A shining light emerges in Malaysia in the man commanding its war on the Covid-19 outbreak

Malaysia's Director-General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah shied away from being called a national hero. PHOTO: NOOR HISHAM ABDULLAH/FACEBOOK

KUALA LUMPUR - Amid the chaos of shortages due to the hoarding of bread, hand sanitisers and even toilet paper, and more people being arrested for breaching the Movement Control Order (MCO) than actual confirmed coronavirus infections, Malaysians are afforded at least 20 minutes of calm every evening.

This is when Director-General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah informs the country how many new cases, deaths and recoveries were recorded in the past 24 hours, broadcast across national television channels and various social media platforms.

The plaudits for Datuk Noor Hisham's fact-based and scientifically-backed responses to questions on the pandemic have been in stark contrast to the brickbats over controversial and disputed statements by political leaders during the ongoing crisis.

Even his own boss Health Minister Adham Baba messed up his Covid-19 figures during the ministry's evening press conferences, before saying in a live talk show on Day 2 of the MCO that warm water will flush the virus from the throat and acid in the stomach will kill it.

The minister's advice was widely panned by medical experts and Malaysians alike. Coincidentally or not, he has not been seen on coronavirus update broadcasts again.

Instead, it took just 11 minutes after Datuk Noor Hisham took over the evening press conferences on Mar 21 for someone to comment on the Health Ministry's Facebook Live broadcast that he should take over as minister.

It was only on Sunday when Malaysians had to disagree with him - after the 57-year-old shied away from being called a national hero.

"It is not about me, it is about what we can do together as one for the (Covid-19 situation)," he said, when asked to comment on articles and social media posts declaring him a hero.

But even more telling was his sigh before speaking, indicating his annoyance with having to comment on what must have seemed a trivial topic amid dozens of lives being lost.

Technically, Dr Noor Hisham is in charge of just one department in the ministry, with the top civil servant there being the secretary-general. But his job title as Director-General of Health seems apt, having commanded Malaysia's war on the Covid-19 outbreak by clearly prioritising the containment of infections and saving lives.

One of the difficulties is in tracing potential patients from a Islamic missionary group's tabligh gathering Feb 27 to Mar 2, which has created a cluster of infections that makes up half of Malaysia's cases so far.

Some 2,000 of an estimated 16,000 who attended the tabligh event were Burmese refugees of Rohingya descent, many of whom have been reluctant to come forward due to lack of legal documentation.

But when asked how many of these refugees were being treated for Covid-19, Dr Noor Hisham simply said "we don't have a clear figure because we treat everybody the same".

While many aspects of Malaysia's response to the pandemic has been criticised, the work of healthcare workers in treating patients and tracking down their close contacts have been eulogised, with Dr Noor Hisham seen as a model leader for the thousands who don protective gear and risk life every day.

Despite this, the trained surgeon may have reason to be grateful, rather than arrogant.

Contrast this to the United States - which has the world's highest number of Covid-19 infections (over 160,000) and deaths (more than 3,000) - where the very man fighting to ensure an aggressive response to the pandemic has been accused of being part of a plot to undermine President Donald Trump.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci is one of the world's leading infectious disease experts and a member of the government's virus task force, yet he has been slammed as a fraud, with social media posts claiming that he is a member of a secret faction opposing the president being shared thousands of times.

In Malaysia, politicians have long faced a credibility crisis, gaining the trust of just 44 per cent of respondents - the lowest of any profession - according to a survey by global market researcher Ipsos last year. Previous polls indicated even lower approval levels.

But the silver lining is that steady hands like Dr Noor Hisham are trusted to run the show, a welcome counterbalance to the current climate of political instability in Malaysia.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.