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Politicians, NGOs query Malaysia's ban on political gatherings in Melaka

Melaka is under phase four of the national recovery plan, under which the public can freely move and gather.
Melaka is under phase four of the national recovery plan, under which the public can freely move and gather.PHOTO: ST FILE

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's lawmakers and a coalition of non-governmental organisations have questioned the Health Ministry's surprise move to ban political gatherings in Melaka ahead of the state election in November.

Pakatan Harapan MP Mohamad Sabu said it was "strange" to impose the ban, as most places, such as restaurants and shopping malls, are packed with people and social gatherings such as weddings can now take place nationwide.

"Melaka is under phase four of the national recovery plan. Restaurants are packed, malls are full, there are wedding ceremonies, and classes are allowed to resume," the opposition lawmaker said on Monday (Oct 25), referring to the country's road map to exiting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under phase four of the plan, the public can freely move and gather, while schools and most economic sectors are allowed to reopen.

"Malaysia has become one of the strangest countries in the world where the law can be changed according to the whims and fancies of those in power," Mr Mohamad added.

Even members of ruling party Umno were against the move. Umno secretary-general Ahmad Maslan said the emergence of the Delta variant was not a good reason for curbing election campaigning, as increasing numbers of Malaysians have been fully vaccinated.

"According to the Health Ministry's website, those who are vaccinated are less likely to be infected with the Delta variant and even if they get infected, the side effects aren't that bad," he said in his speech in Parliament on Monday.

"I hope the government will reconsider the ban and allow house-to-house visits and small gatherings," he added.

As at Monday, nearly 73 per cent of the country's total population have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, while 77.7 per cent have received at least one dose. Meanwhile daily infections and deaths in Malaysia from the virus continue to fall, with 4,782 new cases and 46 deaths reported on Monday.

On Sunday, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said political gatherings would not be allowed in Melaka from Monday to Nov 27, in the interest of public health.

Campaigning for the state election is scheduled to begin on Nov 8, with voters going to the ballot box on Nov 20.

Mr Khairy's decision came after videos emerged on social media showing crowds at political gatherings in Melaka. He noted that political parties, including his own party Umno, had failed to observe safety protocols during these events.

Electoral reform group Bersih 2.0 described the ban as a "suppression of democracy" that would disadvantage political parties that are not part of the ruling government.

"While the ban is on all political parties and candidates, we are concerned that it would grossly disadvantage those parties who are not part of the ruling government, as state media tends to focus almost exclusively on the activities and achievements of ruling parties' candidates and highlight failures of the opposition," the steering committee said in a statement.

Independent MP Steven Choong however welcomed the move, saying it would avoid another surge of Covid-19 cases like the one arising from the Sabah state election in September last year.

"We in politics should always place the health of the rakyat (people) as our main agenda.

"Unfortunately, (politicians) for their own benefit have triggered the Melaka state election at a time when it is not so appropriate for the normal rakyat out there," he said in Parliament on Monday.

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