Tens of thousands of people on Thursday signed an online petition calling for the resignation of Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali as anger brewed over the large number of businesses granted permission to operate during an ongoing Covid-19 “total lockdown”.
Critics said the waivers, some of which were handed to non-essential businesses, would severely compromise the impact of the June 1 to June 14 lockdown just as the health-care system was reaching breaking point.
An earlier partial lockdown failed to stem a surge in cases which has brought on back-to-back records in daily new cases and fatalities.
Amid online vitriol against him on Thursday, Azmin – second in command in Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government – issued a statement clarifying that his ministry was not the sole government department responsible for vetting and approving applications.
Instead, he said 15 ministries were involved in the approval process as part of the country’s Covid-19 Intelligent Management System (CIMS).
“The Ministry of Trade and Industry is not the sole decision maker on whether a business sector is considered an essential service or not,” Azmin said.
As of Thursday morning, 128,150 of 586,308 companies that applied for permission to operate during lockdown had obtained approval to do so, he said.
The approved companies had a total of 1.57 million workers.
Part of the controversy had to do with whether individual ministries would handle approvals for businesses under their regulatory purview.
The government had on Sunday said this was the case, but reversed course on Monday, saying instead that approvals had to go through CIMS – which is administered by Azmin’s ministry.
The local news portal Malaysiakini reported that a photography business and a leather furniture company were among businesses that had been granted permission to operate during the two-week lockdown. The government had earlier said the so-called “full lockdown” would shut down most businesses except those deemed essential.
Online, frustrations were compounded by a veiled comment by Security Minister Ismail Sabri. The official, who is the government’s point person on lockdown matters, wrote on social media on Wednesday: “I shut the front door, but…”
Some commentators speculated that he was venting his frustrations about the waivers Azmin had been granting, but asked about the matter on Thursday, the minister said there was no metaphorical meaning to his words.
Azmin too sought to brush off the perception that the saga had caused internal sniping in the government, telling the local Sinar Harian newspaper that Ismail was one of the “important members of the cabinet” tasked with dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The public petition against him, started by an account called Kerajaan Gagal (‘failed government’), had gained some 83,000 signatures on the change.org website by Thursday night.
The petition was addressed to Azmin and Muhyiddin and read: “For one reason: failed to function as expected as a senior minister”.
Most of the petitioners left scathing comments for Azmin, who serves as the senior minister for economics and finance on top of his trade and industry portfolio.
“Full lockdown but due to the Ministry of Trade and Industry millions of people are back to work. Makes the full lockdown have no meaning and wastes everyone’s effort, including the frontliners,” one commenter wrote.
Others lamented that the current measures represented yet another “half-baked lockdown” by the government.
Despite a series of state-level partial shutdowns and wider lockdowns, authorities have struggled to rein in a third wave of the pandemic that stretches back to last September.
Azmin, 56, is widely seen as the chief architect of a political coup in March last year that toppled the then-ruling Pakatan Harapan alliance.
In its place, Pakatan Harapan defectors including Azmin and Muhyiddin formed a new government with the help of the United Malays National Organisation, the political juggernaut defeated in a landmark 2018 election.
Muhyiddin’s administration, with a precariously thin parliamentary majority, has come in for intense criticism over infighting and policy U-turns. The prime minister in January obtained royal assent for an eight-month national emergency.
Malaysian political analyst Oh Ei Sun said the petition against Azmin was “not just a knee-jerk reaction to the bungling over the CIMS applications”.
Rather, “it is also an opportune release of pent-up anger over Azmin’s seeming invisibility to revive the lacklustre economy … and the government’s widely perceived incompetence in tackling the pandemic generally,” said Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.