Asia West Pacific

Militarism and Coronavirus Pandemic in Malaysia

By Melanie Siaw

A painting created in batik art entitled “The Landscape of Malaysia” by Lim Anuar.  Deaf from birth, this artist is currently living in Kuala Lumpur.

On 18 March 2020, the new Perikatan Nasional government composed of the old guard Barisan Nasional and other Malay-based parties enforced a movement control order (MCO). Millions were forced into self-quarantine in homes to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Five days later, the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) was roped in to assist the Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) in enforcing the MCO.

Malaysia was an ancient maritime harbor that was pivotal to the spice and silk trade routes among Europeans, Indians, and Chinese. Its strategic geographical location in the straits of Malacca and its abundance of natural resources, fertile land, and fresh water supply attracted many European empires. So for almost 450 years, from 1511 to 1957, Malaysia was colonized by the Portuguese followed by the Dutch, and lastly the British.

Due to Malaysia’s long history of oppression by different colonial powers, a large majority of Malaysians including young people feel helpless and seldom resist discriminatory policies and autocratic rule that has violated their human rights and curbed their freedom of expression. In the 2018 general election, cynicism gave way to hopefulness when the Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated the scandal-ridden Barisan Nasional government that has been in power since the independence of Malaysia. However, it was a short-lived victory as the Pakatan Harapan government was ousted by political maneuvering on 23 February 2020. The collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government which had earlier promised institutional reforms, cemented the perception that nothing can ever change for the good of the society among some Malaysians.

It is debatable whether the government has acted in accordance with the Constitution when the MAF was deployed during this pandemic. The power to prevent and control the spread of coronavirus is enumerated under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988. In this act, the deployment of MAF is not explicitly stated. According to the Constitution, the MAF can be deployed in a state of emergency. In article 150 of the Constitution, the King can declare a state of emergency when the security or economic life of the Federation… is threatened. Under the Police Act 1967, the King can also deploy the MAF to assist the RMP during an emergency. The MAF will then be placed under the command of the Inspector General of Police. However, the coronavirus pandemic is not a threat that warrants the declaration of a state of emergency. Thus, this pandemic was never declared an emergency in the country. Yet the excessive show of force of the MAF to enforce civilian compliance is a powerful reenactment of colonial patterns of oppression.

Throughout the MCO, the use of militarized language has seeped into everyday conversations. Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin frequently uses phrases such as “We are at war against an invisible enemy” and “healthcare workers are COVID-19 frontliners” in his speeches. His newly formed government was not elected through the ballot box. Furthermore, his political leadership in governing a loose coalition of parties has yet to be proven. As such, he needed to send a strong message of effective political leadership to the people and secure support for his leadership. Militarized language is also used among the medical fraternity. The Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah who is currently leading the medical response to the pandemic, referred to his Director-General (Medical) Datuk Dr Rohaizat Yon as his war general in the battle against coronavirus. Even a human rights advocacy group KOMAS has used the phrase “frontline of the battle” in its joint statement on “ASEAN must uphold human rights in responding to the COVID‐19 pandemic.”

During this pandemic, the MAF has seized the opportunity to build their positive image and trust among the people. Since the start of MCO, MAF personnel and defense ministers have been discussing the pandemic as a war against the country through interviews with mainstream newspaper agencies, radio and TV channels. They have publicly promoted military assets such as hospitals and transport vehicles and offered their assistance and assets to be used in battling coronavirus.

The deployment of MAF during the pandemic has led to the feelings of anxiety and panic among some Malaysians especially those who had experienced the state of emergency during the racial riots in 1969. However, most Malaysians are apathetic or unaware of the consequences of militarization during this pandemic. To date, public discourse on the legality of deploying the MAF and the impact of militarization on the Malaysian society remains limited.