More lockdowns are a real possibility now that all four Kuala Lumpur health districts have been declared coronavirus red zones.

Elsewhere, permission for a brewery to operate gets revoked, and PM Muhyiddin Yassin announces extra (financial) stimulation for SMEs.

Paint the town red

KL in the red

Even as Malaysia logged the largest number of Covid-19 recoveries in a single day – 236, taking the total number of discharged patients to 1,241 – on Monday, news that all four health districts in Kuala Lumpur are now red zones sent shivers down many spines. 

FYI, an area is classified as a red zone when it has more than 40 cases of infections, and the four KL districts of Lembah Pantai, Kepong, Titiwangsa and Cheras all exceed that. On Sunday, according to Health Ministry stats, this translated to a total of 622 cases. However, the figure has since gone up to 640 infections now and 10 deaths.

So far, only two areas in two Malaysian districts (Kluang in Johor and Hulu Langat in Selangor) as well as a building (Menara City One in KL) have been placed under enhanced movement restrictions. However, the rising number of infections in the capital, particularly in Lembah Pantai where the cases were at 376 on Sunday, suggests that more areas could soon be locked down.

Federal Territories minister Annuar Musa has come out to say there would be a stricter implementation of the MCO in KL. For the record, no movement in or out of areas under EMCOs is permitted, with food supplies and essentials for the duration of a lockdown provided by the government. 

In case you’re wondering, certain areas around the capital haven’t been faring much better, with four Selangor districts – Petaling Jaya, Klang, Gombak, and of course, Hulu Langat – also in the red.

What’s more telling though, is that Annuar also said the nationwide MCO could be extended beyond Apr 14 – a decision that will be announced on Friday. In other words, the end ain’t looking like it’s near, folks.

We’re no experts, but we do wonder if the number threshold of 40 cases is the only criteria used to decide if a place is categorised as a red zone. After all, population density is a factor too, no? For example, there would obviously be fewer cases in Kuala Pilah, with its 64,000 population, than in KL, which has over 1.8 million residents. Does the red-zoning of a place look into infections as a percentage of population as well? 

Anyhoo, speaking of infection clusters, the Health Ministry revealed on Monday that a church conference in Kuching and a wedding in Bangi were among the two largest clusters after the tabligh gathering in Seri Petaling. In terms of numbers, the church conference has contributed to 83 infections with two deaths, while the wedding has led to 88 infections. However, what the two events show more than anything else is that mass gatherings can have a devastating impact on the spread of infections. 

Thankfully, Health Director-General Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah says both the church and wedding clusters have been contained. Nevertheless, those who attended the church event and have somehow failed to be tested are being urged to come forward to be screened.

There’s of course a natural, human fear of screening. The process is uncomfortable, and nobody wants to know if they’re gonna test positive. But screening, and following stay at home orders literally mean the difference between life and death, as this heartbreaking story shows.

Incidentally, as of Monday evening, the total number of infections in the country stands at 3,793 with 62 fatalities.

No drinking please, we're Malaysian

At first, the country’s beer manufacturers were told to temporarily shut shop. However, upon appeal, at least one company was allowed to resume operations. But then, as soon as enough people had kicked up a fuss, the same government that’d granted Heineken Malaysia Berhad permission to restart operations, revoked the approval!

In truth, we really shouldn’t be surprised at any of this. Malaysian governments – and yes, that includes the previous Pakatan Harapan one – are, after all, notorious for their U-turns. Plus, the protests came from where one would naturally expect them to (read: PAS and Umno and Bersatu Youth). Still, what’s particularly confusing about this whole thing is that the Defence Minister talked about it. The Federal Territories Minister talked about it. The said protesters talked about it. Heck, even former government fellows got in on the drama. Yet, the guy who’s actually supposed to be in charge of this sorta thing – Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Alexander Nanta Linggi – has yet to breathe a word.

According to Free Malaysia Today, which quoted a source, the approval for Heineken to resume operations, which had been signed by Domestic Trade secretary-general Hasnol Zam Zam Ahmad, was “premature” and hadn’t been communicated to the Minister. However, shouldn’t Linggi himself have clarified that fact? Seriously, what’s with this government and all its invisible men?!?!

Also, another question that we’re not too clear about is: are beer companies considered food suppliers? 

In the conditional approval previously granted to Heineken, the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry had agreed that the brewer was “an operator in the food supply sector under the MCO.” But if the company is, in fact, a food and beverage business, then why is it being denied the right to operate? 

Yes, yes, we know. Heineken, like its biggest rival Carlsberg, produces intoxicating drinks that certain folks here have issues with. BUT it’s still an F&B business, is it not? And if exceptions for these types of businesses are generally made, then shouldn’t it be allowed to operate too?

True, we suppose one could argue that alcohol isn’t really essential and there’re quite a few other businesses that should be granted conditional approvals to operate during the MCO (barbers and mechanics, among them, perhaps?). But then again, what’s considered essential may depend on who you ask and what his/her agenda is.

Interestingly, this op-ed in Focus Malaysia points out that the beer industry, which employs over 60,000 workers, is worth RM5 billion a year in revenue to Malaysia. So is it essential to the economy that we keep the taps flowing? We dunno. But what we can tell you is that we’re feeling damn thirsty.

Extra stimulation

Despite Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s RM250 billion (or should that be RM25 billion?) stimulus package announcement two weeks ago, Malaysia’s small and medium-sized enterprises had complained that not enough had been done to keep them afloat. 

The SME Association of Malaysia, for one, warned immediately after Moo’s announcement that up to 70% of SMEs would run out of funds by end April with up to four million people out of work if no aid was forthcoming. As such, it was important for the government to address the concerns of this sector and attempt to mitigate the impact of both Covid-19 and the ensuing MCO.

The result, thus, is a RM10 billion aid pack – which some have taken to calling Prihatin Plus – that’s aimed, first and foremost, at keeping workers in their jobs for at least the next few months. 

For example, under the previous package, a wage subsidy of RM600 a month for three months had been granted to companies to pay employees who earn RM4,000 and below. Now, however, the allocation has been upped, depending on the number of workers a company employs.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Companies with 1-76 employees can get RM1,200 per worker for three months 
  • Companies with 76-200 employees can get RM800
  • Companies with more than 200 employees can get RM600 (note: the allocation was previously only for up to 100 employees)

The aid, Moo says, is expected to benefit up to 4.8 million workers. However, the catch for employers is that companies that do opt for the scheme cannot retrench workers for six months. Even so, the relevant associations, like the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers and the SME Association, have lauded the additional support. But of course, whether the cash is enough to see everyone through should the MCO be further extended is left to be seen.

In any case, the PM’s speech on Monday also included other announcements  which should please SMEs. Among these are:

  • A RM2.1 billion allocation for loans (of up to RM10,000) and grants (up to RM3,000) for micro SMEs
  • A suspension of interest for micro-credit schemes under Bank Simpanan Nasional
  • A temporary waiver on rental for premises owned by the government or government-linked companies
  • Tax deductions for landlords of commercial premises who slash rent by at least 30% during the MCO and for three months after
  • A 25% discount on levies for foreign workers – except maids – whose permits are due to run out between April and December 2020

For the complete list of the measures go here. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to check out MooMoo’s speech in full, here it is.

Odds and ends

As usual, a number of other things made the headlines on Monday. Here’re some of the more important Covid- and non-Covid-related news items. 

  • Courts around the country are punishing MCO offenders with more fines and community service orders, as fears increase about overcrowding in prisons. Meanwhile a lawyer is claiming the MCO arrests are unjustified as they violate the Criminal Procedure Code.
     
  • Checks on the Inland Revenue Board’s website confirm that former Prime Minister Rosmah Mansor is eligible for financial aid under the government’s Bantuan Prihatin Nasional programme. The scheme provides for cash aid of RM800 in April and May for single individuals who earn less than RM2,000 a month. Oh well, we guess it’s easy enough for anyone, the IRB included, to forget about Najib Razak as well as certain sources of income
     
  • Astro Malaysia Bhd will shut its Bukit Jalil centre for two days after an employee tested positive for Covid-19. The company’s broadcasting services, however, remain unaffected.
     
  • A Petronas subsidiary has struck oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The discovery, Petronas says, marks a significant milestone in diversifying and expanding the company’s portfolio in the United States. Small problem though – global oil prices have slipped again.
     
  • Following news of a tiger in New York contracting Covid-19, the Health Ministry has advised animal lovers to maintain good personal hygiene if they can’t keep a distance from pets and other animals. It should be stated, however, that despite numerous cases of animal infections, the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, maintains that dogs and cats pose little risk to people.
     
  • Singapore and Malaysia will work out new terms for the return of Malaysian citizens from the island. Malaysia had previously stated that its citizens across the Causeway would be allowed to return subject to being tested in Singapore. However, the republic’s Health Ministry said Monday that testing is only performed on Covid-19 patients and their close contacts.
     
  • Malaysian firm Golden Skies Ventures has made a US$2.5 billion bid to take over Malaysia Airlines. GSV’s bosses say financing from a European bank has already been secured.

“You only live twice. Once when you are born and once when you look death in the face.”

- Ian Fleming -

IN INTERNATIONAL NEWS

  • Boris Johnson has been moved to intensive care, a day after the British Prime Minister was admitted for “persistent symptoms” of Covid-19. Johnson tested positive for the disease on March 27. 
     
  • Despite Donald Trump’s backing for it, the US President’s top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci has once more cautioned that there’s no scientific evidence to support the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a remedy for Covid-19.
     
  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to declare a state of emergency for Tokyo and six other prefectures as early as today. Abe is also expected to announce a 108 trillion yen (RM4.3 trillion) stimulus package to stem the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the country’s economy and citizens.
     
  • Indonesia has called on everyone to wear face masks in public. The advisory comes as the country records 209 deaths from Covid-19, the highest number of fatalities in Asia outside of China.
     
  • Australia’s apex court has overturned Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for child sex abuse. Pell, the former Vatican treasurer and third-highest ranking Catholic in the world, was the most senior Church figure ever jailed for such crimes. 
     
  • Veteran actress Honor Blackman, who starred as Bond girl Pussy Galore (yes, it was a less woke time in history) in Goldfinger and Cathy Gale in Brit TV series The Avengers – no, not that Avengers! – has passed away of natural causes. She was 94.

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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