Chua Jui Meng should emulate China's example and tender a public apology as the Health Ministry could have done better in handling the SARS outbreak

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya,  Sunday): Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng should emulate China's example and tender a public apology as the Health Ministry could have done better in handling the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

Yesterday, Li Liming, director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, apologized for China's slow response to the SARS outbreak, which has resulted in 90 deaths and some 2,500 cases in 20 countries worldwide.

Li said the Chinese government did not act quickly enough to deal with the health crisis by SARS and said in Guangzhou: "We apologize to everyone. Our medical departments and mass media suffered from poor co-ordination."

Chua Jui Meng also owes both Malaysians and the international community a public apology for the failure of the Health Ministry to come out with a better response after the World Health Organisation (WHO) global SARS alert on 12th March 2003 - marked by a three-week denial syndrome followed by semi-transparency instead of full transparency as directed by the Cabinet on Wednesday.

It is most regrettable that despite the Cabinet decision on Wednesay for full transparency on the SARS outbreak and the reminder of the Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi yesterday of "no cover up" of SARS and the right of the public to be informed immediately about the latest developments on SARS, Chua and the Health Ministry are still dragging their feet in delivering full transparency on the SARS outbreak in Malaysia.

In fact, the Health Ministry under Chua's leadership, has developed the uncanny ability to repeatedly undermine its own public credibility, where its every step of greater disclosure and transparency in an epidemic engenders an even greater crisis of confidence because the people are aware that it is only semi-transparency with important information still denied to the public domain - which characterized the Health Ministry's handling of the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history and now the SARS outbreak.

After a most irresponsible three-week denial of any SARS case in the country, Chua suddenly announced 59 suspected SARS cases when the Cabinet decided on 2nd April 2003 that there should be full transparency on the SARS outbreak.

Where did all these 59 suspected SARS cases come from? The relief that there was at last candour on the SARS outbreak in the country was short-lived, when it was realized that the health authorities were not being fully transparent and were holding back important and pertinent information about the SARS outbreak and therefore not giving a true, complete and credible picture of the SARS situation in the country.

Although Chua was forced by the Cabinet to give daily updates on SARS, the Health Ministry refused to comply with WHO case definitions of "suspected" and "probable" SARS cases and used its own arbitrary definitions to downplay the gravity of the SARS situation in the country.

Is Chua aware that his standing even among government doctors have fallen to a new low when they find that their separate notification of "suspected" and "probable" SARS cases according to WHO case definitions had been tampered with in the daily SARS updates given by the National Committee on SARS into no single "probable" SARS case and 75 "suspected" cases as of yesterday?

The Health Ministry's Denial and Downplay Syndrome (DDS) to sanitise and downplay the seriousness of an epidemic is best illustrated by the announcement by the Health Director-General, Tan Sri Dr Mohamad Taha Arif yesterday of the first SARS death in the country.

Mohamad Taha insisted that the 64-year-old man from Jerantut who died at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital (HKL) a week ago last Sunday had been "confirmed to be the first probable death of SARS in the country".

What does Mohamad Taha mean by "probable SARS death"? Is he suggesting that the 89 deaths in the world are confirmed SARS death but the Malaysian case is different from all of them as it is only a "probable SARS death". Or will he explain that the Jerantut case is no different from all the other 89 SARS deaths listed in the World Health Organisation's daily website,, on "Cumulative Number of Reported Cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)"?

Chua and his director-general should stop their game of semantics to downplay the gravity of the SARS outbreak, which are not indulged by their counterparts in other countries - as this is a grave disservice to the objective of creating full public awareness and alert about the SARS menace.

In this connection, can Chua explain why it has to take the Health Ministry six days to get test results as to whether a person has died of SARS, as in the Jerantut case, when in Singapore and Hong Kong, test results only take three to eight hours?

Furthermore, Chua should also explain why in the past four days, the Health Ministry had not reported the number of suspected SARS cases (which stands at 75 yesterday, as a result of the arbitrary system of under-reporting) to the WHO.

In the daily WHO "Cumulative Number of Reported Cases of SARS" issued yesterday, Malaysia was mentioned as having one SARS death but not a single SARS case! Is Malaysia serious in joining the international efforts to combat the new killer virus disease?

The complete absence of seriousness and urgency are also manifest when one visits the Health Ministry website,, which gives no sense of an major epidemic sweeping the world and affecting the country.

Although the Cabinet had directed the Health Ministry to give daily SARS updates four days ago, there is no such daily update available on its website. There are only two obsolete items on SARS, one on Chua's comments and the other a Health Ministry statement dated 17th March 2003, both made when the Health Ministry was still in the DDS mode of Denial and Ddownplay Syndrome!

In contrast, the Singapore government online portal,, highlights SARS, pointing to the Singapore Health Ministry's daily SARS updates at:

Chua still owes the Malaysian people a full and transparent accounting about the SARS outbreak in Malaysia. It is pointless for him to organize an informal briefing to MPs in Parliament House on Tuesday, where he could be evasive and irresponsible and which will end up as a social gathering to give him more opportunity to justify his stance of semi-transparency on SARS instead of allowing a full-scale, incisive and on-the-record parliamentary scrutiny and accounting for his handling of SARS.

What Chua should do is to present a Ministerial statement on SARS in the Dewan Rakyat tomorrow, and allow MPs to question him on all aspects of the SARS handling to end all doubts that he has failed to comply with the new Cabinet directive for full transparency on the new killer virus - devoting a whole morning of two full hours to the subject.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman