Ministers chuckle while tempers flare and a virus rages

Our ministers (literally) laugh as the nation is plunged into chaos and confusion.

IT seems that Senior Minister (Security) Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob finds the predicament of thousands of Malaysians who were confused by unclear and contradictory conditional movement control order (MCO) rules to literally be a laughing matter.

(It appears he has reversed an earlier position on the matter.)

I guess he’ll be joining Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Dr Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali, who is probably laughing at the fact that he got off scot free – and furthermore, even managed to get the Health director-general to “blame” Khairuddin’s entire quarantine saga on the frontliners who put their lives at risk every day working at our airports.

We seem to have gone beyond the stage where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, right through to the stage where all four limbs are acting on their own, and the brain – true to the classic Malay phrase – appears to have migrated down to the knees.

Khairuddin’s case is particularly inflammatory, given how so many ordinary Malaysians have been punished for breaking the same rules that he himself broke.

It appears the authorities have no qualms whatsoever demonstrating one fact time after time after time throughout this pandemic: there is one set of laws for the powerful, and another set of laws for the powerless.

As one of our politicians likes to say, this is not the rule of law, but the law of the jungle.

In both cases, once again, the people at the bottom are the ones being blamed.

Khairuddin’s case was classified as “no further action” because a Health Ministry official – one who presumably works at the airport, performing his or her duty for the nation at great risk to personal health and safety – supposedly failed to issue the minister a particular form.

The rest of Malaysia is supposed to believe that this therefore absolves a minister – one of the highest leaders of our country, and one most expected to lead by example – from punishment that would have befallen anyone else.

Politicians caused the collapse of the Sabah state government, politicians necessitated state-wide elections in Sabah, bringing the Covid-19 pandemic to critical levels in Sabah, and politicians literally brought the virus back to the peninsula; and yet, it is politicians who are given a free pass and an escape from punishment when they break the rules – rules that the rest of us are expected to follow, or face fines and imprisonment?

In Ismail’s case, after he chuckled at our predicament in front of his bizarre menagerie of shelf collectibles that changes every single press conference, he basically said it was we, normal Malaysians, who were to blame for being impatient – implying that we were being completely unreasonable for being anxious about the lack of clarity in the conditional MCO rules.

He further implied that it was completely normal for a government to make a “general announcement” first, followed by specifics to be filled in by another ministry, announced perhaps mere hours before they were supposed to come into effect.

According to Ismail, we were the ones who were being unreasonable for wanting to have a clear picture right away.

The absurdity doesn’t stop there.

Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh released a statement criticising the government for being unclear about the standard operating procedures (SOPs) it was announcing.

In response, Puteri Umno released a statement saying that those who did not like what Ismail was announcing should turn off their TVs and smartphones.

I don’t know whether to describe this state of affairs as Kafkaesque, Orwellian, or plain old “kelam kabut (a mad scramble)”.

What I do know is that my head is spinning – first from trying to understand contradictory instructions from the government, and second from seeing this ridiculous political game play out in the aftermath.

For all my reservations about our government, even I am actually finding myself hard-pressed to believe that this situation is a result of simple incompetence.

Any government that aspires to the adjective “functional” should at the very least be able to produce such simple things like a statement saying: “Inter-district travel is banned. Districts here are defined as ‘administrative districts following local councils’/ ‘districts as defined by the Health Ministry’ / etc.

I honestly don’t care which definition they choose, as long as they choose one. Better yet, publish a simple map showing where district borders are.

Given that they could not even do this properly, it was not surprising that once they started trying to introduce complex rules regarding who was allowed to work in the office and who had to work from home, all hell broke loose.

Again, it is mindboggling.

I am not a government official, or a civil servant, or a qualified administrator, or anything of the sort.

But I honestly think it can’t possibly be that difficult to figure these things out and handle them properly.

If Covid-19 had burst into existence yesterday, maybe we could understand.

But we have been living with this for the better part of the year. In all these months of the recovery MCO, was there truly not a single person working on a contingency plan of what to do should a second wave hit us?

Because even a single person would have been able to figure out that we should be doing (to borrow from programming jargon) an “if this, then that” set of policies.

For example, should we reach X number of cases in a particular state, we should close down schools; should we reach Y number of cases, all government managers above a certain pay grade should work from home; if we reach Z number of cases, all management staff in the private sector should work from home; and so on.

All these things can be sorted out and even announced ahead of time, so that we know what will happen in case certain indicators passed certain key levels.

I hate to use Singapore as a positive example, but Singapore used the term “circuit breaker”, which implied a clear plan, with clear parameters, based on clearly defined indicators.

This is the exact opposite of the haphazard, fly by the seat of their pants approach our government appears to have taken.

It’s as if policy is made willy nilly after a few hours of meeting, with no pre-planning and no clarity on details, and then announced to the world right after the meeting.

When there are questions as to the details, no one dares to answer, because literally no one knows what the right answer actually is.

How can there be a right answer, if the powers that be did not decide specifically what the right answer is supposed to be?

Can you imagine if Malaysia had to face a war with this level of competence and clarity in decision making?

If we were led by such poor politicians in battle, we wouldn’t know what our military objectives were, or even how to differentiate between friend or foe in the field!

I think it would be the understatement of the century to say that Malaysians deserve better, clearer leadership.

Everyone I know is perfectly willing to do their part to flatten the curve, and we are all willing to obey the rules, no matter how inconvenient, in order to help the nation get through this together.

But we cannot follow the rules when the rules are not clear!

Please. Do. Better!

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant. He can be reached at

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