Mixed signals from the Malaysian government over its plans to reopen borders and minimise restrictions amid an increase in Omicron cases has led the public and some experts to question whether it is prioritising the economy over public health. Muhyiddin Yassin , a former prime minister who heads the National Recovery Council (NRC) tasked with guiding the country out of the Covid-19 pandemic, on Tuesday said a full reopening of borders to international tourists could take place by March to accelerate the economic recovery. To mitigate risks, Muhyiddin – the immediate predecessor to Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob – suggested the retention of departure and on-arrival tests. “To open selectively, Omicron is now all over the world, so we can’t pick and choose [which countries to open up to],” said Muhyiddin, who added that the sentiment was shared by Khairy Jamaluddin, the health minister who a day earlier had warned of a surge in cases. The NRC’s recommendation, which must be approved by Ismail Sabri’s Cabinet, was based on the country’s high vaccination rate, Muhyiddin said. Some 98 per cent of adults in the country of 33 million people have thus far received at least two doses of a vaccine, while 53 per cent have received an additional booster. Muhyiddin also waved off suggestions of a reimposition of blanket lockdowns if the Omicron surge worsened, saying doing so would severely hurt the economy. Malaysia rolled out multiple rounds of such lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 as it struggled to rein in infections after initial success in keeping the coronavirus at bay. “I don’t think we can afford to curb mobility anymore, let alone have anything close to or approximating a lockdown,” he said. While acknowledging that the largely unrestricted movement of people – particularly over the recent Lunar New Year period – played a role in adding to the rise in cases in recent days, Muhyiddin said the exponential increase was more due to the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant. Malaysia recorded 11,034 daily cases on Monday, though no deaths were recorded and ICU usage stood at 50.7 per cent. That contrasts to the country’s all-time infection peak in August, 2021, when daily cases stood at 24,599 and 303 deaths were recorded. In Malaysia, calls grow for child marriages to end by reforming laws “Even in Hong Kong, which practices a zero-Covid policy, cases are now in their hundreds already, that must be attributed to Omicron because the social behaviour has not changed,” Muhyiddin said. The remarks by Muhyiddin,74, did not contradict those by Khairy a day earlier, but some observers suggested the comments were a departure from the more cautious tone the health chief had used when discussing the Omicron onslaught. “We hope in a month or two, we can curb this Omicron wave or stabilise it. Other countries took the same amount of time to see a dip in Omicron cases,” Khairy had said. “If we all play our role by getting booster shots, encouraging our kids to take the vaccine, God willing, in a month or two, [we can have a happy Eid].” Lim Chee Han, of the research group Third World Network, said it was apparent from Muhyiddin’s remarks that his emphasis was on economic recovery. The expert likened the proposal to what he said was the government’s “mistake” in December 2020 to reopen state borders. That move is widely seen as an error that eventually led to Muhyiddin – then prime minister – declaring a state of national emergency. “Based on what [Muhyiddin] said, you can tell that it is not based on a public health perspective,” Lim said. Malaysia’s floods expose depth of its inability to handle climate change Online theories On social media, some commentators have questioned why cases should have risen so much more this month than in December and January - when much of the country was battling floods and social intermingling was at a high level. Among the unsubstantiated theories swirling in internet chat rooms was that the government was hoping news of the high infection levels would scare voters away from casting their votes in a looming by-election in Johor that must be called by March 22. That vote will pit the political camps led by Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri respectively against each other. James Chin, a Malaysia politics analyst with Australia’s University of Tasmania, said there was no truth to that theory. However, he said there was statistical evidence that people were less likely to go out to vote when Covid-19 levels were high. Chin said a large portion of ethnic Chinese voters had stayed away from the last two elections held during the pandemic in Melaka and Sarawak. This had led to significantly lower turnouts of as little as 50 per cent in some urban constituencies. “The same will be seen in Johor,” he predicted. Other observers expressed confusion over what they saw as mixed messages from the government. “Is he mad? Yesterday Khairy announced Malaysia was in an Omicron wave and we needed to prepare… Now Muhyiddin wants to open borders without quarantine,” said Ramya Kayvarasan on Twitter. Among the country’s majority Malay community, frustrations are growing that with cases on the increase the public could be looking at spending a third Eid in a row under lockdown if cases spiral out of control. “If you don’t want to let us celebrate Eid, just say it upfront,” said Twitter user Erin Hasriena, questioning the logic of opening the borders without compulsory quarantine. Khoo Yoong Khean, managing editor of the Malaysian Medical Gazette website, said that with many new public health interventions now and a better understanding of how the virus behaves, lockdowns should be the last resort when all else fails. “While I think lockdowns should be a thing of the past, current interventions need to be optimised and enforced,” Khoo said.