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Monday, May 31, 2021

Stop pandering to those with the balik kampung itch

 

Judging by the heavy traffic on our highways, the two-week lockdown beginning on Tuesday is not likely to suppress the new wave of Covid-19 infections. Even the health ministry director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah was asking “Where are you all going?” the other day.

It’s not just in the peninsula; the same phenomenon also happens in Sabah and Sarawak, where people from the interior have been heading home by land and river for the Kaamatan and Gawai Dayak festival holidays this week.

The fact that there is a “balik kampung” phenomena in the two Borneo states should be something to reflect on for many of us who see it from a race-religious perspective and confuse it for what it actually is: a result of populist policies that have made Malaysia the nation with the most public holidays in Southeast Asia — 50 days a year of which 32 holidays aren’t nationwide.

Kaamatan in Sabah this weekend and Gawai Dayak in Sarawak (June 1 and 2) are traditionally rice harvest festivals where merry-making and thanksgiving to the native gods and spirits are the main themes. They are certainly not Christian, Muslim nor Buddhist festivals.

Many of us in the peninsula who observed the snaking queue of cars at the Gombak toll plaza returning from the recent Hari Raya holidays could only shake our heads and frown in worry.

It was obvious that the MCO rules against non-business interstate travel did not work. If the SOP had been effectively applied, there wouldn’t have been a queue of cars heading back from the east coast.

The new lockdown was announced on Thursday. On Friday, some people had already started to pack for their hometown.

Workshop owner Joe Raj said: “Most of my workers are from the city. They said that it would be boring at home and that if I decided to open the workshop to please call them back to work.” Under the lockdown, non-essential services, including his workshop, are not allowed to open.

“But one from outstation absented himself on Friday and said that he wouldn’t come in on Monday because he wanted to go back to his kampung.”

The essence of this “balik kampung” fever is that successive governments have pandered to cultural and religious festivals. The contest for popularity was ratcheted up by the previous Barisan Nasional governments which consisted of race-based parties with each one championing their race. Two days’ public holiday for Chinese New Year. Two days for Hari Raya. A public holiday for Deepavali and later on, Thaipusam in five states and two federal territories. Then add on the various religious holidays.

The national car policy of the 1980s implanted the idea that everyone could have a car and drive home for festive seasons. Going back to their hometown or kampung with your own car is a big thing.

But the main point of contention now is that there seems to be little compliance with the SOP barring non-business interstate travel as observed at the toll plazas after Hari Raya and today.

The rule allowing interstate travel caters for emergencies such as a death in the family. Mostly though, the display of a copy of the letter from the international trade and industry ministry (MITI) addressed to one’s company, and a corresponding company letter attesting that the holder is an employee, is sufficient to be waved through the roadblocks.

The ministry letter bears a unique QR code which you can access with your smartphone and it will take you to the MITI Covid-19 Intelligent Management System. There is also a PIN number that enforcement agencies can presumably use to go into the Miti-CIMS database.

But in all my travels on the highways and through the roadblocks, I’ve never once seen any enforcement unit scanning the QR code and checking against the driver’s identification details.

That queue of cars returning from the east coast via Gombak in all probability were mostly not single occupant cars. Yet we don’t see much enforcement or hear of anecdotes about enforcement. Isn’t it obvious that a family travelling with children in a car are not on company business?

There are also those who point out that giving a two-day notice is like waving a green flag for those who have a hometown or kampung to drive back to. While a two-day notice accommodates businesses like restaurants which have to dispose of perishables, there should also be a subsequent notice that the enforcement agencies are already on standby to strictly screen private motorists at roadblocks leading out of the Klang Valley.

The government should loudly warn that strict SOP enforcement will probably cause long queues and that 90% of people will be turned back, and that everyone who is fraudulently compromised would be summoned.

Don’t you think the police and government haven’t figured this out? No, this two-day advance notice seems like a tacit approval for some members of the civil service who will see the lockdown as an opportunity to return to their hometown on a two-week paid holiday.

The pampering and populist policies by the government have to be resolved to put an end to the people’s misery in a lockdown, especially urban dwellers in low-cost apartments.

One good thing to do right away is to seek and stop all religious gatherings at mosques, churches and temples. The government must instead encourage worship to be held at home. In fact, the government should not sanction any religious gatherings during this pandemic.

Take this opportunity to lead the nation and return to the secularism of the Federal Constitution.

Former appeals court judge Mohd Hishamudin Md Yunus in a paper presented last year, said: “… there is, at present, a perceivable lack of appreciation among Malaysians that Malaysia is a secular state and not a theocratic Islamic state. This is, to some extent, due to the fact that the issue had been politicised by our political leaders.

“For example, in 2001, then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared that Malaysia was an ‘Islamic state’. Let me say on the outset that this is a mere political statement and nothing more than that. With respect to the then prime minister, such a statement should not have been made as it may cause — and indeed it has caused — unnecessary confusion among Malaysians.”

Mohd Hishamudin served 23 years on the bench and wrote close to 750 judgments in the High Court and the Court of Appeal before retiring in 2015. He is a consultant at the legal firm Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill.

The people who were, this weekend, on the way back to their hometowns are likely to include some who – asymptomatic or not – already have the virus and will infect their communities.

When they return home in two weeks, the cases in their hometowns will start to rise.

I sincerely hope not.

But the probability is that with the inefficacy of the enforcement of the MCO protocol on interstate travel, the number of Covid-19 cases will continue to surge.

The best indication that the pandemic will be controlled is when the government stops thinking about popularity and starts rolling out vaccinations as vigorously as the US, if not the Seychelles, which has already vaccinated more than 65% of its small population. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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