regain its relevance by demanding not only retraction of the Home Ministry
directive to press to manipulate SARS news, but full, accurate, regular and
timely information to people about SARS as the most effective way to fight
SARS and to start a new page of open and transparent government in the IT
by Lim Kit Siang
The Home Ministry directive to all major English-language newspapers to
"adjust" their reports on SARS by leaving out any mention of fatalities
(Malaysiakini) and the directive to Chinese dailies on Monday not to put the
SARS story in their front-page headlines is the best proof of the totally
wrong and misguided sense of priorities of certain government officials in
Malaysia when facing a public health hazard in general and in particular,
the new killer virus, which had claimed 64 lives worldwide and recorded over
To these government officials, what is most important is not giving full,
accurate and timely information to save lives but to suppress bad news in
the mistaken belief that this will protect tourism and economic investments,
not realizing that in the long run, this will be completely
counter-productive harming Malaysians by placing their lives at risk as well
as damaging the government's credibility, national and international
confidence, with all the adverse repercussions not only on tourism but in
all fields of economic development.
It is short-sighted government actions like the directive dated 28th March
to newspapers, in the name of the Home Ministry Secretary-General but signed
by Abdul Rahim bin Mohd Radzi, "supaya menyesuaikan laporan mengenai
penyakit SARS tanpa unsur-unsur berita yang memfokuskan kepada kes-kes
kematian yang boleh menjejaskan keyakinan rakyat dan pelancong" which will
undermine the confidence of the citizens and tourists.
Can Ministers and government officials understand why with 93 reported SARS
cases and three deaths, Singaporeans have more confidence in their
government's handing of the new virus killer than Malaysians about the
Malaysian government handling of SARS, despite the daily mantra by the
Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng and other Health Ministry officials of
"no SARS cases, no suspected SARS cases or deaths caused by SARS" until
Parliament should regain its relevance by demanding not only retraction of
the Home Ministry directive to the press to manipulate SARS news, but full,
accurate, regular and timely information to the people about SARS as the
most effective way to fight SARS and to start a new page of open and
transparent government in the IT era.
The Health director-general Tan Sri Dr. Mohamad Taha Arif said yesterday
that 44 people had so far been screened nation-wide for SARS, and that all
had been discharged except eight who are still in special wards awaiting the
results of their medical tests.
I have been advised that the discharge of the 36 does not mean that they
were not SARS patients - as they could either be suffering from a different
pneumonia or a less severe SARS. But it is clear that they would have met
the three SARS criteria set by the World Health Organisation, i.e. high
fever (more than 38C, 100.4 F); dry cough and shortness of breath; and
recent travel to a SARS-infected country or contact with other SARS
Why were all the 44 cases not reported as suspected SARS cases and why had
there been no earlier report of these cases? When was the first such
suspected case in Malaysia?
One doctor rightly pointed out in his letter-to-the-editor in the Star
today, where he wrote:
"The ministry and
hospital authorities must be transparent in reporting and handling of this
case. Since this is a new and unknown virus and there are actually no
confirmatory tests as yet, any suspected case of SARS must be classified as
"Remember, SARS at
the moment is a syndrome, the diagnosis of which is based solely on clinical
grounds. So any suspected cases, which fit in the clinical pictures of this
syndrome, must be reported as a case of SARS."
Clearly, the Health
Ministry is not doing this. Furthermore, why did the Health Minister keep
denying until 27th March in Malaysiakini that "his Ministry had not received
any information or suspected cases on the illness" when clearly there were
by then dozens of suspected SARS cases from Taha's revelations yesterday?
In my urgent email to the Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad
Badawi yesterday, I had referred to the "quiet, intense and snowballing
panic among the people about SARS, as there is no public confidence in what
the Health Minister and his officials are saying on the subject".
I referred to numerous reports, whether in the media or from oral accounts,
of people falling sick after their return from a visit to China or
Singapore, meeting the three SARS criteria set out by WHO and the shock of
government doctors that despite many suspected SARS cases, the Health
Ministry has stuck to the public stance of "no SARS cases, no suspected SARS
cases or deaths caused by SARS" in the country.
I also expressed my great concern about the safety of health workers, who
have proven to be a very vulnerable group in the SARS outbreak in other
countries, with high incidence of fatalities from doctors, nurses and health
workers, as I understand that there are health workers in Malaysia who have
been quarantined because of their contact with SARS cases.
I stressed in my email to Abdullah:
"At this time of
the lethal SARS outbreak, P.R. or public image should be the least of all
concerns of the government, as its first priority must be to protect human
lives and there is no better way to do so than by giving full, accurate and
timely information about the SARS outbreak - with a daily public update
Ministry directive to newspapers to downplay SARS outbreak in Malaysia, and
in particular to "black out" news about SARS deaths, has done grievous harm
to Malaysia's credibility both among Malaysians and the world.
Abdullah should act decisively to repair the damage by retracting the
directive and publicly directing the Health Ministry to give full and daily
public updates of SARS to restore public and international confidence in the
government handling of the new killer virus and to let Malaysians and the
world know that there would be no information "cover-up" about the SARS
outbreak in Malaysia.
Lim Kit Siang, DAP National