KUALA LUMPUR - Sabah and Penang chief ministers have shot back at International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali, who said state governments could face lawsuits from businesses should they insist on continuing the partial lockdown. He wanted them to heed the federal government's call to reopen more businesses.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin last Friday called for almost all economic sectors to reopen from Monday (May 4), while adopting healthcare precautions.
But eight of Malaysia's 13 states initially said they would continue with the movement control order (MCO) that was first imposed on March 18, and that they needed further discussions at the state level to decide when to reopen more. Tan Sri Muhyiddin calls the reopening "conditional MCO" or CMCO.
Datuk Seri Azmin, the second most senior person in Cabinet after Mr Muhyiddin, had on Monday said the states that chose not to allow more businesses to reopen could be sued by businesses.
But both Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal and Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said on Tuesday that they are trying to save lives.
The pro- and counter-arguments at reopening the economy, and how fast, are replayed globally as leaders grapple with painful "lives versus livelihood" debates.
"This is not the time to argue about the law. What we are trying to do is save lives in Sabah. We have to cooperate to save lives. We cannot restore the economy at the expense of people's lives," said Datuk Seri Shafie, as quoted by Malay Mail online news on Tuesday. "What if someone dies and they sue us?"
Penang's Mr Chow said in a Facebook post on Tuesday: "I wish to inform Senior Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali that the Penang state government and chief minister are ready to face any legal suits for protecting the 1.8 million Penangites."
Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari also said his state government would comply only with parts of the CMCO that it is comfortable with.
Sabah, Penang and Selangor are all opposition Pakatan Harapan states, which had complied with the federal government's stay-at-home orders.
The rebuff against the CMCO and the reply to Mr Azmin reflect the underlying political tensions that have been buried in the last two months since Perikatan Nasional came to power, as the country tries to fight back against the coronavirus.
Under the MCO, Malaysians could only leave their homes to buy groceries, food from restaurants that offer only takeaways, and to buy medicine.
The CMCO advises Malaysians to remain at home but allowed most shops and offices to reopen, with strict social distancing measures and other healthcare precautions.
Schools have remained shut and mass gatherings, including for religious services, are still banned.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, speaking about the lawsuit threat by Mr Azmin, said the states were not consulted about the reopening of more businesses.
"Who is this minister representing? Industries? Corporations? Under the federal system, states have the right to make decisions," Mr Anwar said in a live Facebook session on Tuesday. "What is wrong with negotiations? Negotiate with them. I don't think there would be a Menteri Besar or Chief Minister who is not concerned about unemployment issues."
Opposition MP Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen from the Democratic Action Party said, as quoted by Malay Mail, that the federal government should respect the different powers conferred to the states under the Federal Constitution.
Quoting one schedule of the Constitution, he said "it clearly says that both the federal (government) and states have the concurrent powers on public health and prevention of disease".
Former Johor menteri besar Mohamed Khaled Nordin, one of Umno's three vice-presidents, on Monday singled out a "senior minister in charge of economic affairs" as the problem for the non-compliance from all the states, reported The Star. He claimed that the states were not consulted on the CMCO.
Mr Azmin is also Senior Minister for Economy.
Datuk Khaled said: "This failure indicates significant weaknesses in leadership, strategy and coordination related to the restoration of the economy... This has complicated business and trade activity as Malaysia's economy is by nature cross-border."