Universally Opposed, Act 342 Amendment Hangs In Balance

“I think we are no longer afraid of Covid-19. We are even more afraid of the kind of government and the kind of laws that will oppress us further in our day-to-day lives.”

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 16 – In just 72 hours, an unusual groundswell of anger cutting across all levels of Malaysian society — citizens, businesses, lawyers, doctors, and politicians — rose against proposed amendments to Act 342.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) is proposing to drastically enhance punishments for breaching Covid-19 rules — like not wearing face masks or not practising physical distancing — to compounds of up to RM10,000 for individuals and half a million ringgit for businesses. Compounds under the existing Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) are limited to RM1,000 for all offenders.

Under the proposed amendments to Act 342, upon conviction in court, individuals face up to three years in prison, a fine of up to RM50,000, or both; corporate bodies can be fined up to RM2 million.

These penalties were a reduction — hastily made in the Dewan Rakyat yesterday — from the initial version of the Act 342 amendment Bill 2021 that had proposed an RM1 million compound for companies, as well as up to seven years’ incarceration or a maximum RM100,000 fine for individuals convicted of offences under Act 342.

Never before in recent history has a Bill — in a country where citizens are generally apathetic towards legislation — united Malaysians across ethnicity, age, gender, and profession against a common cause. And in a record three days after news of the proposed Act 342 amendments broke late Sunday night in an RTM interview with Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.

“I think we are fed up – it has been two years. How much longer can we remain oppressed under the many different Acts? Clearly, the MOH and the ministers have failed. Why must the people bear the brunt (of their failures)?

“I think we are no longer afraid of Covid-19. We are even more afraid of the kind of government and the kind of laws that will oppress us further in our day-to-day lives,” a woman said angrily in Malay in a 10-minute voice message that has been circulated on WhatsApp, as she begged people to urge their MPs to vote against the Bill.

Posters comparing the Act 342 amendment Bill with harsher punishments for Covid infractions than a maximum two-year jail term for causing death by negligence have been circulated online by the Undi18 group, using the hashtag #LawanPindaan342. A petition to oppose the Bill was launched by ABIM on Tuesday, with over 2,600 signatures in just a day.

Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat and Undi18 are also rallying youths to join a protest in Parliament this morning to urge Khairy to withdraw the Bill.

Health care providers, who are usually unperturbed by public sentiment, have similarly objected to the Act 342 amendment Bill. The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), in a statement yesterday, proposed that a special parliamentary sitting be held to re-table and debate the amendments after sufficient stakeholder engagements have taken place.

No public health expert has openly expressed support for the harsher criminal penalties that MOH insists are necessary to curb the coronavirus epidemic.

The main thrust of MOH’s argument is that the punitive measures previously implemented under the Emergency Ordinances (EOs), which have since been repealed, will prevent coronavirus outbreaks, especially in the manufacturing sector, and associated fatalities, since it considered emergency legislations to be effective in controlling the epidemic.

However, MOH has not provided data and evidence to back its argument that severe criminal sanctions improved Covid standard operating procedure (SOP) compliance and — more importantly — reduced transmission of the extremely contagious disease from an airborne virus.

In fact, during the state of Emergency from January 12, Covid-19 infections and deaths exceeded last year multiple fold. In 2020, Malaysia only recorded 113,010 cases and 471 coronavirus-related fatalities. This year, until December 8 when EOs were formally repealed, over 2.4 million infections and more than 30,000 deaths were reported.

Cases and fatalities only started falling from the peak of the epidemic late August, after vaccines were widely rolled out and the Greater Klang Valley Special Task Force brought the region’s Covid-19 crisis under control.

MOH’s focus on how small compounds of RM1,000 do not pose a sufficient deterrent to large companies that repeatedly violate Covid SOPs ignores the fact that these serious offenders can be charged in court immediately without being offered compounds. The existing version of Act 342 provides jail terms of up to two years for a first offence and up to five years for a second or subsequent offence.

“The Ministry should look at itself in the mirror and see to what extent its actions and inactions have contributed to the number of cases, severe disease, and deaths,” said former MMA president Dr Milton Lum, who previously wrote extensive criticisms of Malaysia’s public health response, such as testing, contact tracing, the management of health care workers, and the lack of cooperation with university hospitals and private health care providers.

“Don’t destroy whatever little public trust you have left with draconian measures.”

Yet, Khairy appears intent on pushing the huge Bill through in Parliament today, the last day of the final Dewan Rakyat meeting of the year, just two days before polling for the Sarawak state election, when many MPs are either currently campaigning in Sarawak or planning year-end holidays.

Despite last-minute changes to the amendment Bill, Pakatan Harapan (PH) said in a statement yesterday that it would not lend its support, urging the health minister to withdraw the Bill. Umno leaders — including former prime minister Najib Razak, party deputy president Mohamad Hasan, and party youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, have also come out against the Bill.

Without the guarantee of full support from government MPs, it remains to be seen if the Act 342 amendment Bill will survive a vote in Parliament, especially just after the passage of historic amendments to the Federal Constitution to recognise the Malaysia Agreement 1963 that was touted as a success of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s MOU with PH.

“Khairy should bear full responsibility if the Opposition is forced to call for division voting to express its opposition to the draconian and unscientific provisions in the Bill and spoil the bipartisan spirit that has started to develop as a result of the confidence-supply-reform (CSR) memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and Pakatan Harapan leaders on Sept 13,” DAP leader Lim Kit Siang said yesterday.

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