Malaysia declares Covid state of emergency amid political turmoil

By Rebecca Ratcliffe

Malaysia’s king has declared a months-long national state of emergency one day before a strict lockdown is imposed on millions of people, a decision that critics say will allow its unstable government to evade scrutiny and cling to power.

A statement by the national palace said Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah had agreed to declare an emergency until 1 August following a request from the prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin. If infections are brought under control, the measures could be lifted more quickly.

The decision is expected to hand huge powers to Muhyiddin and his cabinet. A state of emergency would allow for parliament to be suspended, meaning the government would have the power to introduce laws without approval. Elections would also be put on hold.

The announcement was made on Tuesday morning, as people across the capital Kuala Lumpur and five states prepared for new restrictions. Lockdown measures to be imposed from midnight on Wednesday will ban social activities and interstate travel for the next two weeks, while most businesses will be closed.

Malaysia had managed to mostly control the virus after it introduced a strict lockdown last year, but a fresh outbreak emerged in September linked to an election held in the state of Sabah. Muhyiddin has warned the healthcare system was “at a breaking point”.

On top of the coronavirus pandemic, Malaysia has faced continued political instability over the past year.

Muhyiddin rose to power in March, after former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad unexpectedly resigned in February, prompting the collapse of the government. Amid the political chaos, the king met all 222 MPs to determine which potential leader commanded majority support, before naming Muhyiddin as prime minister. However, his legitimacy has been questioned, with some pointing out that he did not win power through the ballot box.

Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition has just a slim majority and remains precarious, with key allies in his coalition threatening to withdraw support. This could lead to the collapse of the government and snap elections that some fear could worsen the outbreak.

There is concern the emergency declaration undermines democracy in the country, and that it is being used by Muhyiddin to cling to his position.

The king of Malaysia, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah
The king of Malaysia, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah Photograph: Ahmad Yusni/EPA

“The declaration of a state of emergency seems like another attempt by Muhyiddin to hold on to power, block elections and to remove parliamentary oversight, rather than to seriously address the pandemic,” tweeted Josef Benedict from Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists.

Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmood, a legal expert at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, said the government will gain wide powers during the emergency.

“If parliament is not in session, the government has the power to make laws. The constitution is more or less suspended, as a substantial part of it can be overridden by emergency law,” he said.

Malaysia has reported more than 138,000 virus cases and 555 deaths since the start of the outbreak.

Health officials have warned the current wave of infections could see daily cases grow to as many as 8,000 by May if restrictions are not imposed.

Reuters contributed to this report.