DAP calls on Health Ministry to fully implement the Cabinet decision of open and transparent policy on the SARS outbreak by being 100% candid and not to give a partial account as it did yesterday, as Malaysians are prepared for bad news but do not want the government to continue to manipulate facts and figures to downplay the severity of the new killer virus

Media Conference Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Thursday): After eight media statements in seven days on the SARS outbreak in Malaysia and an urgent email to Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Tuesday calling for an immediate end of the Health Ministry's denial syndrome and for a daily update to give full, accurate and timely information about the deadly SARS disease, I am very relieved that the Cabinet had made the right decision yesterday to direct the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng to end the dangerous farce of the three-week mantra of "No Suspected SARS case" in Malaysia.

Yesterday, the Health Ministry director-general Tan Sri Dr. Mohamed Taha Arif disclosed that 59 suspected cases of SARS have been reported in the country, with 19 people quarantined in hospitals - in contrast to his proclamation only 48 hours ago that Malaysia was "free from SARS" and the assertion by the Health Minister a week ago that his Ministry had not received any information of reported suspected SARS case!

The 59 suspected SARS cases, with 19 of them in quarantine, could not have turned up overnight - and this was why Chua and Mohamad Taha had no credibility whatsoever with their "no SARS cases, no suspected SARS cases or deaths caused by SARS" mantra until yesterday!

DAP commends Abdullah for showing decisive leadership in ending the three-week denial syndrome of the Health Minister on the SARS outbreak, for it is a major step to wipe out the stigma Malaysia is acquiring internationally as a rogue state which hides or manipulates statistics about the new killer virus to downplay its seriousness, posing a threat not only to the lives of the Malaysian people but also the international community.

The decision for a daily update of the SARS outbreak, which is being done by other countries, is a great credit to Abdullah's leadership and holds out hope of a more open, accountable and transparent government when he takes over as Prime Minister in October.

While I am relieved that Abdullah has taken the policy decision that the government must be open and transparent in the SARS outbreak, I am disappointed that the Health Ministry has not fully implemented this policy. I call on the Health Ministry to be 100% candid with Malaysians and to give a full and uncensored account of the SARS outbreak and not to give a partial account as it is doing at present, as the people are prepared for bad news but do not want the government to continue to manipulate facts and figures to downplay the severity of the new killer virus.
When Chua and Mohamad Taha were maintaining their "No suspected SARS case" stances, I had specifically in a media statement on Tuesday morning called on Chua to "come clean and clarify whether there had been scores of suspected cases of SARS in Malaysia" because of reliable information that I had received.

I want today to ask Chua and Mohamad Taha why they had only given a partial account instead of a full and complete picture of the total number of suspected SARS cases in the country, which may be twice or thrice the 59 reported cases announced yesterday? Is this to avoid being seen overnight to be overtaking the number of SARS cases in Singapore, which stands now at 98 with four deaths?

I am very shocked by Mohamad Taha's statement yesterday that there were 59 suspected SARS cases, with only 19 still warded - four each in Sarawak, the Federal Territory and Perak, five in Universiti Hospital Medical Centre and one each in Johor and Kelantan and that to date, there had been no probable SARS case or SARS-related deaths reported in Malaysia.

Chua should explain why the Health Ministry has ignored the World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of SARS suspected and probable cases.

Under the WHO definition, a suspected SARS case is one which meets the three criteria of firstly, high fever (more than 38C, 100.4 F); secondly, one or more respiratory symptoms including cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and thirdly, recent history of travel to a SARS-infected area or close contact with a person who has been diagnosed with SARS.

It becomes a probable case when there is a chest X-ray findings of pneumonia or Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

Chua and Mohamad Taha should explain whether they have taken a policy decision to ignore the WHO definitions by announcing the WHO-defined "probable SARS cases" as suspected cases, while ignoring the WHO-defined "suspected SARS cases" altogether - as I have been informed by doctors who have treated these cases that the number of SARS suspected cases far exceed the 59 mentioned by Mohamad Taha, and are easily twice or even three times the number.

Yesterday, Mohamad Taha said the man from Jerantut who died on Sunday at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital had symptoms of SARS, and that samples taken from the post-mortem had been sent to the Institute of Medical Research for further tests and would take two weeks "to find out whether he died of probable SARS" - and therefore the case has not been classified as "probable SARS".

Under the WHO definition, this would be a clear case of probable SARS case or SARS-related death. Since the Health Ministry is having its own unique definition of suspected and probable SARS cases which are different from those of WHO, it should immediately spell out its own definition of these two categories of SARS cases.

An example of the unprofessional and most irresponsible attitude of the authorities to the SARS outbreak could be seen from the denial yesterday morning by the Pahang State Youth, Sports and Health Exco member, Datuk Dr. Ahmad Shukri Ismail that the person from Jerantut had died of SARS, claiming that this was the report from tests by the Health Ministry. (Sin Chew online)

In the present era of IT, the government has not learnt that it is impossible to suppress information. Ministers and government officials forget or ignore at their peril the fact in the era of IT, information travels at the speed of light. Yesterday, there was in circulation the following email, which clearly was not the work of mischief of any irresponsible person but the genuine expression both of grief and anger at the death of the person from Jerantut:

"Dear friends,

"My hometown neighbour (Jerantut, Pahang) passed away yesterday evening because of SARS sickness. He passed away at KL General Hospital. He came back from China (travel to Guang Dong) one week ago, after that he was not feeling well (fever, flu) until no energy to walk at all.

"He went to Mentakab Hospital (Pahang) for checking, but doctor only take it as normal case and gave him some medicines and ask him to rest at home.

"Until Friday (28/3), he getting worse until no energy to walk, very serious. His son bring him to KL Tawakal Hospital on Saturday and immediately transfer to KL General Hospital. Doctor confirmed this is SARS sickness and seems they can't help anything, My neighbour passed away yesterday evening. Our government still continuous saying 'M'sia safe', still don't have any SARS cases."

Yesterday, Chua said: "I have directed Dr. Mohamad Taha that there must be transparency and Malaysians must be informed of all suspected SARS cases reported to the ministry." Chua made history as the Minister who had made the most unbelievable statement as he must personally bear the greatest responsibility for the information and media blackout not only about SARS, but also in other epidemics, such as coxsackie, nipah and dengue, which is still raging on.

Last Thursday, I publicly called for a high-powered Cabinet Committee to take over full responsibility for combating the SARS outbreak, as Malaysians have no confidence in Chua after his disastrous handling of previous epidemics at unnecessarily great and avoidable cost to human lives and sufferings.

This lack of public confidence has been vindicated by past week's developments in the SARS outbreak. I will however suspend criticism of Chua until after the SARS outbreak, as the immediate task now is to bring the new virus killer disease under control.

Last Saturday, Chua blamed Malaysians for being afflicted by the "suspicion culture" not believing his claim of "No suspected SARS case" in Malaysia and criticcising the people for spreading baseless rumours about SARS.
The people have now been proved right to have the "suspicious culture" about Chua's claims, which were all false and baseless.

If Chua is to begin to restore some public confidence, he should start by lifting the ban on Health Ministry officials, Mentris Besar, Chief Ministers and State health officials from giving the public the full, accurate and timely information about dengue cases and deaths in the current dengue epidemic, the worst in the nation's history.

If Chua is not prepared to be candid with Malaysians about the dengue epidemic, who will trust that he will be candid about the SARS outbreak?

I have just been informed by DAP MP for Batu Gajah, Fong Po Kuan, that her motion of urgent definite public importance to adjourn Parliament today to debate the SARS outbreak has been rejected by the Speaker, Tun Mohamed Zahir, on the most ridiculous of grounds. In his letter dated yesterday to Fong rejecting her motion, the Speaker said:

"Saya diberitahu oleh pihak Kementerian Kesihatan berkenaan dengan empat kes di Hosptial Ipoh itu. Kes-kes itu hanya disyaki sahaja sebagai kes SARS. Dua kes di Hospital Kuala Lumpur juga dimasukkan sebagai kes yang disyaki. Kesemua kes ini bukan sebagai kes SARS mengikut criteria WHO. Ada akhbar telah menyiarkan kes-kes ini sebagai SARS.

"Sebab itu, Kerajaan tidak melaporkan kes-kes ini kepada orangramai. Mereka tidak boleh melaporkan sesuatu yang tidak betul."

It is clear that the Speaker wrote this letter with information from the Health Ministry before the Cabinet decision yesterday to end the denial syndrome and to be fully open and transparent on the SARS outbreak. What is worse, these two paragraphs show that the Speaker was utterly confused and uninformed about SARS outbreak, which is a most adverse reflection on the high office of the Speaker.

The Speaker was not only misinformed, misled but utterly confused in rejecting Fong's motion. What is more shocking, the Speaker had reduced himself to be a spokesman of the Health Ministry to mislead Parliament about SARS instead of discharging his responsibilities as Speaker of Parliament where the Health Minister appears to justify his handling of SARS outbreak.

This is another example of the irrelevance of Parliament, and the failure of the majority of MPs to stand united to re-assert parliamentary control of the Executive. It is only when the majority of MPs, whether from Barisan Nasional or Opposition, have the spirit of Fong to demand ministerial accountability to Parliament for his mishandling of the SARS outbreak that Parliament can regain its relevance and proper position in the Malaysian political system.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman