Earlier this week, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin defended his government’s decision not to reimpose the strictest version of business and movement restrictions, called movement control orders (MCO) 1.0, despite the rising Covid-19 case numbers and some pressure from the healthcare sector for such a move. Malaysia now has the worst infection trend in Southeast Asia, and if the situation worsens through mid-June, the political fallout for the prime minister could be severe.
Yassin said that the decision two weeks ago to opt for the less-restrictive MCO 3.0, which reduces commercial activities and prohibits inter-state and inter-district travel, but allows factories and offices to remain open, was an attempt to balance health and economic concerns. Nonetheless, schools are shut, indoor dining at restaurants is banned, public transportation capacity is halved, shopping hours are curtailed and 40% of private sector staff are required to work at home. Traffic is noticeably down, signaling how residents are attempting to stay at home even though they have some latitude with MCO 3.0.
Up to yesterday, 26 May, the upward trend for Covid-19 cases and deaths continued. Malaysia reported both 7,478 new Covid-19 cases and 63 fatalities, its highest daily numbers since the start of the pandemic, and the expectation is that the rise will continue through the end of the month at the very least. Accounting for population, the new cases are higher than the peak rate registered by India, although the day’s fatalities are about a third less than India’s highest daily tally. ICU capacity has been fully utilized or even exceeded in the state of Penang as well as the Klang Valley, which comprises the economically all-important state of Selangor, the capital Kuala Lumpur and the federal administrative center Putrajaya. What is more, the Director General of Health has warned that a “vertical surge” is possible.
The government is conditioning the public that new cases and fatalities will continue to rise through early next month, until the effects of MCO 3.0 are felt sometime by mid-June. Therefore, should the upward trajectory in the number of new daily cases continue beyond the second week of June, then the political fallout will fall squarely on the prime minister. There has also been strong criticism of the ambiguity in the government’s policies regarding factory safety, i.e. that safety protocols for factories are weak despite the fact that this issue has contributed at least 60% of work-based Covid-19 clusters. And while a reimposition of MCO1.0 in the coming weeks would likely be accepted by the public for health reasons, it will still be politically problematic for Yassin, on the perception that the government has acted too late.
The state of emergency is scheduled to last until 1 August, which means that parliament cannot meet for roughly another nine weeks, and an extension of the emergency cannot be ruled out. But a worsening of the current Covid-19 outbreak would likely intensify speculation that Yassin has become untenable as prime minister. It could increase pressure on the king to allow for an emergency sitting of parliament to debate his leadership or the country's pandemic policy, or both. And even if Yassin were able to block such a move, an election would be seen as imminent once health conditions allow it, with the prime minister set to be abandoned by his coalition partner, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).