From Wednesday, June 10, Malaysia will officially be under recovery movement control. What this means is that between now and Aug 31, we will slowly be making our way back to normalcy. Or some version of it anyway.

Elsewhere in today’s newsletter, we look at what the RMCO means for Parliamentary democracy, whether the Penjana stimulus package is all it’s cracked up to be, and what the hell is gonna happen to all the data we’ve given up over the last three months to kononnya keep that darn coronavirus at bay.

It's the final countdown

And now the end is the near...

Malaysia recorded a mere seven new Covid-19 cases on Monday, marking the first time in three months the country has registered only a single-digit increase. The last time that happened was on March 12 – when we recorded an increase of nine cases – in those halcyon days before anyone knew what a Movement Control Order (MCO) was.

Then, of course, it all changed, as the numbers went up and up, and we watched as borders and businesses were shut, and our every movement heavily curtailed.

There’s, nevertheless, been a major relaxation of the rules since May 4. And though odd infection clusters continue to pop up, from tomorrow, we’ll move from a Conditional MCO (CMCO) into what’s being dubbed the Recovery MCO (RMCO) phase. In a nutshell, this basically means folks no longer have to duduk rumah diam-diam. Having said that, some limits may still apply.

Here’re some of the things allowed from Wednesday:

  • Interstate travel (except to areas still under enhanced movement control)
  • Haircuts, beauty services and self-service laundry
  • Open-air markets, pasar malams, bazaars, hawker centres, food courts and food trucks
  • Film shoots, indoor busking, commercial fishing and museum visits
  • Domestic tourism
  • Non-contact sporting activities e.g. bowling, badminton, archery, shooting and cycling
  • Congregational prayer and religious activities

These, however, remain shut and/or prohibited:

  • Pubs, night clubs, entertainment centres (including karaoke joints, cinemas and theme parks) 
  • Reflexology and massage centres
  • Religious processions
  • Kenduris and open houses
  • Contact sports and swimming
  • International travel

If you think it’s all pretty straightforward though, you haven’t been paying attention. Indeed, if the last three months have taught us anything, it’s that there’ll be cock-ups aplenty. 

Take the simple point of bowling being greenlit, for example. Yeah, bowling is certainly a non-contact sport, but how hygienic are bowling balls? Also, will bowling alley operators limit the number of balls patrons can use, and will these be sanitised after use? Indeed, the same questions could be directed at snooker centres, which are being allowed to open from June 15.

Of course, as usual, we’re being told that certain deets regarding certain sectors are still being ironed out. However, that old question – which we ask every single time a new MCO phase is announced – still stands. And that is: why wasn’t everything settled way beforehand? Seriously lah guys, it’s been three months!

Anyway, bowling, snooker and other assorted matters aside, one of the biggest talking points from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s announcement on Sunday is how schools are set to be reopened in stages. 

Last week, if you recall, Education Minister Mohd Radzi Md Jidin had said that only students in Form Five and Form Six – as well as those taking international exams of the same level as SPM and STPM – would be allowed back to school. However, that was last week. And PM Moo’s Sunday announcement could well result in a discussion on changes to the published guideline when the Education Ministry peeps meet later today with Health Director-General Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah and his team. 

It’s true. The evidence from other countries and regions suggests that reopening schools may not be as dangerous as initially perceived. Nevertheless, if there’s one area where we absolutely cannot risk blunders it’s here. Which means all risks must be properly assessed and all standard operating procedures made crystal clear before kids are ushered back to school.

Make no mistake. Relaxing restrictions in the manner Malaysia is moving to do is risky. But that’s exactly why we need properly planned strategies and clear guidelines. Anything less and we might be back where we were three months ago. And nobody wants that.

Whither democracy?

Back in May, the Perikatan Nasional government had cited Covid-19 and the MCO as the main reasons for not convening a full meeting of Parliament. It stuck to its guns too, despite the numerous complaints, declaring all other business, apart from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s speech, would be dealt with during the next meeting, in July. 

The question on everyone’s lips now though is: could that planned July meeting also get postponed, with the MCO (or RMCO, if you wanna be technical) only due to end on Aug 31?

First things first. The Malaysian Parliament’s calendar as well as a notice on Parliamentary Business of the Third Session of the 14th Parliament state that the Dewan Rakyat is due to meet for a total of 25 days from July 13 to Aug 27. Which means, as of now, there’s no indication Perikatan will look to shelve the upcoming meeting. But could they? Especially if the PM and his government are unsure of their support in the House

Well, yes. The Federal Constitution (Article 55, to be exact) only requires Parliament to meet within six months of the last sitting. So like he did when he pushed the originally scheduled March 9 meeting by 10 weeks to May 18, PM Muhyiddin could well cite the ongoing RMCO as a reason to postpone the meeting some more. And if that happens, then Parliament might only meet again at the end of September, when Budget 2021 is due to be tabled.


But even that’s not certain. 

The Constitution, you see, is silent about how many times Parliament needs to meet in a year. All it stipulates is the legislature must sit within six months of the last sitting. And that means if Moo wanted to, he could well push the next meeting all the way to November. And once again, sit for just a day.

Of course, that may not happen, what with the Budget for next year definitely needing to be tabled before the end of 2020. However, it remains possible for Parliamentary democracy to be once more subverted just so this government can hold on to power.

The tragic part about all this though is that if you discount this blatant disregard of democracy as well as the manner by which he assumed office, Moo hasn’t done too bad a job since elbowing his way to the top.

In fact, despite some glaring missteps – the communication has not always been clear, for example, and those financial stimulus packages are problematic (more on that below) – he’s proven to be a capable leader over the last 100 days, in this time of crisis.

But does that justify a continued stay in office? Especially, when he doesn’t really seem seem to have a mandate to do so?

Another shot in the arm

The government’s latest financial stimulus package may not be enough to save Malaysia from an impending recession. However, with joblessness at a 10-year high, something certainly needed to be done. Enter Pelan Jana Semula Ekonomi Negara (nama glamer: Penjana), a RM35 billion rescue pack aimed at saving jobs and spurring the economy via wage subsidies, upskilling, tax breaks and grants.

According to PM Moo, the government’s three stimulus packs prior to Penjana had already managed to save 2.4 million jobs and ease the cash flow for 11 million people. Nevertheless, with the economy expected to contract further, another shot in the arm was needed.

Unfortunately, despite an impressive 40 initiatives that include credit in e-walletssales tax exemptions for the purchase of vehicleschildcare aid for parents and an extension to a previously-announced wage subsidy plan, critics have been quick to point out that Penjana is seriously flawed. And that’s mainly because it doesn’t appear to help the people who really need it.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress, for one, noted that while the initiatives announced were generally great for businesses, they didn’t ensure workers would be protected. It’s a valid point too when you consider that despite the handouts, tax breaks and subsidies which were previously rolled out, more than two million people are expected to be out of work in the coming weeks. 

There’re a whole bunch of misplaced priorities too, Parti Sosialis Malaysia alleges, like how the government’s looking to help developers sell-off luxury properties even as millions of people in the B40 group struggle to meet rental payments. Also, very little has been put aside for healthcare, despite its stretched current predicament and the fact that thousands, if not millions, of people who’d previously sought private medical treatment can no longer afford it.

Worst of all, though, is that despite the government’s seeming best intentions with Penjana, money is once more being handed out without zero transparency. 

How are the funds going to be disbursed? How will employers be held accountable for workers? Who’s keeping tabs on how the government’s direct cash injections are being spent? None of this is clear and/or known and the reason for that is simple: Penjana hasn’t been scrutinised and approved by the arm of the government traditionally charged with scrutinising and approving government spending – Parliament.

Yes, it can be argued the money is needed now, not in July when Parliament meets. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? It’d needn’t have been July …

The price of info

Speaking of transparency, here’s something to think about: what’s gonna happen to all that data we’ve (willingly?) given up over the last three months to apparently help authorities keep tabs on the Covid-19 situation in the country?

In case you missed it, the Communications and Multimedia Ministry recently warned businesses collecting data for contact tracing to not misuse the information obtained, adding that under the law – that’s the Personal Data Protection Act 2010 (PDPA) – info could only be kept for up to six months. Question is though, who’s going to police this, and how indeed will the relevant parties do it considering the high volume of data that’s been collected?

Big data is certainly big business, as former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad notes. And with most firms/brands/services stuck with next to no money for advertising and promotion, data on customers is certainly going to be mined with a view to boosting revenue and profits.

Certainly, this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, data scientists have long warned about stuff like this. (This TED talk from 2011 is really interesting and worth the time if you have nine minutes to spare.) However, everything’s been amped up to 11 now thanks to Covid-19, with even a potential Big Brother situation looming. 

Let’s be clear. If you’re a taxpayer, the government probably already knows a lot about you (we get rattled every time the taxman emails us birthday greetings!). Even so, the authorities may not have previously had any clue about where you shop and/or eat. Now though, thanks to the info you’ve jotted down at your local mamak restaurant and your interactions via apps like MySejahtera, they might.

Is that bad? Well, that really depends on whether you like your elections influenced and/or your every action monitored.

When the PDPA became law 10 years ago, it marked an important step in safeguarding the rights and privacy of Malaysians. However, a failure to keep up with the times and the recent big-scale collection of data has left millions of us vulnerable. Yeah, we kinda agree, that right now all that data is probably gonna ensure Malaysians stay healthy. But what is definitely needed, as we soon as we’re out of the woods and the dust is settled, is for our privacy and info laws to be re-examined.

Odds and ends

As usual, some other news items made the headlines over the last few days. Here’re the more important ones in brief:

  • PKR will sit out the Chini by-election. The party, which finished a distant third behind winner Barisan Nasional and PAS in the fight for the state seat in the 14th general election, has cited the on-going Covid-19 pandemic as the main reason for its withdrawal.
    With PAS also having decided not to contest, this means Umno gets a walkover, unless some independent candidate crawls out of the woodwork. And we all scoffed when Umno originally suggested the idea a few weeks back …
    In any case, the seat is an Umno stronghold; the party won over 60% of the vote there last time round. But here’s the thing – if BN does win by walkover, there’s a distinct possibility it could be Jibby Razak’s son who gets this free pass into the state legislature. 
     
  • The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia has reminded Malaysians in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd of the racism, racial discrimination and lack of tolerance seen right here at home. In short, folks, you can’t be for Black Lives Matter but against migrants.
     
  • Former national hurdles champ Zambrose Abdul Rahman, who represented Malaysia at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, has passed away from throat cancer. Zambrose, 76, was the national 400m hurdles record-holder twice back in his heyday. 
     
  • RM600,000 has been seized from two Bersatu youth wing members following investigations into a sum of money reported stolen from Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman’s house. Meanwhile, an aide to the former minister claims to have been verbally abused by Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission officers while being questioned over the missing cash.

“Starting strong is good. Finishing strong is epic.”

- Robin Sharma -

IN INTERNATIONAL NEWS

  • As the number of Covid-19 infections worldwide go past the 7 million mark with deaths exceeding 400,000, Brazil has moved to wipe swaths of data from an official site and decided to stop releasing infection and death stats
     
  • Meanwhile, in related Covid-19 news, New Zealand has ended social distancing requirements, noting that the country has achieved its aim of eliminating the virus. Yay?
     
  • Former United States VP Joe Biden has officially won the Democratic Party nomination to take on El Presidente Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election. And guess what? Ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who served under George W. Bush, says he’ll be backing JB!
     
  • As protests over the killing of George Floyd continue all over the world – a statue of a 17th century slave trader was torn down and thrown into the harbour in Bristol – Minneapolis, the city where it all began, has vowed to dismantle its police force.
     
  • An old letter describing Van Gogh and Gauguin’s visits to brothels could fetch as much as $282,000 when it goes to auction soon. Many centuries from now, will Banksy’s Tinder hookups also be sold to the highest bidder? 

ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER

This weekday newsletter is brought to you by Trident Media, a group of Malaysian journalists with 60 years of combined media experience in four countries across TV, print and digital media.

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Trident Media · Seksyen 35 · Shah Alam, Selangor 40470 · Malaysia

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