Do Malaysia’s politicians think they’re exempt from Covid-19 rules?
- From ignoring mandatory quarantine after an overseas trip to holding a mid-lockdown birthday party, some officials have blatantly flouted the law
- While tens of thousands of Malaysians have faced fines or jail terms for being caught breaking lockdown rules, these officials have escaped censure
Plantation, industries and commodities Minister Khairuddin Aman Razali was recently lambasted online for breaching mandatory quarantine after returning from an unofficial overseas trip in July, but he has so far escaped punishment – a decision that opposition leaders have questioned.
Khairuddin returned from Turkey on July 7 and attended parliament on July 13. Under Malaysian regulations, all those entering the country must be quarantined for 14 days and tested at least twice.
“Why is special treatment given for a Cabinet minister? People have tested negative but were found positive a few days later. This is why the 14-day quarantine rule must be obeyed by everyone, including the minister,” said opposition politician Teresa Kok in parliament.
Criticism of Khairuddin was compounded when people pointed out that he had rebuked a Covid-19 patient who started a new cluster after failing to comply with home quarantine rules following a trip to India.
“First one person, then two people, now it has increased to over 20 people – enough to shock the nation,” Khairuddin said on Facebook on August 4, blaming the patient, a restaurant owner, for failing to comply with standard operating procedures.
The restaurateur was sentenced to five months in jail and a 12,000 ringgit (US$2,860) fine for breaching the directive to shelter at home.
It was reported that Khairuddin was tested for the coronavirus upon returning from Turkey and again a week later, with both tests turning up negative. He told local media the fact that he was allowed entry into the royal palace last week proved that he had tested negative for Covid-19, adding that he had been tested for a third time before attending an event there.
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The parliament session Khairuddin attended on July 13 – while he was still meant to be in quarantine – was key to the Perikatan Nasional administration, which came to power through a political coup in late February after dethroning the Pakatan Harapan government, which now sits in opposition.
Analysts have said that without high parliamentary turnout from politicians on both sides of the divide, legislative defeats for the government would be inevitable.
The perceived immunity from punishment received by Khairuddin and other politicians has raised the hackles of a restive populace grappling with unemployment and the economic blowback from a months-long nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Early this month, a video of a teenager crying after being fined 1,000 ringgit for briefly pulling his mask down went viral, with many saying the penalty was too high. More recently, a senior citizen was fined 8,000 ringgit and jailed for a day for flouting her quarantine order.
Under National Security Council rules, face masks are mandatory in public and crowded areas, indoors as well as outdoors – but Khairuddin is not the only politician to have flouted them.
MP Ahmad Maslan sparked criticism earlier this month after tweeting a photograph of himself buying banana fritters without wearing a mask, with some calling for his resignation or tagging the official Twitter account of the Malaysian police in response.
In March, deputy health minister Noor Azmi Ghazali was slammed for a Facebook photograph of him and another elected representative sharing a meal with about 30 students during the nation’s movement control order, which prohibited gatherings and social visits. He later removed the photograph.
The same week, deputy rural development minister Abdul Rahman Mohamad was spotted breaching social distancing rules by having an impromptu birthday party. He defended the gathering by saying a group of people had turned up at his house as a surprise and he “didn’t want to chase them away”.
Punk artist and activist Fahmi Reza created a comic pointing out the difference in punishments, calling it “the rule of law between two classes”. “Ordinary people who don’t properly wear their masks – 1,000 ringgit fine,” he wrote. “Politicians who wear no masks at all – no fine.”
Health systems specialist Yap Wei Aun, an adviser to the country’s former health minister, warned Malaysians that complacency had to be avoided at this key juncture in the fight against Covid-19.
“As humans, we take our cues from what others are doing. Hence leadership by example is critical,” he said. “Making exceptions here and there will fuel this complacency and make enforcement difficult. For example, even individuals who have developed immunity to Covid-19 through infection must still wear masks and be seen to wear masks – this is part of our collective battle against complacency.”