Commentary: Little wonder why Malaysians are angry over celebrity Neelofa’s repeated COVID-19 breaches
It's tough to swallow bad celebrity behaviour when the country is struggling to deal with a new wave of infections, says ISEAS-Yusof Ishak’s Serina Rahman.
JOHOR BAHRU: Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor, popularly known as Neelofa, and her husband Muhammad Haris Muhammad Ismail (better known as PU Riz) are popular celebrity influencers.
Yet in recent months, they have been in the news for the wrong reasons, and now made infamous for continued breaches of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) under the Malaysia’s Movement Control Orders (MCO).
From a wedding ceremony that clearly violated social distancing requirements, a questionable “work trip” to Langkawi, to crossing state lines for a carpet shopping trip and hosting a family gathering on the first day of Hari Raya Aidilfitri, they not only committed multiple infringements but also blithely posted these on social media.
This week, they pleaded not guilty to charges of failing to register with the MySejahtera tracing app at the carpet shop in Negeri Sembilan. Police announced that they would not be pressing charges for crossing state borders, on the advice of the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
Immediately after the hearing, netizens pointed out that Neelofa did not wear a mask under her niqab at the Seremban Magistrate Court as required by the COVID-19 ordinances. Investigation into this latest saga has begun.
CELEBRITY SLIP UPS?
Unfortunately, Neelofa and PU Riz are not the only celebrities breaking COVID-19 rules. While early on in the pandemic, Malaysian celebrities had come together to remind Malaysians to abide by the SOPs, many have been seen blatantly ignoring them.
Police have started investigations into Siti Nurhaliza, one of Malaysia’s most popular singers, for holding an event to commemorate the birth of her newborn baby. Several of her guests and other dignitaries were reported to have crossed state lines to attend the event.
This disregard for rules go beyond the poor behaviour of a few individuals and seem to be somewhat commonplace.
Over the past few months, a number of Instagram influencers have been fined for providing false information in their travel applications while others were fined for Hari Raya video greetings without a mask.
A fashion show by local brand Leeyanarahman Collection in Kuala Lumpur held in March showed many fashion show attendees without their masks on.
Anger towards celebrity breaches of SOPs has bubbled over. A national petition to put Neelofa and her husband in jail gathered 25,000 signatures in less than 36 hours, but the demands include a halting of the double-standards in law enforcement and understandably so.
On the same day in April that Neelofa, her husband and her family members were fined a total of RM60,000 (US$14,500) for holding a wedding without social distancing and masks, a street vendor in Kelantan was fined RM50,000 for keeping his burger stall open beyond 10pm, sparking angry comparisons. No wonder Neelofa quickly offered to pay the burger seller’s fine.
The frustration over the double standards also seem to revolve around a perceived higher burden of proof for celebrities. Most celebrities and dignitaries caught on camera breaching SOPs are called in for investigations before they are charged.
Some regular citizens, however, are given immediate summons on the spot well beyond their financial means without the need for further investigations. Some have spent time in jail because of their inability to pay the fine or appeal against the charges.
Do these personalities think they are above the law? Do they not know they’re breaking the law?
READ: Commentary: Mixed messaging, misinformation in Malaysia are complicating compliance with COVID-19 rules
It might be a few bad eggs but it’s hard to shake off the feeling of injustice. While ordinary Malaysians are made to stay home, celebrities could not only walk around without their masks, they could also hold events like the Iftar party on Apr 29 in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
Worse, celebrities seem overly fixated on how the MCO will impact them and are unbothered with the vast challenges faced by the country thrown up by the pandemic.
Kamal Adli and Uqasha Senrose, another celebrity couple, announced in end-March plans to have three wedding celebrations. They said they hope that SOP restrictions would be eased by then. Netizens were quick to point out that they should hope COVID-19 numbers come down instead.
DISPLAYS OF EXTRAVAGANCE
Indeed, the most painful realisation is how extravagantly these celebrities live while the rest of the nation suffers.
Many on social media have pointed out how the brazen displays of wealth and luxury are offensive at a time when others have lost jobs, are suffering sharp drops of income, or are unwell.
Given that a number of these celebrities tap Islamic hijabi trends to engage their followers, there have also been questions about how pious they actually are and whether they are the sort of role models people should be looking up to.
Some have pointed out too that Neelofa’s spouse, PU Riz, is an Islamic preacher. Yet, the couple’s demonstrations of self-indulgence and outright disregard of SOP breaches run counter to the moderation and honesty expected of religious spokespersons.
READ: Commentary: Frustrated with tightened COVID-19 restrictions, Johor residents hope this MCO is the last
FOCUSING ON FIGHTING THE PANDEMIC
While celebrities who continually flout SOP restrictions with no regard for the dangers of COVID-19 have come under huge criticism, there are a handful of fans who seem to unwaveringly support their Insta-heroes.
Neelofa, for example, continues to have a huge following on Instagram, with some calling her a “strong girl” for overcoming the controversy around her. That too is problematic if such behaviours are setting the standards for young Malaysians and sending the wrong signal about the seriousness with which COVID-19 rules should be treated with.
When artistes keep breaking the law with impunity and seem to get away with mere slaps on their wrists, public frustration can fuel resistance against the rules and divert needed attention on breaking the chain of transmission.
This lack of focus on fighting the pandemic is even more dangerous now that Malaysia’s new daily infection numbers have reached 6,000 cases, with ICU beds quickly filling up and the number of dead rising.
Hospitals in Kedah have already declared they will no longer allow chronic patients into the ICU. A hospital in Sungai Buloh, Selangor, has even set up refrigerated shipping containers just to store bodies of the dead.
The situation is increasingly dire and Malaysians need to focus on the pandemic to reduce its spread, instead of getting distracted by incessant celebrity dramas.
Celebrities like Neelofa too can do their part – by obeying the law.
Dr Serina Rahman, Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, writes from Johor where she’s in lockdown with the rest of Malaysia.