Malaysia’s fragile Perikatan Nasional government has found itself in yet another public relations quandary of its own making following a ruling granting a quarantine waiver for travelling cabinet ministers despite a coronavirus pandemic that shows little sign of abating. The announcement of the policy was met with widespread condemnation if not outright ridicule, with many describing it as reflective of the double standards on Covid-19 protocol as ordinary people shelter in place under a national lockdown that limits travel and economic activity. Under the ruling by Health Minister Adham Baba, cabinet ministers returning to the country from any official overseas visits will only need to be “observed” by an authorised officer for a period of three days “or to undergo surveillance until he may be discharged without danger to the public”. Echoing Hong Kong protests, Malaysians have ‘five demands’ for king When pressed on the issue, Adham admitted that the exemption order was not based on science but was made because of the need to allow cabinet ministers to take overseas trips in order to bring foreign investments back into the country at a time when the economy is suffering. Speaking to The Star newspaper, Adham assured Malaysians that the itineraries of ministers would be closely monitored and the leaders released from isolation only “if the health authorities are completely certain that the minister is not a threat to the health of the community”. “If there is even the slightest indication that they may be a carrier or suffering from symptoms, then they will be placed under further observation until the health authorities are completely satisfied before releasing them,” he was quoted as saying. The three-day period is a week less than Malaysia’s mandatory 10-day quarantine for those taking either international or domestic flights. The exemption order, which came into force on Tuesday and is effective through August 1, came just three days after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin returned from a brief trip to Indonesia to meet with that country’s president, Joko Widodo . The ruling was met with fierce pushback from Malaysians, who called out the government for its double standards on the matter, pointing to the 950 people who were arrested on Sunday alone for breaching various anti-coronavirus measures such as physical distancing. Public health experts also criticised the decision, with the Malaysian Health Coalition, a group of high-ranking medical professionals, saying they opposed it “in the strongest way possible” because the Health Ministry did not “sufficiently explain the rationale, science, evidence or facts” behind it. “The Exemption Order institutionalises double standards that undermine the national effort to curb Covid-19,” it said in a statement, adding that these standards were “not based on science or evidence” and that “they will worsen the trust deficit between the [people] and politicians”. Despite furious efforts by officials – including the nation’s top health civil servant, Noor Hisham Abdullah – to defend the three-day quarantine period for ministers as workable, even politicians ostensibly aligned with Muhyiddin’s fragile government have spoken out. Malaysian-Chinese see red over Lunar New Year reunion dinner policy flip-flop “There is a risk if those who are infected are unknowingly released early, leading to them to infect more people,” said former prime minister Najib Razak, warning that the new order could lead to the import of more aggressive coronavirus mutations into the country, which has recorded 248,316 Covid-19 cases since January 2020. Another politician, Puad Zakarshi of the United Malays National Organisation, said in a statement that the ruling was made only to spare Muhyiddin from quarantine following his return from Jakarta – his first overseas trip since he took power in March last year. Puad’s comment earned him the threat of legal action from the Prime Minister’s Office. Ordinary Malaysians also took to social media to vent their anger on the matter. Lim Wei Jiet, a lawyer, tweeted: “When laws are not followed to curb the virus, many will die and suffer. A single spark can light a prairie fire.” Opposition politicians also weighed in, such as former education minister Maszlee Malik, who tweeted: “We would never have expected Malaysia to go to this level … If it is not clearly a double standard, then what is it?” The hashtag #AdhamBabaLetakJawatan (“Adham Baba, Resign”) quickly began trending on Malaysian Twitter, with angry netizens demanding he step down. The issue of perceived double standards has been a heated one in Malaysia, which has gone through two full national lockdowns and has implemented any number of more moderate measures in a bid to stem the spread of the virus. Last year, the minister of plantation industries and commodities, Khairuddin Aman Razali, was fined 1,000 ringgit (US$247) for breaching quarantine protocols following an unofficial trip to Turkey in an incident that received widespread attention and condemnation. A member of parliament also sparked outrage after tweeting a photo of himself buying banana fritters without wearing a mask, with some calling for his resignation or demanding that the police investigate him. The deputy health minister, Noor Azmi Ghazali, was slammed last March after he posted a photo on his Facebook page of him and an MP sharing a meal with about 30 students during the nation’s first lockdown, which prohibited social gatherings. He later removed the photograph. Could Malaysia’s fake halal meat scandal impact its export reputation? In October, Muhyiddin promised Malaysians in a televised address that there would be no double standards in quarantine orders or anti-coronavirus measures. Azmil Tayeb, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Science Malaysia , said the latest exemption order was “ utterly ludicrous and out of touch with reality”, as well as not being scientifically valid. “This government is bungling its Covid-19 response, as evidenced by inexplicable policies and constant backtracking,” he said. “If there’s an election now, it will lose badly. Its only salvation will be the distribution of vaccines. If there’s double standards and incompetency in that as well, then its electoral fate is sealed.” Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition came to power last year following a political coup that saw the now-opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan turfed out of power just 21 months after winning elections. In January, at Muhyiddin’s request, King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad declared a national emergency over the coronavirus, a move that suspended parliament and allows Muhyiddin’s government to rule by fiat, although new elections have been promised for next year.