Politics is Wrecking Malaysia’s Pandemic Response

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Politics is Wrecking Malaysia’s Pandemic Response

The COVID-19 crisis offers a convenient pretext for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to hold on to power.

Politics is Wrecking Malaysia’s Pandemic Response

A doctor takes a nasal swab from a child to test for possible coronavirus infection in Bangi, Malaysia on July 13, 2021.

Credit: Depositphotos

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin recently announced the easing of COVID-19 curbs for fully vaccinated people – those who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose – even though only 27 percent of Malaysia’s population has been fully vaccinated.

The move, effective from Tuesday, allows for interdistrict travel, religious prayers, individual outdoor sports, and dine-in at restaurants in states that have met federal requirements such as reduced average case numbers and high vaccination rates.

However, most of these states have regressed amid a surge in COVID-19 infections nationwide. Malaysia reported an average of about 19,000 new cases per day over the past week, while the country’s coronavirus death toll hit a record daily high of 360 fatalities on the day of Muhyiddin’s address.

While the exemption of COVID-19 rules may provide relief to thousands of businesses forced to close since June, others worry that the move could lead to a lot of avoidable damage and fuel the spread of the more contagious Delta variant, which is just as transmissible by those who have been vaccinated.

Malaysia’s aggressive vaccination campaign, despite being one of the fastest in the world, hasn’t paid off quite yet. High COVID-19 hospitalization rates continue to clog up public health facilities, which has led to an increase in coronavirus patients brought dead to hospitals.

Government health officials have attributed the current upward trend in COVID-19 cases to the easing of movement restrictions last month and a dominant Delta strain. This suggests that further lifting of coronavirus curbs as case numbers climb is a combustible mix.

So, why is Muhyiddin pushing ahead with this dangerous gamble, especially when his administration has had little success in bringing the pandemic under control?

Muhyiddin’s recent use of executive orders to suspend parliament and silence dissent have reached a level that his opponents view as dictatorial, leaving little room for any benefit of doubt.

Since coming to power in March last year, Muhyiddin has shown time and again that he will do anything to avoid a vote of confidence in parliament.

He has deliberately put motions of confidence filed against him at the back of the parliamentary agenda, declared a state of emergency to shut down the legislature, prevented members of parliament from holding debates, and suspended parliamentary sitting to buy time.

Central to Muhyiddin’s antics is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the pretext of quelling COVID-19 risks, Muhyiddin’s unelected government has stretched constitutional bounds by delaying, suspending, shortening, and misleading parliament.

His striking ability to evade attempts to unseat him makes it difficult to simply assume that the 74-year-old leader will take the high road and test his majority in parliament, as he promised last week. As COVID-19 numbers show no signs of abating, the reconvening of parliament – scheduled to resume on September 6 – remains in question.

The virus has killed more than 10,700 people in Malaysia and infected at least 1.26 million, more than three-quarters of which occurred during the months-long emergency. Public discontentment over the government’s COVID-19 policies has since grown.

Muhyiddin claims to still command majority support in parliament although lawmakers from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) said they no longer back Muhyiddin’s leadership.

UMNO, Malaysia’s largest political party, has been unhappy with playing second fiddle to the premier’s party. At least two cabinet ministers have resigned in line with UMNO’s decision to withdraw support for Muhyiddin’s government.

On the flipside, about 31 MPs from the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional alliance have agreed to support Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) government. The list, however, included at least three UMNO MPs who were present with UMNO president Zahid Hamidi when he announced the party was withdrawing its support for Muhyiddin’s government.

Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers from the Pakatan Harapan bloc claim they were offered cash, ministerial posts, and other incentives to defect and support the PN government. They also insist that the premier misled the king about the level of support he has.

It remains to be seen whether Muhyiddin will get the numbers he needs ahead of the confidence vote. If all else fails, a worsening pandemic could serve as another excuse to defer parliament.