Unanswered questions behind PM’s plaintive plea

When Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin went on television at 10pm on Monday, he said nothing about people staying indoors. An immediate question came to mind.

Another was whether personal travel was permitted. The third was why he didn’t say anything about either point.

On Tuesday, people started sharing a long article, a sort of summary of the restrictions announced: that people should stay in, outstation travel was not allowed and that students were not permitted to leave but should remain on campus.

None of that had been stated at 10pm the night before. The posting did sound like what should have been said, but wasn’t.

Another question arose – who wrote that, what did he know, and when did he know it? And why didn’t the PM say all that?

Students were turfed out on short notice on Tuesday and it appears that many of them, and others, made a beeline to bus stations. Not surprisingly so, the instant comments while the PM spoke were “Yay, cuti 2 minggu”.

But why were the hostels being emptied at short notice?

Then at 5.30pm on Tuesday, the IGP came out of the blue to announce travel restrictions, with a requirement for travel permits, somewhat like curfew permits. Queues formed at police stations, creating tensions all around – between police officers frustrated that the people don’t understand they would be spreading the virus, and people frustrated that nothing was said for 18 hours, only for them to be slapped with a ban instituted at six hours’ notice.

An hour before the deadline, the IGP retracted his announcement (which one newspaper seemed to have bungled by later carrying a clarification retracting the retraction).

Finally, at 8pm on Wednesday, more than 40 hours later, the PM explained the need for everyone to stay put, but neglects to explain why no stay-home order was issued until the IGP’s sudden move.

Then the PM pleads, five times, for people to stay and not move.

But why did no one say so between 10pm on Monday and 6pm on Tuesday?

And finally, the director-general of health – the only voice with any credibility in the past two weeks – is thrust forward and allowed to say what had been begging to be said from the beginning.

Winning over hearts and minds

Finally, there was recognition of the small personal efforts on social media by doctors and nurses trying to impress upon Malaysians what they needed to do.

And even that came only after a nurse had apparently been reprimanded for showing initiative in posting a video of how to wash your hands thoroughly.

Somewhere in between was the nastiness of Pakatan Harapan state leaders being shut out of discussions of a national public health emergency and the nastiness of Kedah defying the ban on Friday prayers – with the concurrence of the MB, Mukhriz Mahathir – even though that had been announced on Monday.

In between were two daily meetings of the National Security Council which, strangely, comprises the internal security and defence forces, a communications minister who has been silent throughout, and an international trade minister prone to posing for pictures.

And yet, in the face of an international public health emergency, neither the health minister nor the director-general seemed to have been co-opted as full members, at least for the duration of the crisis.

Why not? It is a public health emergency – not an internal security crisis, nor yet a matter of public order.

The bungled stay-home order could very well have provoked a public order crisis. So, too, if police and Rela suddenly appear on the streets to crack down on a public who had been left in the lurch for two days.

Someone knew (or guessed) beforehand that a stay-home order and a ban on internal travel had been planned. Whoever left it unstated for a full day, wittingly or otherwise, created fertile ground for frustration, anger and apathy to develop.

The people needed leadership, and clear simple instructions. They still do.

The civilian political leadership needs to regain control of itself, and use every channel – radio, television, WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, Instagram, SMS – to inform and persuade the people.

They must rope in every social influencer and public personality willing to perform national service to get the message home. Every celebrity, every video star, every cartoonist and meme maker, every songwriter and singer, every graphic designer and art director, anyone with a voice that people can believe and trust.

Hearts and minds can be won by charm, graciousness, wit and humour – not by officious notices, not by officious uniforms and boots, and most certainly not by the headline-seeking photo-op artists willing to profit when the lives of the innocent are at risk

There is an enemy to be fought, an unseen enemy that lies within: not just the unseen coronavirus, but also the unseen viruses of apathy, avarice and ambition. To let those triumph will truly be the death of us.

Gobind Rudra is a former newspaper editor.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.