KUALA LUMPUR - A by-election is expected to be held in Sabah within the next 60 days as required by the Malaysian Constitution, officials say, following the death of a member of Parliament, raising concern anew about the spread of Covid-19 infections from the state.
Sabah is experiencing a surge in infections caused initially by an outbreak in a detention centre for illegal immigrants.
The spread of infections was worsened by the close mingling of politicians who came to the state to campaign for the Sept 26 state-assembly polls.
Thousands of Malaysian politicians and their campaigners who were in Sabah have been blamed for bringing the coronavirus with them when they returned to their home states.
One Cabinet minister and five state assemblymen are Covid-19 positive after returning from Sabah.
Six other Cabinet ministers including Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and seven deputy ministers are undergoing home quarantine, along with the thousands of political campaigners from both sides of the political divide.
Now, many of the same politicians might have to fly to Sabah again to campaign for a by-election in Batu Sapi parliament ward.
Its MP, Datuk Liew Vui Keong, 60, died on Oct 2 due to complications from a lung infection. He was from Parti Warisan Sabah which is allied to Malaysia's federal opposition parties.
The Election Commission's top officials say it isn't possible to delay the election beyond 60 days, Malaysian media reported on Wednesday (Oct 7).
"We have to go on. We still have to conduct the election even during a pandemic," said EC chairman Abdul Ghani Salleh when contacted by Malaysiakini on Tuesday.
EC deputy chairman Azmi Sharom gave a similar answer.
"We have no choice," he told the online news site in a text message. "So, the only way is to have stricter standard operating procedures."
The EC will have two weeks to sit and set a date for the by-election, once it has been informed of the ward's vacancy by Parliament.
Batu Sapi constituency is located in Sandakan district in eastern Sabah, facing the Philippines' Sulu Sea.
Mr Liew won the seat in the 2018 general election by a 4,619-vote majority in a four-cornered fight. Batu Sapi had 32,574 registered voters in the last election.
Ex-deputy health minister Dr Lee Boon Chye told Free Malaysia Today (FMT) news site that strict health protocols must be carried out during the by-election.
"If SOPs (standard operating procedures) are followed, then there should not be any fear," Dr Lee told FMT. "After all, the highest risk areas are Covid-19 hospital wards but there has been no transmission from any of them, as the SOPs were strictly followed."
Malaysia on Wednesday reported a record high of 691 new Covid-19 infections.
Of these, Kedah reported 397 cases (57.5 per cent of the total) and Sabah 219 cases (31.7 per cent).