On 12 January 2021, Malaysia’s King, Al-Sultan Abdullah, consented to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s request to declare a state of Emergency throughout the entire country. As it stands, the Emergency is scheduled to last until 1 August 2021. The King also consented to the formation of an independent committee to advise him on when to end the Emergency. This was Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s second request for a declaration of Emergency, having unsuccessfully done so back in October 2020.
Emergencies of the Past
Contextually, this is the fifth time that a state of Emergency has been declared in the country since its independence, as well as its third nationwide emergency. The first Emergency was declared in 1964 due to the confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia over the latter’s opposition towards the formation of Malaysia. Subsequent Emergencies were centred around domestic politics, including two declared upon the states of Sarawak and Kelantan due to power struggles, and one that lasted from 1969 to 1971 due to the bloody 13th May racial riots that resulted in the suspension of the Parliament and the executive powers being thrusted upon the specially-formed National Operations Council.
What’s the Emergency?
Officially, the Emergency was promulgated to provide the Government of Malaysia the “necessary powers to curb and prevent further spread of COVID-19 pandemic”. This followed after daily COVID-19 case numbers shot well into the thousands since the turn of the year. This is troubling as the country had only registered an estimated total of 13,000 cases at the start of Q4 2020, which has grown to almost 200,000 at the time of writing. As a consequence, the country’s health system was at its “breaking point” when the declaration was made.
To be noted, however, is that the civilian government (Cabinet) will be maintained in the current Emergency.
But with Emergency powers now in effect, the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) personnel are now empowered to detain those who violate Movement Control Order (MCO) SOPs — essentially granting them police powers. However, as the MAF’s primary role is war-fighting and patrolling in potentially hostile environments, this development has raised concerns on the potential ramifications of the military policing civilians in a non-conflict zone. Further compounding this worry is how the Emergency Ordinance provides officials with immunity against prosecution for acts done in good faith, leaving little to no room for legal recourse. Contextually, MAF personnel were first deployed in March 2020 to assist the police in manning roadblocks to restrict movement to and from certain areas following the implementation of the first MCO.
Furthermore, discussions have begun with private-sector hospitals on how they can be further involved in the management of COVID-19 patients to reduce the stresses on the public health system. Discussions have also begun with insurance providers to expand coverage schemes to include COVID-19 hospitalisation costs. While some argue that this could have and should have been done sooner, they are positive developments nonetheless.
Besides this, the government is also mulling increasing the penalty for violations of MCO SOPs from the current RM1,000 ceiling. This, according to Senior Minister Ismail Sabri, is meant to address cases involving entertainment outlets that set aside the paltry figure in anticipation of any raids on their premises, and employers who refuse to allow their migrant workers to undergo COVID-19 tests and fail to provide them with conducive lodging facilities. The introduction of a stiffer penalty will ostensibly create a greater deterrent effect and simultaneously compel SOP adherence.
A potential corollary benefit for greater fines for businesses would be addressing the perceptions of disproportionality in punishment. For instance, previous cases where a company manufacturing gloves was fined a paltry RM1,000 after failing to comply with COVID-19 preventive measures, including alleged failure to provide safe housing for its workers — and the ordinary man on the street being fined the same amount.
The House is Not in Order
With the Emergency in effect, both Houses of Parliament and all state legislative assemblies will no longer be sitting, while Parliamentary select committees can continue to function. In lieu of the ordinary legislative processes which promise debate and close scrutiny to any Bill tabled, Emergency Ordinances will now take its place and carry the full weight of the law.
On one hand, proponents of the Emergency are putting forth that this will allow the Government to legislate more effectively, and side-stepping any unnecessary politicking and impasses. This could prove important as the country’s political situation gravitates closer to Parliamentary deadlocks than ever before in history, and any delay in passing legislations could very well come at a high cost.
On the other hand, critics argue that this essentially grants the current administration a freehand to legislate through Emergency Ordinances at the expense of democratic checks and balances. They further argue that it remains to be seen why the government requires Emergency powers to handle the pandemic, given that it had announced stricter MCO SOPs just a day before the King proclaimed the Emergency.
Prior to this, the government had been able to control and reduce the rate of infection with MCO SOPs and military cooperation without resorting to Emergency powers. They were able to coordinate with the private sector to provide financial relief and assistance, as well as employee support.
Meanwhile in the Prime Minister’s address to announce the Emergency, he had warned that “anyone who tries to disrupt the Government’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s economy [will face] stern action against them to uphold national security and welfare of the people”. This raises concern due to the vagueness of what “national security and welfare of the people” entails specifically, and how words such as “disrupt the Government’s efforts” could potentially include legitimate criticisms.
While admittedly all Emergency Ordinances introduced can be annulled by Parliament when it reconvenes, the current state of Emergency and the COVID-19 situation mean that this could further delay the usual six-month limit between Parliamentary sittings.
The Elephant in the Room
While the official reasoning given for the Emergency is to handle the COVID-19 situation, the Emergency also grants Prime Minister Muhyiddin time to breathe and room to manoeuvre as his coalition faces political uncertainty. His Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition now appears to be a minority government with the support of only 108 Members of Parliament (MPs) following the withdrawal of support by three MPs from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The Emergency effectively prevents Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s majority support in the 222-seat Dewan Rakyat from being tested.
In terms of the federal opposition, it remains to be seen whether they are able to capitalise on the situation due to the lack of common ground between the parties. While Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition has 91 MPs, his continuing feud with two-time former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose unregistered Pejuang party has four MPs, and perhaps more importantly, the apparent support of Sabah’s Warisan party (nine MPs) means that there is yet to be a credible alternative who commands the majority support necessary to claim the Prime Minister position.
With Prime Minister Muhyiddin reassuring Malaysians that a general election will be held as soon as the “COVID-19 pandemic has subsided or fully recovered and elections are safe to be held”, the status of the Sarawak state assembly—due to dissolve in June this year, thereby requiring a state election to be held by 7 September—remains in limbo. This is as the national vaccination plan is only due to be completed by the end of this year, or early 2022.
With a potential end to the current political impasse in sight, political parties on all sides will be preparing to mobilise and lay the groundwork as soon as restrictions are loosened. For Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s PN coalition, its chances for success at the polls will be highly dependent on its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic while simultaneously mitigating the consequent economic shocks. As it stands, public support for his administration currently hovers at above 60%, down from about 80% in early 2020.
Complicating matters for Prime Minister Muhyiddin is UMNO, currently with 38 MPs, stating that they will not be working with his Bersatu party—which has 31 MPs—in the next general election, and intends to leave the ruling coalition.
Meanwhile, the Pejuang party, established by former Prime Minister Mahathir—who might retain residual support among segments of the Malay electorate—and former Youth Minister Syed Saddiq’s Muda party remain to be registered as political parties. This follows the rejection of their applications by the Registrar of Societies.
Moving into the next general election, what could play on the minds of the electorate will be the cause and aftermath of the Sabah state elections held on 26 September 2020. Triggered by political machinations rather than the ending of term, many view how COVID-19 preventive measures such as wearing face masks and physical distancing measures were not adhered to by politicians from both sides, and the subsequent decision to not require mandatory quarantine for those returning from Sabah, as the trigger for the current wave of COVID-19 infections that continues to plague the country.
This is on top of nearly non-stop politicking since the unexpected change in government in March 2020, which could see frustrated voters making their sentiment clear at the polls or a disenfranchisement in the process.
It is often said that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, yet, as it stands, the current administration has yet to sufficiently demonstrate why Emergency powers are needed to address the pandemic, with most, if not all of the measures adopted or being considered thus far able to be achieved through the ordinary legislative processes.
With Prime Minister Muhyiddin reassuring Malaysians that a general election will be held as soon as the pandemic has subsided and elections are safe to be held, the answer to the question of whether the Emergency will prove to be a shrewd decision in the long term will not be known. However, its effects on democracy, the economy and society might perhaps outlive the Emergency itself.