KUALA LUMPUR - Even as the deadline to gain permission to operate during Malaysia's two-week lockdown looms on Thursday (June 3), complaints of confusing rules and flip-flops, as well as difficulties accessing the online application system, continue to blight firms.
Some said they have had no choice but to close since Tuesday despite being part of the 17 sectors excluded from the shutdown.
It has been nearly a week since Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a total lockdown last Friday (May 28), as Covid-19 cases and deaths spiralled to record highs despite three weeks of movement control order (MCO) rules.
But standard operating procedures (SOPs) unveiled on Sunday requiring businesses excluded from mandated closures to register with their respective ministries instead of the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) were reversed on Monday, the eve of what is being dubbed a full MCO (FMCO).
As at Thursday morning, only 128,150 companies had obtained approvals via the Covid-19 Intelligent Management System (CIMS), about a fifth of the 586,308 applications received.
The system has been further stressed as FMCO directives now require those gazetted as essential services to register, whereas they were previously automatically exempted from restrictions.
Given the sudden change, the police said on Tuesday that existing letters from Miti to operate during the MCO would continue to be valid until Thursday (June 3), instead of lapsing on Monday (May 31).
Government and industry sources told The Straits Times that the respective ministries were tasked with vetting approvals after criticism that Miti was too lax in vetting submissions, contributing to a surging outbreak that has fuelled anger at the Muhyiddin administration.
"But they couldn't raise their own application systems, so it went back to Miti," one official said.
Amid this, government leaders have still been at loggerheads over the process, with Senior Minister for Security Ismail Sabri Yaakob - who is in charge of Covid-19 restrictions - making a thinly veiled remark on social media that "I have closed the front door but..."
International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali's special officer then hit back, saying "some politicians think managing Covid-19 is a popularity contest".
"It's not about giving PCs or showing off designer shirts you have," added Seberang Jaya assemblyman Afif Bahardin, making reference to Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri's much-noticed attire during his regular press conferences on the coronavirus situation.
Datuk Seri Azmin, who is also Senior Minister for Economy, also pointed out on Thursday that "Miti is not the sole decider in determining if a business sector is considered a crucial service".
Only the Transport Ministry remains in control of registration of commercial vehicles. But logistics players claim that despite the ministry's assurance on Tuesday that no further approvals were needed to travel beyond district borders, the police have insisted on CIMS documentation from Miti.
The Federation of Malaysian Vegetable Farmers Association claimed many of its members could not log on to CIMS, with The Star quoting the association's president Lim Ser Kwee as saying that even with existing Miti letters "some of our members' lorries sending fresh produce to other states and even Singapore faced problems at police roadblocks".
Even private healthcare workers have been stopped by the police, according to the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), despite the Health Ministry issuing a memo on Monday that all healthcare front-liners will only need to produce proof of employment to travel.
"Private clinics, hospitals and dental clinics are registered with the Ministry of Health and provide front-line services. Many private healthcare practitioners are also involved in mass screening on-site and at times will be required to cross districts," said MMA president Subramaniam Muniandy, referring to rules limiting movement to a 10km radius from home.
The confusion forced the police leadership to issue a directive late on Wednesday to its enforcers to accept "all letters of travel, be it from International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti), the ministries or relevant department".
Malaysians have complained about complex and unclear SOPs for most of the past year since a strict MCO that began in March last year was relaxed in May. A major source of frustration has been the lack of understanding even by the police, as interpretation of rules varies from one roadblock or spot-check point to another.
Press workers, for example, have been gazetted as front-liners since the start of movement controls, but some have been forced to turn back at roadblocks despite producing government accreditation.
On Wednesday, media agencies were told that despite being issued letters of authorisation from the Communications and Multimedia Ministry as well as the Home Ministry - which governs printing presses - they would still have to register with Miti on the CIMS.
This caused a last-minute scramble on a system that has received numerous brickbats in recent days as overwhelming traffic caused the website to crash or return error messages to applicants.
Malaysia Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors' General Association president Wong Teu Hoon said he was unaware of any association member who had managed to obtain CIMS 3.0 approval as at Wednesday morning, estimating that half his members chose to close instead of risking fines.