Human rights in Malaysia during the 2020 pandemic

The pandemic in 2020 has certainly shown up some of the worst cases of human rights violations in Malaysia while the whole country has been in lockdown.

Suaram’s annual human rights reports have, since its founding in 1989, focused mainly on civil and political rights violations. This year, as in previous years, detention without trial cases continue under the guise of “crime prevention”.

And while the independent police complaints and misconduct commission remains unattainable, police continue to abuse their powers with impunity.

Meanwhile, freedom of expression has been violated through the careless use of the Communications & Multimedia Act for alleged “fake news” and offences against “race, religion and royalty”.

As for our economic, social, and cultural rights, we have also witnessed the unfettered exploitation of workers, indigenous peoples as well as the decimation of our forests and degradation of the environment by profit-driven developers with the connivance of the state.

We are pleased to announce that Suaram has now started a ‘People Before Profit’ desk to monitor and document violations of economic, social, and cultural rights in Malaysia and to ensure we address the cataclysmic climate emergency with the commitment and urgency it deserves.

Significantly, the pandemic has highlighted some stark truisms normally unnoticed by Malaysian politicians who prefer to carry on “business as usual”. Let us note some of these lessons for the nation:

The costs of politicking and populism

The first cases of the virus appeared in Malaysia on 25 January 2020. It happened at a time of intense political tussle for power between the two main coalitions, Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional.

As usual, this power struggle invoked the orchestrated crisis of “Malay power”. It was during this political show of “Malay populism” that a Tablighi jamaat event took place at Jamek Mosque in Sri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur, where many people are believed to have been infected. Some 16,000 devotees attended the four-day event, from 27 February to 1 March, including about 1,500 from outside Malaysia.

It was not until 1 March that Malaysia’s political crisis was resolved after nearly two weeks of drama following the resignation of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on 24 February which resulted in politicians reneging on their voters’ choice by jumping over to the new ruling coalition, Perikatan Nasional.

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By then, two precious weeks had been wasted on power grappling when the country needed strong leadership to stop the pandemic.

The Tablighi gathering could carry on at a time when the pandemic’s global death toll had reached more than 3,000, and numerous nations had already started to ban mass gatherings. So distracted were our politicians by the “power struggle” in the two political coalitions that there was no focus on the dire need to stop the spread of the virus.

As the number of cases grew, mosques and churches could stay open. It was only on 13 March that the government announced a ban on mass gatherings.

By 17 March, almost two-thirds of the 673 cases confirmed in Malaysia were related to the tabligh event while more than 620 people, including those from other countries, who attended the event tested positive, making it the largest-known centre of transmission in Southeast Asia. As of 5 April 2020, there were 3,662 confirmed cases in the country, with 61 deaths reported.

Then again, one would have expected that after the spike in new Covid cases in the dormitories of foreign workers in Singapore in April, the Malaysian government would have taken immediate precautions to ensure that the living quarters of our foreign workers were not likely to spread the infection.

However, no such action was taken, until after the infections had spread through the foreign workers in manufacturing and construction industries just recently.

Since the so-called “Sheraton Move” in February, there has been no end to the politicking, the latest being the resignation of the Perak Menteri Besar.

Instead, the urgent task of our political leaders is to stay focused on dealing with the pandemic and meeting the needs of the people and the environment both in the short term and for long-term sustainability.

The coronavirus is colour blind

If the last 60-over years have failed to show our policymakers that they are elected to serve all Malaysians equally, this pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis have conclusively shown that racism and racial discrimination has no place in our public policies such as the New Economic Policy.

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Just as the coronavirus makes no distinction between diverse peoples across the world, the nature of policy responses must be colour blind. Some of the government’s economic stimulus packages have been targeted at helping Malaysians according to their socioeconomic sectors and not according to their racial type. This is as it should be although there is a need for more long-term systemic support for the bottom 40% of housholds, the struggling lower-middle class as well as small and medium enterprises rather than populist handouts.

Nevertheless, the recent Budget 2021 has once again shown that public policies continue to be tinged with “racial” considerations.

Why should Jasa, dealing with religious matters, be allocated so much money during this difficult pandemic? Why are there such disproportionate race-based allocations like the following: on the one hand, Budget 2021 allocates RM11.1bn for bumiputra development; RM6.5bn for bumiputra education institutions; RM4.6bn to empower bumiputra entrepreneurs; RM500m for various schemes designated for bumiputra entrepreneurs.

On the other hand, the allocations to the other communities are RM177m for the Chinese community for the development of new villages; RM100m for the Malaysian Indian Transformation Unit (Mitra); RM20m for the Indian community’s entrepreneurship development scheme; and RM5m for entrepreneurship development for other minorities.

The virus has exposed a pandemic of inequality

Before the pandemic, capitalist ideologues had extolled the economy as a spiral of endless expansion and growth driven by the “market” and at the expense of workers and the environment.

This pandemic has exposed the utterly worthless character of parasitic billionaire speculators and the massively undervalued worth of health workers and workers in other industries.

In truth, capitalist accumulation was already problematic before the pandemic. For decades, profit-driven capitalists and their backers in the Malaysian state have got away with exploiting migrant workers through paying low wages and appalling housing conditions.

Who would have expected that it takes a virus to come along before the government did anything to improve the housing standards of our foreign workers!

The pandemic has finally demonstrated the vital importance of our public health system and the importance of strong health infrastructure. For too long, the spread of private hospitals and the draw of so-called “medical tourism” has sapped our public sector hospitals of our medical professionals and threatened to destroy Malaysia’s public health system. In European countries such as Spain, private hospitals have been renationalised during the pandemic.

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A new national agenda to stop human rights violations

The pandemic has certainly revealed the need for a new political, economic, social paradigm that is not based on race but puts social justice and equity at the forefront of the national agenda.

The depletion of our food supplies during the pandemic has highlighted our dependency on imports and the desperate need for a national agricultural policy to promote regenerative agriculture for healthy food self-sufficiency.

The continuing violations of indigenous peoples’ rights to their native customary land and ongoing deforestation during the pandemic are a wake-up call for the country to protect their rights and to cut emissions to meet our obligations to the sustainable development goals of the Paris Accord.

Regulations must now be in place to ensure that corporations adhere to new green policies through rigorous implementation.

We must address wealth inequality through implementing progressive income tax, corporate tax and carbon tax and create good high-wage jobs in the renewable industries.

Our country needs to invest in public infrastructure, housing, transport, and industry and provide training for workers in well-paid unionised jobs.

We need public investments rather than allowing our public land and resources to be at the disposal of private developers, timber, and plantation interests. Our commons belong to the people and are not to be carved out for the pleasure of the rich and tourists.

The pandemic has shown unmistakably, the importance of a good public healthcare, education, housing and childcare system.

It has also shown the need for unemployment benefits and other social safety nets in the event of such a crisis as a basic human right rather than charity handouts.

Most precious of all, the pandemic has demonstrated the capacity of people everywhere to come together in mutual aid and solidarity.

On this Human Rights Day 2020, let Malaysians resolve to uphold and promote human rights of all our peoples irrespective of ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, or creed.

Dr Kua Kia Soong is adviser of the human rights group Suaram

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