COVID-19 arrived on our shores in early 2020 and has been a scourge among us for some 18 months. For almost this entire period, the country has been under the leadership of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his Perikatan Nasional coalition.
More than 800,000 people have contracted the disease, and more than 6,000 have died. The only action that the federal government regularly and mechanically takes in an effort to combat the virus is imposing lockdowns.
Although lockdowns are necessary in arresting the transmission of the virus, the Malaysian experience has been unimpressive. Consider the recent decisions by this government.
Daily new infections spiked in April 2021 to about 4,000, with daily deaths at around 20, resulting in the re-imposition of the movement-control order (MCO) in May. Nonetheless, daily new infections rose to 7,500 and fatalities to around 70. This led to the extension of the MCO from June 1.
The result was a daily average increase of 6,300 cases and nearly 80 deaths. From July 3, the government decided on an enhanced MCO for Selangor, which immediately impacted Kuala Lumpur, in effect, the greater Klang Valley.
As I write, the daily numbers are on a clear upward trend. The lockdowns have therefore not even achieved their principal purpose.
In fact, the spread of Covid-19 has worsened despite emergency and lockdowns. Active clusters have jumped to nearly 900, an all-time high. And most significantly, despite these measures, a record breaking 11,618 new cases were recorded yesterday. On July 8, 135 deaths occurred.
So, if lockdowns have not achieved its primary objective of transmission prevention in Malaysia, the consequences of ill-conceived lockdowns have been negative in the extreme.
We have lost our fundamental liberties, including freedoms of movement, assembly, association and religion. Democratic space has shrunk substantially. The right to earn a livelihood has been denied to millions. The right to carry on business has been severely prejudiced. The income of large numbers of Malaysians have disappeared or substantially diminished. Everyone is poorer. Education rights, from kindergarten to university, have been stifled. Our spirits have been crushed.
Contrary to medical advice, exercise and physical activities are prohibited. Sports fields are fenced off. Ghost cities and towns scar our landscape. Malls, shops and restaurants are not permitted to open. Families living in tightly confined accommodation have broken down under enormous stress. Divorces and domestic violence are on the increase. Mental health issues have ballooned. Most tragically, suicides have become a daily occurrence. Our dignity as a people have been trampled upon. Life is diminished. Despair everywhere. Fellowship of men and women severely restricted. Our humanity challenged. The cure is far more harmful than the disease.
All these consequences are man-made. They were, and are, wholly avoidable if only we had a government that considered and acted in the public interest. Malaysia has dramatically worsened under the watch of the Muhyiddin’s administration.
Since it is the government that has ordered and enforced, by the might of the State, and at the peril of penal sanction, employers to cease business and employees to abandon workplaces, the same government is duty-bound to provide actual financial support in the form of grants to employers and salaries to employees affected by their orders. Thus, the government should have paid out about 60% to 70% of their monthly income to employees in the private sector who were directed to stay at home.
Governments in the UK, Germany, Australia and Singapore (to name a few) have done just that. The ability of our citizens and foreigners to earn income has been destroyed by no fault of their own, but by governmental decree.
Indeed, all of us desire to return to productive work. The government should have issued bonds to fund monthly cash payments to employers and employees. After all, the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) has nearly a trillion ringgit which could be used to buy government bonds to finance such payments to employers and employees. There is ample liquidity in our system.
Instead, the government has made the reckless miscalculation of allowing the poorer sections of society to withdraw their savings, built-up by them over decades by compulsory saving, from the EPF fund. The purpose of mandatory contributions to the EPF is to act as a safety net, by ensuring employees have savings when they retire. Such savings are severely diminished by withdrawals over a few months to pay for mere existence.
It runs contrary to the very purpose of the EPF scheme. Allowing people to withdraw their saving before retirement means losing the benefit of compound interest over a number of years. Their nest-eggs are exhausted well before their retirement. It is essentially a decision which forces younger people to bear the brunt of bailing out the economy and robs them of their retirement income. We do not have a Welfare State, with any structured support for the poor or needy; emphasising the importance of EPF savings in later life.
Predictably, and tragically, the past few months have seen millions of ordinary Malaysians and migrants entering the category of extreme poverty – unprecedented for Malaysia. This was an entirely foreseeable consequence of imposing persistent, endless lockdowns without providing adequate, if any, income support to the most economically vulnerable. Many are now facing starvation. Hundreds of thousands are struggling to put food on their tables. Thousands have gone without meals for days. The government has done nothing in alleviating such poverty. This is outrageous and unacceptable.
The white flag of surrender genuinely reflects the depths to which glorious, blessed and bountiful Malaysia has receded to in recent months because of ill-conceived government policies. Without doubt, this is our worst human condition since Merdeka.
Even during the Emergency before Merdeka, Malayans enjoyed food security. I remember my late father telling me about the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945 when rice, vegetables, fish and meat were scarce, and tapioca and ragi were substitutes. Yet even then few starved.
The situation today is that those who have difficulties feeding themselves simply have no money to purchase food, which is plentiful, provided one has money in the pocket. Many have resorted to thefts from supermarkets. But what a comparison between the actions and omissions of a government of an independent, sovereign country in the third decade of the 21st century with that of a brutal, militant, foreign, imperial power occupying Malaya some 80 years ago. That represents the level of our descent.
Remaining silent when thousands of our fellow citizens are dying and millions suffering in these unprecedented times is not an option. This unelected government is bankrupt of ideas. Politicians are only concerned about staying in power. They have completely abrogated their duty to the populace. Some of them publicly flaunt their lifestyle, displaying their disconnect with the daily grind of ordinary folk. Seldom in today’s online world of transparency and accountability has the gulf between the governors and the governed grown so wide. This is unconscionable. Nero fiddles while Rome burns.
Meanwhile, it has been left to charities and more fortunate private citizens to step in and feed the hungry. While the generosity and willingness of Malaysians to look after each other is commendable, it should never have been left just to us to feed each other to survive. It is plainly not good enough. Where is our government when it is most needed? Nonetheless, we must all, in whatever way we can, continue to support the most vulnerable in our community and continue to call, loudly and persistently, on the Muhyiddin-led government to step up or step down.
In 1948, Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about the tragedies of his native South Africa was published under the arresting title “Cry, the Beloved Country”. That serves as the cry of millions of anguished Malaysians at the disastrous policies, decisions, actions and omissions of the Muhyiddin-led government, which will be consigned to the dustbin of history when we finally go to the ballot box during the 15th General Election. The tragedy is that could be as distant as July 2023: Yes, two years away. But in the meantime, what devastation and suffering are wreaked by them. – July 15, 2021.
* Tommy Thomas is Malaysia’s former attorney-general.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.