Malaysia has decided to exempt Cabinet ministers who travel abroad on official visits from a mandatory 10-day quarantine upon returning to the country, sparking new criticism over double-standard treatment for political elites and ordinary citizens.
Ministers who return from official visits will be under only "supervision" for three days, according to a new federal gazette signed by Health Minister Adham Baba that came into effect yesterday.
It exempts travelling ministers from a section of law that enforces mandatory quarantine orders and will be in effect until Aug 1, when Malaysia's seven-month state of emergency - meant to deal with the coronavirus pandemic - ends.
The exemption came into force merely days after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin made his first official visit to Indonesia last week.
Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is now visiting the United Arab Emirates.
The 10-day quarantine affects all those who arrive in Malaysia from abroad, and individuals who have been exposed to the coronavirus and are under health surveillance.
Criticism of the new exemption picked up pace online, with demands for Datuk Seri Adham to resign becoming the top trend on social networking site Twitter yesterday, while calls for Tan Sri Muhyiddin to resign became the third-highest trend in the country.
"Getting anxious really fast after finding out Cabinet ministers don't have to follow quarantine SOP," user Azman Azmi tweeted, referring to the health-protocol standard operating procedures. He also called for the minister's resignation.
Former health minister Dzulkefly Ahmad described the exemption as irresponsible.
Dr Adham has defended the rule, saying the exemption is allowed only for ministers who follow a "strict bubble itinerary" without taking part in any activities outside of official meetings.
But his explanation was criticised by the 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," said the coalition, whose 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 outbreak began in the final quarter of last year.
Politicians were seen flouting coronavirus protocols during last September's Sabah state elections which led to a new surge in cases and an outbreak that spread to Peninsular Malaysia.
Plantation Industries Minister Khairuddin Aman Razali breached a 14-day home quarantine order after a trip to Turkey last year.
Following criticism, the minister was fined RM1,000 (S$330) three months after his trip, around the same time that a septuagenarian was jailed for a day for breaching quarantine orders.
Last month, an updated SOP for the movement control order exempted elected lawmakers from nationwide inter-state and inter-district travel bans to allow them to carry out constituency work.
The government is also facing criticisms over other issues, with its ever-changing rules on what activities are banned or permitted.
Yesterday, the government said it would allow dine-ins at restaurants again, with no more than two patrons to a table, and physical distancing from other diners. Before that, food outlets could only take delivery and takeaway orders.