Former Malaysian PM says Covid fight was 'worse than war' but predicts strong recovery

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin now leads an economic recovery task force

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Malaysia's former prime minister has described leading the country's fight against a rising tide of Covid-19 cases as “worse than war”, but he believes the country is primed to return as a stronger economic force than before the pandemic.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was parachuted into a crisis as Malaysia's prime minister in March 2020, as the virus rapidly spread across the world.

The King of Malaysia later declared a state of emergency at his request and Mr Muhyiddin was granted special powers to help tackle the public health crisis.

He resigned in August 2021, with his 17-month tenure making him the shortest serving prime minister in Malaysian history, but his impact was significant.

Speaking exclusively to The National in his first interview as chairman of Malaysia’s National Recovery Council, Mr Muhyiddin said he believed a brighter future lay ahead for his nation.

Interview with the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. Victor Besa / The National

“To declare a state of emergency and be granted additional powers was very important to manage the pandemic,” said Mr Muhyiddin.

“These special laws had been available for many years, but they were rarely required.

“It was the first time they were used for this purpose.

“People said these emergency laws were like being at war, but I told them this was worse than a war.”

Tough approach to controlling virus

Despite early success in keeping cases low, Malaysia rode the rollercoaster wave of infections with a peak of almost 21,000 daily cases recorded in early September, 2021.

A state of emergency was implemented from January until August last year, when Mr Muhyiddin’s government was awarded special powers to introduce new laws without parliamentary votes.

Spot fines for disobeying strict Covid-19 rules were ramped up from just 1,000 Ringgit to up to 50,000.

Several lockdowns were imposed throughout the pandemic, with the latest only lifted in October, allowing vaccinated citizens to return to normal life.

Mr Muhyiddin, who was one of the first to be vaccinated in the country, said Malaysia’s strength was its partnerships with surrounding nations during the pandemic.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional coalition to promote economic, political and security cooperation.

The group is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Special meetings between the nations allowed sharing of information, collaboration and successes in treatment of Covid-19.

Drastic action was necessary

A secondary school pupil receives a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a school, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on September 20, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Mr Muhyiddin said the pandemic required quick, confident decisions to balance protection of life with economic security during a time of huge uncertainty.

“Every country had their own ideas of how to manage the pandemic based on their own experiences,” said the former prime minister.

“As far as Malaysia was concerned, I took an unprecedented action by imposing a national lockdown. There was nowhere to go.

“At the time there were just 300 cases, and we were unsure about what was going to happen next.

“It was a drastic decision. But Malaysians were concerned about their health and the death rates, so they responded well.

“I’m not saying I made all the right decisions. But the lockdown was costing us 2.6 billion ringgits a day.

“My governor of the national bank said that if we continued with the lockdown the entire Malaysian banking system would collapse.

“These were the kind of decisions we were forced to make.”

Malaysia is moving towards an endemic phase of the pandemic, in which the virus continues to exist and to infect people, but with fewer consequences for most.

Those plans were put on hold last month due to the emergence of the Omicron variant, but the nation is now edging cautiously towards a new normal.

On January 12, as positive cases continue to recede, despite the rise of Omicron elsewhere, Malaysia’s population of 32.3 million recorded just 3,198 new cases of the virus.

A strong vaccination campaign has been crucial to Malaysia road map out of the pandemic.

So far, more than 60 million doses of mainly Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have been administered, with 25.7 million people fully vaccinated — about 79 per cent of the population.

Schoolchildren over 12 are also eligible for a vaccine, with discussions under way to offer it to younger children, in line with international guidance.

A cautious return to normality

A mobile app, similar to Al Hosn, must be shown on entry to public venues as proof of vaccination.

And major family events such as weddings require invite instructions for guests to show proof of double vaccination and a negative test prior to attending.

The protocol has become standard for those wanting to visit restaurants and live events.

As the recovery gathers pace, mosques have reopened under social distancing measures to reduce numbers who pray together, and schools are due back next week.

Face masks, however, are unlikely to disappear any time soon and international borders remain closed for all but essential travel, a blow to tourism — the worst hit industry in Malaysia.

Now heading a national recovery task force, Mr Muhyiddin backs Malaysia to regain its footing as an emerging economic Asian powerhouse.

“We are still asking questions of our healthcare system in this latest Omicron outbreak of Covid-19,” he said.

“But recovery from the pandemic is hugely important, not just in Malaysia but also as a region.

“The question now is are we going back to how things were in 2019 or use this as a platform to push Asia higher in the ranking of developed nations?

“Can we use this not only to recover, but to really jump-start our nations in Asia and have lift off in our status, to look at a new digital economy and how our banks work.

“It sounds ambitious, but this could be a blessing.”

Updated: January 16, 2022, 11:16 AM