COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: KL's move to relax control order raises concerns

A woman wearing a mask outside a train station in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia's move to relax the movement control order tomorrow ahead of its May 12 expiry has sparked criticism over the hasty reopening, while new infections rose back to triple digits ye
A woman wearing a mask outside a train station in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia's move to relax the movement control order tomorrow ahead of its May 12 expiry has sparked criticism over the hasty reopening, while new infections rose back to triple digits yesterday for the first time in two weeks.PHOTO: REUTERS

More than 360,000 people signed a petition by yesterday evening urging the Malaysian government not to ease restrictions that have brought down Covid-19 infections, after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on Friday that most businesses will be allowed to reopen from tomorrow while adopting healthcare precautions.

The move to relax the movement control order (MCO) ahead of its May 12 expiry sparked criticism over the hasty reopening, while the daily rate of infections remained in double digits until yesterday, nearly seven weeks since the partial lockdown began on March 18.

The public petition, "Continue with MCO. Cancel Conditional MCO", insisted that Malaysia was reopening too much, too soon and added to doubts sown over the government's handling of the crisis after reversals in two aid policies aimed at cushioning the outbreak's blow to workers.

New infections rose back to triple digits - 105 cases - yesterday for the first time in two weeks, to bring the total to 6,176 cases.

Former premier Najib Razak has called for the easing of curbs, which Tan Sri Muhyiddin referred to as "conditional MCO", to be done "slow and steady".

"When we do it at one go, it will risk the health services," Najib said in a Facebook post on Friday, suggesting that one week of preparation be undertaken before businesses resume to avoid new waves of infections, as seen in Japan and Canada.

Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob defended the government's decision yesterday, saying: "Gatherings are still not allowed... Just because we're opening up doesn't mean we are doing it hastily as claimed by some."

Mr Muhyiddin, when making the announcement to relax the MCO on Friday, said Malaysia suffered RM2.4 billion (S$800 million) in losses daily during the MCO, with South-east Asia's third-largest economy running at only 45 per cent of its capacity, according to official estimates.

"We must find ways to balance between healing the nation's economy and addressing Covid-19."

Meanwhile, confusion over financial aid for Malaysians has also dented the standing of the two-month-old Perikatan Nasional (PN) government.

The central bank announced on March 24 a six-month moratorium on bank loans to cheers from many people.

But Bank Negara and Malaysia's banking association said last Thursday that hire-purchase and fixed-rate Islamic financing were not exempt from accrued interest during the moratorium - which the government said was worth RM100 billion in liquidity - that began last month.

This is a departure from the public's understanding when the measure was announced. Several financial institutions initially told customers the payment periods would simply be deferred for six months without any increase in repayments and this was echoed in an FAQ by Bank Negara - which has since been taken down.

In response to the government's stumble over the moratorium, former law minister Azalina Othman asked last Thursday on Twitter: "When the finance minister is not an elected representative but a banking representative?"

The senior MP from Umno, the largest member of the PN coalition, was referring to Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz's decades in finance and previous job as chief executive of CIMB, one of the region's biggest lenders.

The government's apparent about-turn was exacerbated when the Social Security Organisation (Socso) - the insurance fund for low-salaried workers - revealed on Twitter last Thursday that it was no longer accepting applications for the Employee Retention Programme (ERP), which pays out RM600 per month for workers earning under RM4,000 monthly who are put on unpaid leave.

Socso's explanation that "there are no additional funds" raised widespread fury. But its statement was later retracted, with Human Resources Minister Saravanan Murugan saying yesterday that Socso is still processing applications involving 230,652 workers to date.

The minister's statement implied that the government's estimate of 33,000 workers benefiting from the RM120 million ERP allocation was a gross miscalculation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 03, 2020, with the headline 'KL's move to relax control order raises concerns'. Subscribe