Malaysia’s under-pressure leader extends some virus curbs to June 9 – dpa international

During Malaysia's lockdown, restaurants were allowed to serve food for takeaway or delivery, much if it done by motorcycle couriers (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the new coronavirus in Malaysia will remain in place for another month, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on Sunday. Schools and places of worship remain closed until June 9, as does Malaysia’s border. Muhyiddin’s government imposed a strictly enforced lockdown from March 18 until last Monday – when some rules were relaxed to allow people exercise outdoors, dine in at restaurants and return to work in sectors not previously deemed “essential.” Muhyiddin justified the relaxation by saying that Malaysia’s economy was shedding the equivalent of a half a billion dollars a day. He said on Sunday that “the number of new cases has remained low and under control, and there has been a high rate of recovery.”

Lockdown leads to temporary re-wilding in Malaysia, but at a cost –

Shutters down on a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur during Malaysia's lockdown (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Dubbed one of the world’s 12 “mega-diverse” countries by wildlife experts, Malaysia is home to an array of instantly recognizable species, many of which have been driven to near-extinction by deforestation. A Google project in 2013 showed Malaysia losing almost 15 per cent of its jungle over the previous decade – much of it cleared to make way for plantations generating the palm oil that makes up around 4 per cent of exports. Although land clearances have slowed, decades of deforestation have left marquee species – such as the orangutan and local variants of elephant, rhinoceros and tiger – listed as threatened or endangered by monitoring organizations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The animals have been granted a respite of late, with their human tormentors transfixed by an epidemic that prompted an unprecedented response: shutdown.

Malaysian businesses expect economic pain long after lockdown lifts – dpa international

Lining up to enter a Kuala Lumpur shopping mall on May 4 2020 (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian business has been hammered by a lockdown imposed in mid-March to try contain the new coronavirus pandemic, according a government survey released on Friday. Some 42.5 per cent of the 4,094 companies canvassed by the Department of Statistics said they will need at least six months to recover from the restrictions, which until Monday required people to stay at home unless buying essentials or commuting to work. Only 27 per cent of businesses said they expect to recover within three months of the restrictions being lifted. With 67 per cent of the businesses reporting no sales or income during the lockdown, the same percentage said they needed tax relief to survive, with 83 per cent seeking subsidies. Malaysia’s retail sales fell 5.7 per cent to a seven year low in March, the department reported separately, with unemployment climbing 17 per cent year-on-year to reach 3.9 per cent. 

Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad eyes top job again, weeks after quitting – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR — Ten weeks after quitting as Malaysia’s prime minister, 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad is lining up another tilt at the top job. Parliament Speaker Mohamad Ariff M Yusof said on Thursday that he had received a letter from Shafie Abdal, a member of parliament and chief minister of Sabah, a state on the Malaysian part of Borneo, proposing a vote of confidence in Mahathir during a one-day parliament session on May 18. Mahathir was the world’s oldest government leader before his shock resignation on February 24 prompted a week-long power struggle. That fight culminated with Mahathir’s home affairs minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, being nominated prime minister by the country’s king – as he was deemed the leader “most likely” to command a parliamentary majority.

Singapore’s Covid-19 cases top 20,000 as pandemic batters business – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore confirmed 788 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, taking the total to 20,198, the second-highest reported number in East Asia after China. The ministry stated that the “vast majority” of the new cases “are work permit holders residing in foreign worker dormitories.” Singapore has the world’s fourth-highest gross domestic product per head, according to an International Monetary Fund ranking, and depends on 1.4 million foreign workers – 320,000 of them living in cramped dormitories that have become virus hotbeds – to help run its open economy. Singapore diagnosed its first case of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, as far back as January 23. The wealthy and trade-dependent city-state was in March lauded for keeping case numbers relatively low, even as the pandemic spread around the world – with just 1,000 confirmed by April 1.

Singapore debates sale and slaughter of wild animals in wet markets – dpa international

Frogs for sale in a Singapore wet market (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore will consider banning selling and killing live animals in wet markets, the country’s environment minister told the legislature on Tuesday. The practice is common in parts of East and South-East Asia, but has come under scrutiny due to the possibility that the new coronavirus pandemic could have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China – or in a nearby laboratory. In Asia, a wet market is typically a bustling open-air bazaar where freshly caught fish and meat and new vegetables are sold. Amy Khor, Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources, said that “international benchmarking and scientific evidence” would be used to determine the risk of transmission of dangerous viruses due to the practice.

Citing Covid-19, Pacific trade chiefs seek freer flow of vital goods – dpa international

Hand sanitiser and face masks for sale in a Kuala Lumpur supermarket (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Trade ministers representing 21 Asia-Pacific countries said on Tuesday that they “will work to facilitate the flow of essential goods and services” needed to fight the new coronavirus pandemic. The statement, released by the Singapore-based secretariat of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) body, listed “medicines, medical supplies and equipment, agriculture and food products” among those essential goods. APEC includes China, Japan and the US, the world’s three biggest economies. Other APEC members include Australia, Canada, Indonesia and South Korea, all of which have gross domestic products exceeding 1 trillion dollars. Tuesday’s statement marks a rare apparent consensus between China and the US, which have been embroiled in a trade war since shortly after Donald Trump became president in early 2017.

Singapore’s March sales slump hints at worse to come – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore’s retail sales fell by 13.3 per cent year-on-year in March, a sign that the new coronavirus pandemic was walloping the economy even before a government-imposed lockdown in April. The March sales slump in South-East Asia’s richest nation came on the back of a collapse in international travel, which typically brings visitors keen to splash out in Singapore’s array of plush malls. The Department of Statistics, which published the data on Tuesday, attributed the decline to “weaker domestic consumption and fewer tourist arrivals as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Malaysians cautiously embrace partial lifting of lockdown – dpa international

Customers lining up at a mobile phone shop inside a Kuala Lumpur mall on May 4 2020 (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — After seven weeks of being told by authorities to stay at home, Malaysians tentatively resumed some aspects of pre-coronavirus life on Monday. The part re-opening came after a weekend of nationwide debate about whether the removal of some lockdown restrictions in South-East Asia’s third-wealthiest economy was premature due to health concerns, or was overdue because businesses are suffering. In Kuala Lumpur, a usually heaving high-rise city of 8 million people, Monday’s morning’s downtown traffic and footfall were light compared to pre-lockdown levels. Ng Chee Lim, a taxi driver, said he was glad the restrictions had been loosened, adding: “I think the situation is under control, and we need to get the economy going again.”

Journalist faces Malaysian police grilling for migrant coverage – dpa international

A near-deserted street in Kuala Lumpur during Malaysia's lockdown (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s communications and multimedia minister said on Sunday that he will ask officials not to “act against” a journalist facing police action for an article reporting on the arrests of hundreds of migrant workers. “I may not like ur piece but I will defend ur right to write it,” wrote Saifuddin Abdullah, responding on Twitter to a post by journalist Tashny Sukumaran – in which she said she has been summoned for questioning about a Friday report in the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper. On Sunday, which is World Press Freedom Day, Saifuddin said he is “looking into” a telecommunications law under which the journalist will be questioned and which non-governmental mouthpiece Reporters Without Borders brands part of “a draconian arsenal” of codes undermining media freedom. A group of 586 undocumented foreign workers were rounded up by police on Friday during an operation to test around 3,000 migrants for Covid-19.