COVID-19 surge creates new headache for beleaguered PM Muhyiddin

As Malaysia celebrated its national day at the end of August, it appeared to have brought COVID-19 to heel.

But two months later, the Southeast Asian nation of 30 million people finds itself confronted with a brutal resurgence of the virus centred mostly on Sabah on the Malaysian part of Borneo.

Malaysia’s poorest state, like the rest of the country, has been shaken by political manoeuvring since a power grab within the ruling coalition led to the collapse of the federal government and the emergence of a new political alliance under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

After politicians linked to Muhyiddin tried to topple Sabah’s state government, an election was called for September 26. But as politicians and their entourages travelled across the mountainous state canvassing for votes, COVID-19 was also spreading.

“Some estimates show that about a third of the population are not citizens with limited access to healthcare and every incentive to avoid it for fear of arrest. Against that backdrop, the recent elections involving multiple gatherings, a lack of compliance with SOPs (protocols) and extensive travel probably fuelled the current wave of COVID-19.”

Daily cases across Malaysia have topped 1,000 for the past three days, more than three times higher than the peaks during the second wave of the outbreak in June. More than half the cases have been in Sabah, where people have been dying from the disease on an almost daily basis.

Movement restrictions have been imposed not only in the Borneo state but also in Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding state of Selangor as well as a number of other districts in PeninsularDr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the Director-General of the Ministry of Health, said on Wednesday it would probably be three more weeks before the curve would be flattened and urged people to stay at home as much as possible and comply with protocols if they did go out.

“That is the way to control COVID-19 and break the chain of infection,” he said at his daily media conference.

Budget collaboration?

The outbreak has now emerged as a considerable headache for Muhyiddin, who broke with the previous administration to work with parties that were defeated in the last general election in May 2018.

With a majority of just two in the 222-seat parliament, the prime minister has been buffeted in recent weeks by forces from within his own camp and in the opposition, raising the prospect that his government’s first Budget – due to be tabled on Friday afternoon – would instead become a vote of confidence in its ability to lead the country.

Last month, in a move that shocked many Malaysians, Muhyiddin proposed a state of emergency that would have allowed him to bypass parliament and avoid the vote.

The move was rejected by the king who instead urged Malaysia’s bickering politicians to work together for the sake of the country.

The government has already said the economy could contract by as much as 5.5 percent this year. Recovery in 2021 will depend partly on how the pandemic plays out – not only in Malaysia but elsewhere in the world.

In an unprecedented move, Finance Minister and former banker Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz this week met opposition politicians to hear their proposals.

They told him the government would get their backing if the spending plans included six measures – among them more money for the health ministry to fight the pandemic, enhanced social protection and an extended loan moratorium.

“I expect more handouts, more goodies,” said Tricia Yeoh, chief executive of IDEAS, a Malaysian think-tank.

Lower-income Malaysians were already suffering as a result of the lockdown that was imposed from March until June and effectively closed down all but the most essential sectors of the economy.Families on the Edge, a study of low-income urban families commissioned by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), found that cash assistance provided by the government in an earlier relief package, had eased some of the pressure on Malaysia’s poorest, but it also found high levels of vulnerability, particularly among households headed by single mothers, the disabled people and the elderly.


“Many Malaysians were already vulnerable prior to the pandemic,” said Muhammed Abdul Khalid, head of public policy group DM Analytics Malaysia, who worked on the study. “Between 2016 and 2019 despite the economy growing and GDP [gross domestic product] per capita increasing, relative poverty in Malaysia increased to 17 percent.” A family with a monthly income of 3,000 Malaysian ringgit ($724) is considered to be in relative poverty.

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