ: Commentary: Mixed messaging, misinformation in Malaysia are complicating compliance with COVID-19 rules
BRAZEN ACTS OF FLOUTING RULES
The Malaysian public is fed up with the authorities, VIPs and celebrities for routinely ignoring the COVID-19 SOPs and the perceived double standards.
There have been many high-profile cases of senior officials in the public sector getting away with disregarding the rules over the past two months.
Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa was photographed eating with six others at a community centre project in Cheras in February, though he later paid a fine after the case was referred to the Attorney-General’s Chambers following public outrage.
Rich celebrities too seem to get off scot-free when they can simply pay the fine and all is forgiven.
Among the more brazen cases was Malaysian television host Neelofah’s lavish wedding in March where hundreds of guests ignored masks and social distancing rules.
The happy couple later travelled to the resort island of Langkawi, later described as a “business trip”, but which many believed to be a honeymoon. All these were documented on social media by friends and families.
READ: Commentary: Frustrated with tightened COVID-19 restrictions, Johor residents hope this MCO is the last
After a massive outcry, the couple was fined RM60,000 which they promptly paid.
On the other end of the spectrum, Malaysians have come across many stories of poor hawkers fined RM10,000 for ostensibly not observing the rules, whereas a closer examination reveals that in some instances, enforcement had been applied somewhat thoughtlessly.
In one truly bizarre case, a couple was fined for not wearing a mask in a restaurant in March despite clarifying that they had their masks down because they were eating.
And how did the police respond? By indicating that it was not police officers who had issued the fine but enforcement officers from another government agency. To their credit, they said they would follow up with an investigation.
Listen to Malaysians coping with a new wave of COVID-19 share their very different experiences of living through the pandemic in Johor, Kuala Lumpur and Sabah:
ANOTHER LOCKDOWN MASS
What is truly fuelling the anger among ordinary Malaysians is the deepening pessimism that the government is losing the fight against COVID-19 despite sacrifices made by Malaysians.
Malaysia has reported some 428,000 coronavirus cases and about 1,620 related deaths, with a state of emergency declared in January to fight the virus. The number of daily new infections has seen a consistent uptick since the start of April.
Yet people are still expected to drink more bitter medicine. The latest Movement Control Order, dubbed MCO 3.0, just announced last week, covers a huge stretch of the country: Six districts of Hulu Langat, Petaling, Gombak, Klang, Kuala Langat and Sepang. It will last from May 6 to May 17.
The problem is not the MCO per se but the haphazard way it was implemented. Malaysian Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced to everyone’s surprise the next day Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru and more will also be put under the MCO.
In many cases, there are curious inconsistencies. The latest MCO excludes Putrajaya while its surrounding areas are included. Yet people moving freely in Putrajaya will defeat the purpose of MCO 3.0.
It does not help that Malaysia’s vaccination programme has gotten onto a rocky start, where perceived unfairness over political leaders getting priority for vaccinations have soured the mood in a country where people are clamouring for the vaccine.
Only 1.2 million doses have been administered and 450,000 fully vaccinated, most of whom are frontline workers.
Malaysians were also upset with a report that members of the Malaysian royalty were vaccinated while in the United Arab Emirates. There were also controversies over the government buying Chinese-made vaccines and the differing prices paid.
Confusion is also breaking out between federal and state authorities, with Sarawak announcing it will not be using the AstraZeneca vaccine in the state this week.
TROUBLE FOR PM MUHYIDDIN YASSIN
These developments spell political trouble for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his government.
Mr Muhyiddin had been betting on the “COVID-19 bounce” to boost his popularity. He needs a successful vaccination programme and a fall in the number of cases to ease concerns and soothe the national mood.
Yet it looks like the reverse has happened. Mr Muhyiddin still has three months to go before the state of emergency is lifted in August but if cases keep piling up and the number of deaths keep increasing over May and June, there is no way the country will get out of this rut before that.
In such a scenario, Muhyiddin may ask for another period of emergency. This will almost certainly put the King in a perilous position. The Agong has been heavily criticised by Malay politicians for approving the first emergency.
Political forces are gathering to ensure this doesn’t happen. For this reason, Malaysian opposition lawmakers led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad submitted a petition to the Agong on Apr 20 with 39,000 signatures to end the emergency and recall parliament.
The easiest option for the King is thus to allow the emergency to end as planned on Aug 1 and refuse to sanction a new one. Parliament could then debate the best way forward.
This way, the Agong can continue to remain above the political fray in keeping with his duties as a constitutional monarch.
Perhaps the double standards on the enforcement of regulations, inconsistencies over the MCO and controversy over the government’s handling of the crisis shows Malaysia for what it is.
Malaysia today is a fractured society where there are two classes of people: The political class along with elites versus everyone else.
People are fast losing faith in the government’s ability to lead during a pandemic and they must address it quickly.
Professor James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.