The circus was back in town for a while last week, and yes, I am talking about Malaysia's Parliament. Lest you accuse me of disrespecting an august institution, let me first say that I am a huge fan of Parliament operating, and I am a huge fan of informed debate. I would be even happier if both could happen at the same time.
My favourite part is when public policy is carefully discussed and dissected, so that we the rakyat can better understand the government’s intentions and, for better or worse, what goes on in the minds of our elected representatives.
Which is why the first day of Parliament’s reopening on July 26 after a protracted closure since the declaration of an Emergency on Jan 11, 2021, was a little disappointing. (Note that I wrote this column after the third meeting held on Wednesday, July 28, before we all watched the chaos unfold on Thursday, which is a story for another day.)
Don’t get me wrong. There was plenty of entertainment, of storms and stresses, and blustery winds, all streamed live on YouTube. But the show on the first day of the special five-day sitting had a lot of technical details about the Emergency Ordinances and by who, when, how and why they can be rescinded. We all know we should be upset about something, but it was hard to understand exactly what.
It was the sort of thing that really needed a pause to sort out (and subsequently an extension of the meeting so there’s enough time to debate everything). Or you wait for the Istana to post an explanation, and then argue about it.
I was focused on my particular concern, healthcare, and a key highlight in the area was Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad’s outburst in Parliament, when the former Health Minister slammed his papers on the table, angry about the rising number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.
However, I’m just a little sorry that amidst the grandstanding, one of his points was lost. In his speech, Dr Dzul (as he’s widely known) talked about the World Health Organisation (WHO) advocating a “whole of government” and particularly a “whole of society” approach to managing the pandemic last year.
Fundamentally, instead of holding just the health ministry of a government responsible for Covid-19 issues, WHO advocates governments bring together multiple ministries to tackle the crisis, and similarly bring together many stakeholders in society (including NGOs and religious institutions). Basically saying we are stronger together than apart – and I think that includes trying to bring together the best minds from both sides of the political divide.
In fact, part of Dr Dzul’s anger was about how information isn’t being shared freely among government agencies, and about how authorities have been slow to quarantine and isolate people who test positive. I believe his was a call for greater collaboration more than just an outright condemnation of those in Putrajaya.
Unfortunately, that spirit of cooperation was spoiled by talk of ivermectin. Various Pakatan Harapan Opposition MPs hailed it as a wonder drug that helped save lives in India. The Health Minister was lambasted for not approving the drug while people lay dying in ICUs. Those MPs said they are not concerned with waiting for trials, they want the medicine to be offered now.
What puzzles me is that many trials have already been done, and there have, in fact, been two meta analyses published in June and July 2021. One concluded that ivermectin is “not a viable option to treat Covid-19 patients”, and another said “the reliable evidence available does not support the use ivermectin for treatment or prevention of Covid-19 outside of well-designed randomised trials”.
Even worse, older meta analyses that showed positive results may have been tainted. There was one significantly positive study that was found to have used faked or manipulated data. One epidemiologist said, “If you get rid of just this research, most meta analyses that have found positive results would have their conclusions entirely reversed” (The Guardian, July 15).
Now, either the MPs that so heavily support ivermectin are not aware of these developments, in which case they need to pay their researchers more, or they are aware that there is controversy and they want to purposely create a divisive issue that differentiates them (as MPs who want to save lives) from the Health Ministry (which they presumably think is slow in saving lives).
This is not what I would call “working together”. The fact that a small cadre of MPs seemed to band together to talk about this issue might even imply there was collusion.
However, MPs are individuals, and they come in various forms. The third day’s session, on July 28, was much better when Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin presented the status of vaccination efforts in Malaysia so far; from what I saw the questions were generally inquiry-based (unfortunately the Hansard hadn’t been published at the time of writing and I am basing this on what I heard online).
But, again, the third day’s meeting was overshadowed by an argument, this time between some MPs and the Speaker, which kind of distracted people from an interesting interaction elsewhere: Dr Dzul made a point to Khairy about the need for future-proofing the vaccination procurement (or manufacturing) process, given the likelihood of either Covid-19 variants or other potential pathogens in the future. The minister agreed, saying “I think we can work together on this, Yang Berhomat”, to which Dr Dzul responded, “Excellent, Mentri. We may also get involved in the clinical trials (of the) second generation vaccines”.
It’s not quite everybody linking arms and striding forward together, and it may still be a circus, given the developments later on in the week. But we can at least take heart that some understand the show only works if there’s serious work done behind the scenes.
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.