A week ago, on the 8th of February 2022, the chairman of the National Recovery Council (NRC), Muhyiddin Yassin, announced that the council had proposed for the borders of the country to be open to travellers, without the need for quarantining, as early as the 1st of March 2022.
This meeting was attended by a number of Ministers who are part of the NRC including the Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, and other Ministers including the Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul, the MITI Minister Azmin Ali, the Education Minister Radzi Jidin, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mustapha Muhammed and the Works Mininster Fadzilah Yusof, among others.
A few days later, the Minister of Defence and the head of the Quartet of Ministers that meets to decide on SOPs and opening of various economic sectors, said that the NRC proposal had yet to be discussed in cabinet. (This is the same Minister who flouted SOPs and was fined by the Ministry of Health for attending an event for the Barisan Nasional machinery ahead of the upcoming Johor state elections)
The Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri, would also later say that the Cabinet would make a decision on the border reopening soon, expressing concerns that an influx of tourists may also lead to an increase in the number of COVID19 cases.
While it is understandable that the cabinet should have the final say on a major issue such as quarantine free travel into the country, the manner in which this announcement was handled shows the total lack of coordination and communication between the chairman of the NRC, the Prime Minister and the key cabinet ministers.
Surely the decision to make the proposal to reopening our borders could have been communicated by the NRC chairman to the Prime Minister earlier so that a clear timeline and proper processes and procedures can be put in place to prepare for such a border reopening. The fact that so many Ministers were at the NRC meeting and yet, they were not able to coordinate the border reopening ‘narrative’ shows the current dysfunction within the government on important policy matters, including decisions that affects millions of jobs and livelihoods such as the tourism sector.
The lack of proper communication and coordination probably resulted in many Malaysians and perhaps foreigners as well making travel arrangements to travel into and out of the country in March thinking that quarantine free travel will be implemented soon.
When a senior Minister like Hishamuddin openly questions the decisions announced and recommended by the NRC, the power and effectiveness of the NRC will inevitably be called into question. What more when the Prime Minister is seen to be undermining the NRC chairman’s announcement!
Some of the responsibility of this poor coordination also has to fall on the NRC and its secretariat. No one is sure as to which Ministry is responsible for ‘hosting’ or providing the human resources to run the NRC, including the secretariat. My best guess is that the Ministry of Finance (MOF) is ‘lending’ some of its resources since both of the NRC meetings chaired by Muhyiddin has been held there. But there isn’t even a webpage or a Facebook (FB) page dedicated to the NRC. This means that the policy decisions and the rationale for such decisions are not made known to the public. Muhyiddin has to resort to making NRC related announcements via his own FB page. In an ironic twist, the Facebook page for the “Majlis Pemulihan Negara” (MPN) is linked to the national recovery council that was started by Tun Dr Mahathir in 2021!.
That is why the government must sort out a clear and coordinated pathway towards re-opening our borders safely while balancing the need to protect the health and security of our people.
We now are more much more aware of the effectiveness of various public health interventions and we have a much better understanding of how the virus behaves. With our high vaccination rates as and continued public health interventions, we propose the following pathway for the Government of Malaysia (GoM) to undertake to re-open our borders:
(1) To set a clear timeline and pathway leading towards such timeline, and not just an arbitrary announcement of a specific date which has caused much confusion and inconvenience.
(2) To categorise countries into different risk levels based on their Covid-19 public health response including vaccination rates and overall healthcare response. This will allow us to prepare specific pathways and timelines to reopen borders to each category of countries based on properly defined risk and health parameters.
(3) To establish “vaccinated travel lanes (VTL)” for lower-risk countries allowing fully vaccinated travellers from those countries to come in by showing proof of a negative PCR test (48 or 72 hours before departure) and also a rapid PCR test at port of entry in Malaysia. We can then carry out a “test and release concept” where once tested negative in Malaysia, they are released without quarantine but required to download MySejahtera and activate the MyTrace function for more effective contact tracing if needed. On days three and seven of their stay, they will need to test again using RTK Self-Test kits and report their results to MySejahtera.
(4) To ensure that mask mandates and other non-medical public health interventions such as physical distancing, good personal hygiene at public places and flexible working arrangements continue.
(5) To enhance healthcare capacity leading up to the border re-openings not just in preparation for the need to re-purpose hospital beds for Covid-19 patients, but also to increase workforce to handle the possible increase in workload.
We ask the GoM to announce a timetable for the reopening of borders with Singapore given the already established protocols and processes such as the mutual VTL and the mutual recognition of the digital vaccination certificates for both countries. The positive economic impact from the reopening of our borders with Singapore will also be significant especially for the leisure and tourism sector.
It is clear that other countries are moving to an endemic phase of COVID19 recovery. More and more travel restrictions are being lifted in Europe, North America, Australia and other parts of Asia. With our high vaccination and booster rates, there should be a clear pathway towards the safe and orderly re-opening of our borders to quarantine free travel especially among those who have been fully vaccinated and boosted.
This can allow Malaysia to bounce back from this pandemic stronger and faster. But when the left hand of the government is not talking to the right hand, what ends up happening is confusion and uncertainty among the policy makers as well as the general public, which is quickly becoming emblematic of this “Keluarga Malaysia” government.
Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi and Dr. Kelvin Yii, Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching on the 16th of February 2022.