Junior doctors in Malaysia stage brief walkout over jobs terms despite threat of arrest

A contract doctor holds a placard during a strike outside the Sungai Buloh Hospital in Selangor state on July 26, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Hundreds of junior doctors in Malaysia risked arrest and disciplinary action to stage a brief walkout on Monday (July 26) as they demanded permanent jobs from the government.

The Hartal Doktor Kontrak (HDK) movement saw junior contract doctors clad in black walking out on their posts at several hospitals and health facilities nationwide at 11am, holding placards to demand better employment terms.

The group had, a month ago, threatened to organise a strike involving thousands of contract doctors, most of them stationed at Covid-19 treatment centres.

However, some aborted the plan due to the heavy police presence and threats of arrests at some hospitals.

The protest comes one day after Malaysia recorded an all-time high of 17,045 daily infections on Sunday. Public gatherings are banned under Malaysia's ongoing national lockdown to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.

The doctors returned to assume their duties after the brief walkouts to ensure no disruption to patient care.

A large majority of junior doctors who joined the public health system since 2016 are in contracted positions. There are over 20,000 contract doctors in Malaysia - just below half of the total of doctors serving with the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Being under contract, they take home lower salaries than equally experienced peers with permanent contracts, have limited postgraduate pathways to pursue specialisation, and miss out on a slew of other benefits that comes with being a civil servant.

Despite a pay increment earlier this year, contract doctors with at least two years' experience are earning up to 30 per cent less than their seniors had when they were at the same stage of their careers.

HDK - a loose coalition of contract doctors - said that the protest was the result of "five years of fake promises". Contract doctors have been demanding for permanent employment and better terms since the contract system was introduced in 2016, but to no avail.

There have been reports in recent days of 10 contract doctors quitting a public hospital in Klang, citing burnout. The Klang Hospital - sited in a large suburb in Malaysia's most populous state Selangor - is one of the country's most stretched public health facilities due to the surge in Covid-19 cases.

Selangor Health Department director Dr Sha'ari Ngadiman revealed last week that 163 government doctors had quit in Selangor alone since January.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin appeared to make a concession days before the threatened strike when he announced last Friday that all contracted healthcare workers will get a two-year contract extension and paid study leave to enable them to pursue postgraduate specialisations.

However, HDK called Mr Muhyiddin's announcement "half-baked" and persisted with its plans to strike, demanding permanent employment.

The protests took place despite threats of disciplinary action from MOH.

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Health Director-General Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah on Sunday urged contract doctors not to take part in the strike, warning of its impact on the lives of patients and also the careers of the doctors themselves.

Police chief Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani said the same day that cops will monitor the strike for any violation of Covid-19 protocols.

Dang Wangi district police said that it would probe Monday's walkout at Kuala Lumpur Hospital.

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