Call on Abdullah to repudiate Chua's threat of dire action, including ISA, for my criticism of Health Ministry's handling of SARS outbreak and a most ham-fisted attempt to re-impose media and information blackout on SARS which will be a quadruple violation of human rights of Malaysians - the right to life, information, personal liberty and freedom of expression

Media Conference Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Saturday): It would appear that the biggest thing on the mind of the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng, when he chaired the first meeting of the National Committee on SARS yesterday was how to shut me up instead of how to secure full public confidence, co-operation and support to combat and bring under control the new killer SARS virus outbreak in Malaysia.

After the meeting of the National Committee on SARS yesterday, he threatened dire action against me in the name of "national security".

Announcing that the SARS disease had become "a national security matter", Chua said:

"It was recommended by the National Committee on SARS that matters related to the killer disease be treated as a national security (matter) to ensure information is properly transmitted and all rumour-mongering about SARS is stopped." (New Straits Times)

AFP reported his open threat of dire action against me, when reporting Chua's warning to the media "not to spread rumours or speculate on the local impact of a deadly pneumonia that is creating a global health scare".
The AFP report said:

"Chua criticised a foreign media report for quoting an opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, who had accused the government of covering up the truth about SARS.

"The Home Ministry 'has taken cognisance of this, and so has the police,' Chua warned.

"'Rumour-mongering must be stopped. Speculations must cease. Irresponsible statements such as that made by Lim Kit Siang must not be allowed to proceed any further because of the consequences for this nation, as for the nations of this region.

"'Our national interests are at stake,' said Chua, pointing out that the economies of countries badly-hit by the highly contagious disease had been affected.

"'Tourism has plunged. Economic activities will slow down. Therefore every country in the world including countries in the region will have to ensure that information is orderly, information is responsibly reported in the press. This is a national security matter now,' he said."

The implications of Chua's statements are very clear: he is threatening me with dire actions, including Internal Security Act (ISA) detention without trial, to shut me up and stop my questioning of his handling of the SARS outbreak, just as I had questioned his mishandling of the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history which is still raging in the country.

If not because of the seriousness of the SARS outbreak, which had killed 82 people in and infected 2,400 people in 18 countries and reached four continents, it would be simply laughable for Chua to claim that SARS is now a "national security matter" when what is at stake for him is his "thick skin" and political reputation, as he had been roundly castigated by Malaysians regardless of political affiliation, for his mishandling of the SARS outbreak.

The NST editorial yesterday entitled "Pestilence management", for instance, criticized the Health Ministry's handling of the SARS outbreak until the intervention by the Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, as "quite cavalier", saying that "its attempt to keep a lid on the incidence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome .didn't work because the fear of SARS does not stem from what is known but what is unknown. And trying to eliminate fear of the unknown by keeping people in the dark is like trying to extinguish a fire by dousing it with petrol".

The editorial ended with the painful but pointed reminder to the Nipah virus experience of just four years ago (which took the lives of 106 people), that "a good way to avoid hysteria is to tell people the truth", warning that "immeasurably more damage may be done to the authorities' credibility by a policy of stonewall denial than in being open and honest about the threat and what is being done about it."

Berita Harian in its editorial yesterday "SARS: Usah sembunyikan maklumat" said:

"Berbanding keresahan ramai pada awal tahun ini apabila berlaku banyak percanggah maklumat mengenai demam denggi, diharapkan Kementerian Kesihatan lebih telus dalam menangani wabak SARS tanpa orang ramai boleh dinafikan apa yang seharusnya mereka ketahui."

The Star, in the Page 4 "Comment" by Wong Chun Wai yesterday, made it very clear that Chua was overruled by the Acting Prime Minister who at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday delivered "a message for his Ministers - the government must be transparent about the deadly SARS situation" and Chua was directed "to go on TV that night to tell Malaysians what steps had been taken to handle SARS".

If all these reports are not talking about a "cover-up" of the SARS outbreak in Malaysia until Abdullah's intervention, I do not know what they are talking about.

If Chua has the powers to invoke the ISA, he would have put me behind lock-and-key by now, not because I am a threat to national security, but because I am exposing his Ministerial irresponsibility and ineptitude and thereby threatening his ambition of becoming the MCA President on the "B" ticket, with the blessings of Abdullah.

I do not know whether Chua has the "green light" of Abdullah to threaten the use of ISA against me, or whether the process has been set in motion to make me a guest of His Majesty's Government for a third time under the ISA.

I do not wish to be an ISA detainee for a third time, but just like the first two occasions in 1969 and 1987, I will not run away from the country to avoid arrest, as is the wont of MCA leaders nor will I stop demanding that the Health Minister must be fully open and transparent in his handling of the SARS outbreak.

Yesterday, I sent an email to Abdullah expressing my appreciation for the new Cabinet decision for full transparency on the SARS outbreak and his decisive leadership in ending the dangerous three-week denial syndrome of the Health Minister.

I also made five proposals to ensure that the new Cabinet policy of full transparency on the SARS outbreak will not be hindered or circumvented by any rear-guard resistance or "guerrilla tactics" by those too ingrained by the denial syndrome and cannot envisage a new information policy in the IT era where information is the right of the people and not of the government and cannot understand that there no way to suppress information which now travels at the speed of light!

Instead of using the National Committee on SARS under his chairmanship to more effectively educate and mobilize public support to fight SARS, Chua is using the National Committee on SARS like a political commissar to impose censorship and threaten police, ISA and other reprisals against those who dissent with his handling of the SARS outbreak.

Chua accused me of making "irresponsible" statements on the SARS outbreak, and I challenge him to pinpoint such "irresponsible" statements.

It is Chua and the Health Ministry which had been most irresponsible in their statements on the SARS outbreak, firstly in their total denial of any suspected SARS case for three weeks since the WHO global SARS alert on March 12, and then suddenly admitting that there were 59 suspected SARS cases after the Cabinet decision of full transparency on the SARS outbreak on 2nd April 2003.

But what is most deplorable is that Chua has not fully implemented the new Cabinet policy of full transparency on the SARS outbreak, and the Health Ministry's data on SARS are suspect for the following two reasons:

Firstly, as of yesterday, the Health Ministry said there was a total of 70 suspected SARS cases, but the Health Ministry had been so confusing in giving out its figures that the newspapers dare not give a state-by-state breakdown, and one newspaper (Sin Chew daily) which hazarded it ended up with a total of 71, as follows:

Kuala Lumpur     - 26
Perak                  - 15
Selangor             - 10
Sarawak               - 6
Johore                  - 6
Negri Sembilan   - 2
Kelantan               - 3
Kedah                   - 2
Pahang                - 1

Total                     71

For the past three days since the Health Ministry started giving a daily update, it had not cited a single suspected SARS case for Penang - which is contradicted by the Malaysiakini report last evening that the Penang General Hospital had admitted eight suspected cases of SARS over the past two weeks - with three discharged, four to be discharged today and one being closely monitored.

I have conducted an independent check which verified the correctness of the Malaysiakini report - which raises the question of the full credibility of the Health Ministry's updates on the incidence of SARS as there had not been a single suspected SARS case reported for Penang in the past three days.

My second disagreement with the SARS figures given in the daily Health Ministry updates is its under-reporting of the actual picture, by giving its own arbitrary definition of "suspected" and "probable" SARS cases, deviating from the World Health Organisation (WHO) case definitions.

Under the WHO case 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 in the past 10 days.

It becomes a WHO "probable" case when there is a chest X-ray findings of pneumonia or Respiratory Distress Syndrome. As WHO has said repeatedly, "Chest X-rays showing distinctive features of SARS are presently the main tool for distinguishing suspected from probable cases". (WHO SARS multi-country outbreak - Update 8 - 24.8.2003)

I understand that all the cases in Malaysia announced after the Cabinet meeting, i.e. 70 cases as of yesterday, would fall under the WHO definition of "probable" cases, as they would involve patients meeting all the four WHO criteria of high fever, respiratory symptoms, recent history of travel to SARS-infected area or contact with SARS patient in the past ten days, together with X-ray changes.

When the Health Minister and the Health director-general said in the past two days that there are only "suspect" but no "probable" SARS cases in Malaysia, they were not following the WHO case definitions.

When doctors particularly those in government service notify the health authorities about SARS cases, they submit separate lists of "suspected" and "probable" cases in accordance with the WHO case definition.

What the Health Minister and the Health director-general seemed to have done are to announce cases which meet the WHO definition of "probable" SARS cases as "suspected" cases, while ignoring the WHO-defined "suspected SARS cases" altogether - which may explain the omission for the eight "suspected" SARS cases in Penang.

I understand that the number of WHO defined "suspected" SARS cases in Malaysia would far exceed the Health Ministry's "suspected" cases (which should properly be classified as "probable" cases according to WHO case definitions) by three to four times, or some 200-300 cases when taken into account the 70 "probable" (by WHO definition) cases announced yesterday.

In my email to Abdullah yesterday, I had proposed that the government should be prepared to accept the temporary adverse publicity and setback of Malaysia as the world's third country with the largest number of SARS cases, overtaking Singapore with 100 cases, if this is unfortunately the real position - as this is the only way to ensure national and international confidence.

Does this make me a "threat to national security" who should be locked away under the ISA?

I do not know whether Chua has got Abdullah's prior consent and blessings before declaring that SARS has become a matter of "national security" and threatening me with dire actions such as the ISA.

However, I have found Abdullah to be more rational and level-headed as Acting Prime Minister. For instance, he said Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong telephoned him on Thursday and they discussed the need for cooperation between the two countries to contain the disease.

The Singapore government offered to share its information, research findings and experience on fighting the disease with Malaysia, and Malaysia is willing to share its experience on controlling the disease with the republic as such cooperation will benefit the governments and peoples of both countries.

Abdullah's sincerity and humility is in sharp contrast to Chua's "arrogant" attitude a week earlier when he said Malaysia was prepared to provide medical expertise and materials to Singapore to help resolve its SARS crisis. (Nanyang Siang Pau 28.3.03)

I call on Abdullah to repudiate Chua's threat of dire action, including ISA, for my criticism of Health Ministry's handling of SARS outbreak and a most ham-fisted attempt to re-impose media and information blackout on SARS which will be a quadruple violation of human rights of Malaysians - the right to life, information, personal liberty and freedom of expression.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman