KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia has decided to exempt Cabinet ministers who travel abroad on official visits from having to undergo the mandatory 10-day quarantine upon returning to the country, sparking new criticism over double-standard treatment for political elites and ordinary Malaysians.
Ministers who return from official visits will only be under "supervision" for three days before being released, according to a new federal gazette signed by Health Minister Adham Baba, which came into effect on Tuesday (Feb 9).
The gazette exempts travelling ministers from a section of law that enforces mandatory quarantine orders.
The gazette will be in effect until Aug 1, when Malaysia's seven-month state of emergency - meant to deal with the coronavirus pandemic - ends.
The gazette came into force merely days after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin made his first official visit to Indonesia last week, which lasted for 24 hours.
Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is currently in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The 10-day quarantine is currently enforced for all those who arrive in Malaysia from abroad, and also for individuals who have been exposed to coronavirus and are under health surveillance.
Criticism towards the new quarantine exemption rule quickly picked up pace online, with demands for Datuk Seri Adham to resign becoming the top trend on social networking site Twitter on Tuesday.
Calls for Tan Sri Muhyiddin to resign became the third-highest trend in the country.
PM Muhyiddin has previously said his government does not practice double standards in enforcing Covid-19 regulations and that politicians would be subjected to the same laws as ordinary citizens.
"Getting anxious really fast after finding out Cabinet ministers don't have to follow quarantine SOP," user Azman Azmi tweeted, while calling for the minister's resignation. He was referring to the health protocols that are called Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).
Politicians from both sides of the political divide were critical of the rule, with former health minister Dzulkefly Ahmad describing the exemption as "irresponsible".
Dr Adham has defended the rule, saying the exemption is only allowed for ministers who follow a "strict bubble itinerary" without taking part in any activities outside of official meetings.
However, his explanation was criticised by Malaysian Health Coalition - a grouping of 49 health associations and practitioners - which said that the exemption "institutionalises double standards" and undermines the effort to curb Covid-19 spread in the country.
"We oppose this order in the strongest possible way," the coalition said. The coalition's members include the Academy of Medicine Malaysia, and the Malaysian associations for pharmacists, dentists, nurses and medical assistants.
Malaysians have regularly criticised the authorities' alleged double standards in enforcing coronavirus regulations since the third wave of the virus started in the final quarter of 2020.
Politicians were seen flouting coronavirus protocols during the Sabah state elections in September last year, leading to an outbreak that spread to Peninsular Malaysia and a new surge in cases.
Last year, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Khairuddin Aman Razali breached a 14-day home quarantine order after returning from a trip to Turkey.
Following criticism, Datuk Seri Khairuddin was eventually fined RM 1,000 (S$328) three months after his trip. This was around the same time that the authorities jailed a septuagenarian for one day after she had breached quarantine orders.
At the end of January, an updated SOP for the Movement Control Order (MCO), the ongoing partial lockdown, exempted elected lawmakers from the nationwide interstate and inter district travel bans to allow them to carry out constituency work.
On Tuesday, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, an ally of the Perikatan Nasional government, questioned if an unnamed senior Cabinet minister should be fined for allegedly holding a gathering involving hundreds of individuals.
Big gatherings are banned under the MCO, which is into its fifth week. The curbs are slated to end after Feb 18.
The government has also been facing criticisms on other issues, with its ever-changing rules on what activities are banned and what have now been permitted.
The government last week retreated from banning reunion dinners ahead of the Chinese New Year after being panned widely, while allowing the reopening of night markets, hair salons and barbers.
Reunion dinners are permitted but limited to 15 family members who live within a 10km radius and must not involve interstate or inter-district travel.
The government on Tuesday backtracked over another issue by allowing dine-ins at restaurants again, with one table for only two patrons and physical distancing from other diners, from Wednesday. Food outlets are currently limited to deliveries and takeaways.