KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob was in Johor at the weekend, trumpeting the government's achievements amid the Covid-19 pandemic in the run-up to the state election on March 12.
At the launch of the "Keluarga Malaysia Aspiration Tour" in Johor Baru on Saturday (March 5), he said Malaysia's economic recovery, political stability and social prosperity were due to close cooperation between the federal and state governments.
"The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the daily lives of Malaysian families, and the government was never negligent in providing assistance in terms of financial, social and employment opportunities," he said.
Datuk Seri Ismail, who is an Umno vice-president, pointed to various government initiatives, including the Stage Bus System Transformation programme, which connects Johor Baru to surrounding areas, as well as affordable housing and wireless broadband.
"Keluarga Malaysia", or Malaysian Family - a concept launched by Mr Ismail in August last year, shortly after he took office - espouses inclusiveness, togetherness and gratitude among everyone in the multiracial country.
Mr Ismail's tour in Johor included engagement sessions with residents to promote measures taken by the government towards restoring the economy and the lives of those affected by the pandemic.
In other developments, Covid-19 restrictions have been eased for the Johor polls compared with those held in Melaka and Sarawak last year, although a number of protocols remain in place.
Large-scale rallies are banned, with only 100 people allowed, or 50 per cent of a venue's capacity.
Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim had to be reminded by health officers to keep his face mask on while at a rally in Larkin on Saturday. Members and supporters of his Parti Keadilan Rakyat accused enforcement officers of being unfair.
Datuk Seri Anwar complained that many people could not hear him speak at the rally.
"In Parliament, the Speaker allowed me to take off my face mask to deliver speeches, but why am I not allowed to do so here?" The Star daily quoted him as saying.
"After my ceramah (rally), I will text Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob on this," he said, adding that such rules made it difficult to campaign in Johor.
Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said on Sunday that politicians addressing rallies need not wear face masks.
"I have discussed this matter with the MOH's (Ministry of Health) Disease Control Division and we found that if there is suitable physical distancing, only the speaker who is giving the talk is allowed to remove the face mask," he said.
Five candidates and several members of the media have been infected with Covid-19 despite the health and safety measures, prompting Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM) to call for stricter guidelines.
"PBM is greatly concerned over this and fears the infections will worsen, while it could even be a repeat of what happened in Sabah if no action is taken, especially come Polling Day," its party election director Haniza Mohd Talha was quoted as saying by the Malay Mail news site.
The last time Malaysia allowed physical campaigning for an election was during the Sabah polls in 2020, which triggered a Covid-19 wave throughout the country, eventually forcing Malaysia into a second lockdown in 2021.
"The communication teams for the respective candidates must be more proactive and cater to requests from journalists for questions and interviews effectively, rather than telling them to meet during campaign trails," the PBM official said, adding that she was informed that some seven media personnel had caught Covid-19.
The number of daily Covid-19 cases in Malaysia has been rising this year, with a record 33,406 cases recorded on March 5.
Johor currently has 19,996 active cases, including 2,713 new ones on March 5.
The Johor state election, called after the legislative assembly was dissolved on Jan 22, is hotly contested, with 239 candidates vying for 56 state seats.
The previous state government was helmed by the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition and the Perikatan Nasional pact led by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. The polls were triggered after the state government was left with a precarious one-seat majority in the 56-seat state legislature following the death of an assemblyman last December.
Johor has 2.6 million voters on the electoral roll. Many believe the polls could be a watershed with the sudden influx of younger voters. The state election will be the first to implement "Undi 18", a set of electoral reforms that lower the voting age from 21 to 18 and automatically registers all qualified citizens.