PUTRAJAYA, Dec 5 – Malaysia’s first female health minister, Dr Zaliha Mustafa, today made a commitment to address issues affecting women and children in the country.
“I always put high respect on the ladies. Being the first lady minister, there are things I think will be given attention. I’ve received calls from women NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and female doctors who spoke about things that we need and want to do, and everything else.
“I think it will be a challenge, but it’s also exciting and I look forward to it,” Dr Zaliha said when clocking in to work at the Ministry of Health here today. “We will definitely look into matters affecting women and children.”
The freshman MP is taking office as health minister amid a potential maternal and child health crisis triggered by the Terengganu state government’s recent move to criminalise out-of-wedlock pregnancy and childbirth for Muslim women under a Shariah legal amendment.
Paediatricians and obstetrician & gynaecologist doctors have criticised Terengganu’s prohibitions on out-of-wedlock pregnancy and childbirth, warning the state government of increased maternal and infant mortality from unsafe abortions and baby dumping.
Dr Zaliha, 58, a medical doctor with over two decades’ worth of experience in politics under PKR’s women’s wing, was chosen by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim for the difficult task of delivering crucial health care reforms — under a Pakatan Harapan (PH) led unity government — against a backdrop of multiple health crises and a chronically underfunded public health care system.
Dr Zaliha previously served as political secretary to then-Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who also headed the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry under the previous PH government led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“That (experience) will also help my job as the first lady minister,” Dr Zaliha said.
The first-term Sekijang MP previously told news agency Bernama that she plans to address the glut of medical graduates in Malaysia and to provide better health care services.
Dr Zaliha also spoke about issues linked to marginal communities, health infrastructure, mental health and medicine supply. She hoped that MOH would be given a comprehensive allocation to meet all needs in what could be a new Budget 2023.
Anwar previously said that government revenue to fund a bigger public health care budget could be obtained from cost-cutting measures, such as a smaller Cabinet and by plugging leakages in public spending.
Contract doctors and health care workers’ welfare were among 10 priorities of the Harapan Action Plan that PH promised to embark on immediately if it is elected into the federal government. PH also pledged to increase public health care expenditure to 5 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) within five years in a single term.
The previous government had announced an allocation of RM36.14 billion for MOH under Budget 2023, an 11.5 per cent raise from RM32.41 billion allocated in Budget 2022.
Despite the increase in Budget 2023 tabled last October 7, critics have pointed out that the public health budget remained stagnant against the GDP at 1.98 per cent. Parliament was dissolved before the 14th Parliament could pass the federal budget.
Dr Zaliha said she is open to suggestions and opinions on health issues and policies from her predecessors. On social media, former health ministers Dzulkefly Ahmad and Khairy Jamaluddin had stated their intent of supporting Dr Zaliha in her new role.
“As a new minister, I will be briefed by the staff at MOH and what policies we can accept, those that need amendment or may be rejected. At the moment, it’s unclear,” Dr Zaliha said. “But in the end, what we want is the best for people.”