Health Worker Strike Spectre Reveals Surprising Public Support

Most Malaysians commenting on Dr Zaliha Mustafa’s video, urging staff in the public health service not to go on strike, appear to be sympathetic towards health workers, as they tell the health minister to solve the urgent crisis in the health care system.

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 17 – Rising threats of a strike by public health care workers at the end of their tether have received unusual public sympathy from Malaysians.

Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa released a TikTok video Wednesday – which was also published on her Facebook and Twitter pages – to urge aggrieved health care workers not to take industrial action, but to be more “mature” in their thinking instead and to meet with her.

Most people commenting in English or Bahasa Malaysia on Dr Zaliha’s video on all three social media platforms either told the minister to solve problems in the understaffed public health service or were openly supportive of a strike. 

Very few – among the more than 1,600 people commenting on the minister’s video on Twitter, Facebook, and Twitter – criticised doctors or health care professionals over purported planned walkouts. 

“Strike is their right. Health care workers are responsible people, but resort to such action when authorities fail/delay to act. Issues highlighted since Covid pandemic. Now @KKMPutrajaya only offers more verbal promises. Disappointing!” A. Sivarajan, secretary-general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), tweeted in response to Dr Zaliha’s video, tagging the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) official Twitter account.

Twitter user @kuihsepotong, with an MBBS listed on their profile, described Dr Zaliha’s statement on the purported health worker strike as “typical anti-industrial action rhetoric”.

“The reality is things won’t change for the better unless workers have something to threaten. And the most effective threat has always been collective action.”

Another Twitter user, @Zaki_Yamani_, told Dr Zaliha that the country’s health care system is “dying”, saying: “Faham saja tak ada guna. Ada rancangan tak nak selamatkan? Kalau doktor dan pekerja kesihatan mogok, rakyat wajib turun sokong” [Just understanding is useless. Is there a plan to save them? If doctors and health workers go on strike, the people must go and support them].

On Dr Zaliha’s Facebook page, most people commenting on her video about the strike similarly pointed out that the government has yet to propose solutions to the crisis in the public health service. 

“Doc n nurse burnout lama dah…this is the only way to make solid expression…bru nak kalut ker?” said Facebook user Azemeen Amran.

Another Facebook user, Man Sam, told the government to sack health care workers threatening to go on strike. Other Facebook users, in response to Man Sam, pointed out that doctors and nurses have no problem seeking employment either in the private sector in Malaysia or overseas.

Jadi bila dah tau x cukup jgn ugut nak sack bagai..lagi x cukup jadinya, korg jgak yg marah bila kena tunggu lama2…(So if you know that there’s not enough [staff], don’t make threats of sackings, then there will be even more insufficient [staff], and at the end, all of you are the ones who get angry when you have to wait long [for treatment]),said Facebook user Ahmad Al-Hafiz. 

On Dr Zaliha’s TikTok page, most people, in response to her video, told the minister to take swift action and to go down to the ground to observe the congestion in public hospitals and clinics.

Depa dah matang dah tu nk mogok..depa pon ada hak nak tunjuk ketidakpuasan hati..kalau komplen scra bertulis bkan KKM nak paham (They’re already mature, that’s why they want to go on strike..they also have the right to show dissatisfaction..MOH doesn’t want to understand written complaints),” said TikTok user Faredhan88.

Another TikTok user, Yu-Geon, said: “Strike ni akan buka mata semua…strike lah titik permulaan utk selesaikan semua permasalahan…(this strike will open up everyone’s eyes…a strike is the starting point to solve all problems).

Reformasi Kesihatan Malaysia, a group of government doctors, has listed 12 demands for the government to fulfil to avert a potential strike in the public health service, including salary hikes for all health care workers, an increase in on-call allowances, as well as transparent selection criteria for permanent positions in the service.

Hartal Doktor Kontrak (HDK), which represents contract doctors and previously organised a one-day walkout among contract doctors in 2021, has denied any involvement in the “unannounced” strike mentioned by Dr Zaliha, saying instead that a “well-organised” strike will be the last resort.

Ipoh Timor MP Howard Lee Chuan How, in a TikTok video in Bahasa Malaysia posted last Monday, defended the right of health care workers to go on strike, but opposed industrial action that was not announced in advance.

The DAP lawmaker said he has heard not only of contract doctors wanting to participate in walkouts, but also “many” doctors in permanent positions in the service.

Lee described the crisis in the public health care system as a “legacy” issue that was “impossible” to solve in a day or two. 

“I met with Dr Zaliha yesterday (Sunday) and I know that she is working extremely hard to solve this crisis,” said the Perakian legislator.

“With each passing day, it appears that this crisis is becoming more and more intractable, but I’m confident that with will and resolve, and with the determination and expertise of (the minister) and of the entire machinery of the unity government, we can restore health workers’ welfare, as well as the glory of all our hospitals, public health clinics, and dignity and welfare for every person in our country’s health care system.”

Dr Zaliha tweeted last night that she would hold a two-hour in-person townhall meeting with doctors next Wednesday in Putrajaya; the co-secretariat with the MOH for the February 22 townhall is the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA). Townhall sessions with other professions in the health sector are also being planned, she said.

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