It is not surprising that Malaysians – particularly civil society groups and social media users as well as opposition lawmakers – were up in arms about the government’s proposal to amend the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988.
This is because the amendment would see the penalty for flouting the standard operating procedure being raised from a maximum of RM1,000 to RM10,000 for individuals.
The convicted individuals can also be penalised under Section 24 of the proposed amendment to a maximum of RM100,000 fine, or up to seven years of imprisonment, or both.
Meanwhile, the fine could be up to RM1m for corporate bodies that violate the rules.
The heavy punishment, we are told, is aimed at ensuring people’s strict compliance with the standard operating procedure so that Covid infections can be curbed.
It is appreciated that certain rules need to be put in place and strictly implemented in the protracted fight against the invisible menace.
However, the excessive penalties for violation of the rules may well “kill” several violators, particularly the vulnerable, who do not have the wherewithal to pay the fines.
Fine defaulters are likely to be thrown into jail, which is a daunting prospect, especially for families whose sole breadwinners are the violators.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the quantum pertaining to the penalties depends on the seriousness of the offence, hence the creation of a three-tiered penalty system proposed in the amendment of the law.
While it is appreciated that the gravity of the offence would be assessed accordingly before a compound is issued, it is feared that this proposed system could lend itself to abuse.
Besides, double standards that were employed in the past in the enforcement of the standard operating procedure do not instil confidence among the detractors and the general public.
The enforcement agencies were lenient towards ruling politicians and celebrities while the common people were strictly penalised.
A case in point was the recent 100th day Keluarga Malaysia Aspiration celebration event at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. It attracted large crowds of people, defying the physical distancing requirement.
The bone of contention over this event is that the organisers were slapped with a mere RM1,000 compound under the act.
Additionally, therefore, others who flouted the standard operating procedure should also be punished, including ministers and senior government officials who were present and consciously allowed the carnival to continue for four days.
It has been argued that the importance of strict compliance would be better appreciated by the ordinary people had strict enforcement of the law been equally applied to the powerful and famous. In short, there must be an example made of the influential.
Framers of the amendment to the act should surely be aware of, and sensitive to, the larger social context, where not only are there people who are struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the pandemic, the prices of basic necessities have also escalated.
The excessive penalties imposed on these people would be nightmarish. To be sure, a fine of RM1,000 or even the maximum of RM10,000 would not cause much of a dent to the lifestyles of the rich and powerful, but for the vulnerable and desperate, RM1,000 could go a long way towards feeding their hungry families and schooling their children.
Similarly, a fine of RM1m can be considered hefty for certain small and medium enterprises, a few of which may have to be closed down as a result.
Corporations, on the other hand, would be able to absorb the penalties without jeopardising their businesses.
It pays to craft a piece of legislation through the lens of the vulnerable. – The Malaysian Insight