Coronavirus: Malaysians united in fight, but divided in blame as politics rises again

PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - The second wave of coronavirus infections that began last month is becoming the defining issue for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's leadership, as politicking over the impact of the outbreak has resumed, following a pause during the initial weeks of movement curbs and business shutdowns in place since March 18.

Finger-pointing at the grassroots levels - played out on social media as the Movement Control Order (MCO) bars any non-essential gatherings - has escalated, culminating in Health Minister Adham Baba and his Pakatan Harapan (PH) predecessor trading accusations last week over which side is to blame for Malaysia adding an average of 1,000 cases per week since the middle of March when the tally stood at just 238.

It has led other figures, including former premier Najib Razak, to jump in with their opinions that have centred on the failure to stop the Tabligh Islamic missionary gathering held from Feb 27 to March 1.

The event, held at the Sri Petaling mosque on the outskirts of the capital and attended by about 15,000 adherents, is responsible for more than a third of the 5,425 Covid-19 cases to date.

"This is definitely bigger than Goods and Services Tax or 1MDB," risk consultancy Bower Group Asia's director Adib Zalkapli told The Straits Times, referring to the unpopular levy and multibillion-dollar scandal that are widely seen as leading to the downfall of Najib's Barisan Nasional (BN) government in 2018.

"Economic recovery before 2023 is key. Without clear signs of economic recovery, the PM will head into the next general election on his own."

Tan Sri Muhyiddin came to power on March 1 after an intense period of political intrigue that culminated in the so-called Sheraton Move, where most of his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and a faction from PKR led by Senior Minister (Economic Cluster) Azmin Ali joined hands with opposition parties, such as Umno and the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), in a loose Perikatan Nasional (PN) pact.

It replaced the PH government, which crumbled just 21 months after ending Umno's unbroken rule of Malaysia since independence by winning the May 2018 election.

But amid attacks over PN's legitimacy - both sides claimed to hold the parliamentary majority - the MCO was announced on March 16, after the number of positive coronavirus cases more than doubled in 48 hours.

The initial weeks of the MCO saw significant solidarity and constructive criticism to stymie the spread of the deadly disease, but frustration has peaked over the outbreak that has forced Malaysians to stay at home and crippled most of the economy.

A blame game that had been festering blew up on Saturday, when Dr Adham blamed PH for failing to stop the Tabligh gathering.

 
 
 
 

"On March 10, we had a new cluster appear which the previous government failed to contain, which is the Tabligh cluster," he said in a teleconference call with Umno president Zahid Hamidi broadcast live on social media.

"If this cluster was prevented the second wave of infections wouldn't have happened."

Previous health minister Dzulkefly Ahmad hit back the same day, pointing out that the PH government collapsed on Feb 24 following the defection of Mr Muhyiddin's camp.

This left Malaysia with no government during the week the Tabligh meet was held, and a new Cabinet only being sworn in on March 9, he said.

"If there is a minister that was better-versed in the Tabligh gathering, it must be the Home Minister then, who is now Prime Minister. Maybe the PM was unaware, as there was a more serious agenda that distracted him then.

"Disappointingly, the focus on managing the Covid-19 crisis was hijacked when the Sheraton Move was triggered," he said.

PN leaders have countered that it was the National Disaster Management Agency headed by then deputy premier Wan Azizah Wan Ismail that was calling the shots on security measures to mitigate the outbreak.

 
 
 

Former PM Najib also pointed out that Kuala Lumpur City Hall, run by PH at the time, stated on Feb 17 it had no objections to the Tabligh event going ahead.

The past week has also seen social media posts and photos of political leaders from both sides of the divide allegedly breaking curbs on gatherings going viral and making headlines.

But with the number of new infections slowing to less than 100 daily since Saturday, focus has shifted to whether a battered economy can recover post-MCO.

Mr Muhyiddin is having to appease various factions across his coalition to keep a grip on his parliamentary majority, a situation that could obstruct efforts to cushion the impact of what is expected to be a year of recession.

Already, efforts to appoint many PN backbenchers to lead state agencies and government-linked firms have been widely panned, with PH chief Anwar Ibrahim calling it a "crime" to reward lawmakers when the public is suffering through the MCO.

Said Democratic Action Party (DAP) strategist Liew Chin Tong: "It is a matter of time when the economic needs of the people and the nation will reveal the harsh realities."