Coronavirus Asia

Confusion in Malaysia over emergency law

Govt says ordinances revoked last week; MPs, lawyers note they were not told

Oxygen tanks used by coronavirus patients at a Covid-19 Integrated Quarantine and Treatment Centre in Malaysia. PHOTO: BERNAMA
Oxygen tanks used by coronavirus patients at a Covid-19 Integrated Quarantine and Treatment Centre in Malaysia. PHOTO: BERNAMA

The Malaysian government's shock announcement that emergency ordinances ostensibly to fight the Covid-19 pandemic had been revoked last week, despite the worsening outbreak, has thrown the nation into confusion, with opposition MPs calling for an immediate explanation in Parliament yesterday.

Proceedings at the start of the day were delayed over the matter, at the heart of which is whether these laws remain effective after the Cabinet decision on July 21, as thousands have been fined, arrested or investigated under these rules since then.

Democratic Action Party deputy chairman Gobind Singh Deo asked: "Why were we not informed? When was it revoked and whose decision was it and was it according to procedure and what is the impact to the wider public?"

As the revocation has not been gazetted, it has also left lawyers unsure about how to advise their clients.

Jelutong MP Sanisvara Rayer said prosecutors were still proceeding with cases as "they have not been informed of the withdrawal of these ordinances".

Lawyers contacted by The Straits Times said they were "honestly waiting for confirmation" on how to proceed in cases in which their clients would be affected.

Constitutional law professor Shad Saleem Faruqi told ST the cancellation of the ordinances "must be gazetted (to take effect) although it can be backdated".

Parti Keadilan Rakyat communications director Fahmi Fadzil noted that between July 21 and 25, more than 2,200 fines were issued for breaches of the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act, with many of them over RM1,000 (S$320) as allowed under an ordinance that raised the limit.

The Bar Council's constitutional law committee chairman Andrew Khoo said "at the minimum, the excess would have to be refunded if the compound" was issued after the effective date of the withdrawal. He expected that those arrested for dissent under the so-called "fake news" ordinance, are "very likely to be released and immediately re-arrested under existing non-emergency laws".

Bukit Mertajam MP Steven Sim said: "If the Prime Minister being admitted to hospital due to diarrhoea can be announced through a press statement, how can such an important issue like revocation of emergency ordinances not be announced to the public?" He was referring to Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's ailment last month.

De facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan, who had dropped the bombshell on Monday, said he had been instructed by the Speaker Azhar Harun to respond on Aug 2, the day after Malaysia's seven-month state of emergency expires.

"Get a new ruling from the Speaker (to explain now)," he said, in response to demands that the issue be clarified immediately.

Even Deputy Speaker Azalina Othman, who presided over the morning session, admitted: "I am in the same situation (of being in the dark)." She said she could not overrule the Speaker's ruling.

Malaysians are up in arms over the sudden announcement of the ordinances' cancellation - gazetted without parliamentary approval due to the state of emergency declared on Jan 11 - which the government said was essential to fight the Covid-19 outbreak.

Daily cases had averaged fewer than 3,000 when the emergency was promulgated, but have shot up to over 14,000 now.

"It is farcical that the ordinances supposedly crucial to fight Covid-19 when cases were below 5,000 daily are being revoked when cases and deaths are at record highs," Parti Warisan Sabah deputy president Darell Leiking told ST.

The announcement that the ordinances had been withdrawn and that the emergency would not be extended beyond Aug 1 came just a day after Umno president Zahid Hamidi instructed all 38 of the party's MPs to "vote to repeal the emergency proclamation and ordinances" which have "clearly failed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and was instead a political ploy to emasculate parliamentary democracy". Umno forms the largest bloc of the government bench.

This has fuelled the belief, as Umno information chief Shahril Hamdan claimed, that the Muhyiddin administration is avoiding a test of its majority that has been in serious doubt since Zahid declared earlier this month that the party no longer supported the Premier and called for his resignation.

However, most Umno MPs continue to hold government positions and have said they remain steadfast with the administration. Only seven have publicly stated they no longer back Mr Muhyiddin. Nonetheless, on paper, this leaves the Perikatan Nasional administration slightly short of a majority of the 220 members. Two seats are vacant in Parliament

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2021, with the headline 'Confusion in Malaysia over emergency law'. Subscribe