Report against Health Minister, Chua Jui Meng for quintuple violation of human rights - the right to life, information, personal liberty, freedom of expression and good governance over the SARS outbreak in Malaysia

Report to Suhakam
at Suhakam Headquarters
by Lim Kit Siang

(Kuala Lumpur,  Tuesday): After the first meeting of the National Committee on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) last Friday, Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng 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 5.4.03)

AFP reported his open threat of dire action against me. Quoting 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."

When associating me with "rumour-mongering", "irresponsible statement", "global health scare", and warnings about "plunging tourism" and "economic slowdown", and tying them with "national security" together with the announcement that the Home Ministry and the police have "taken cognizance" of my statements, Chua's warning of dire action against me was most ominous.

There are two ways for the police to take action - one is by the ordinary process of the law arresting and prosecuting a person for criminal offences and the other is by extra-judicial actions like invoking the Internal Security Act (ISA) with detention-without-trial powers.

As Chua has not lodged any police report against me for the police to initiate investigations of his specific complaint that I had violated a crime chargeable in a court of law, the only police action that could be contemplated is the ISA which has often been sued to arrest opposition leaders on trumped-up charges.

As a lawyer by profession, Chua should know that a threat to violate human rights is a human right violation by itself.

Chua has not only violated my human right in threatening dire action against me such as the invocation of the ISA, he has also violated the quadruple human rights of Malaysians in his handling of the SARS outbreak - the right to life, information, freedom of expression and good governance.

The SARS global epidemic has taken at least 100 lives, infected 2,600 people in some 28 countries in four continents and is threatening to tip the global economy into a recession - and is probably the real reason for the third-time postponement of the multi-billion ringgit economic stimulus package scheduled to be unveiled by the Malaysian government yesterday.

Yesterday, the Health Minister gave a special briefing to editors-in-chief from newspapers on SARS, but his main pre-occupation was not to restore full public confidence by convincing everyone that the Health Ministry is unconditionally complying with the new Cabinet directive of full transparency on the SARS outbreak, but to belabour the point that "Malaysia as good as Singapore in handling Sars" or even better, in his criticism of the Singapore's failure to practise "barrier nursing" resulting in 85 per cent of probable SARS cases in Singapore happening among doctors and paramedics in the hospital setting.

When the "mother of all human rights" - the right to life - is at stake, Malaysians do not have the luxury to waste time arguing with Chua as to whether he has done a better job than Singapore in handling the SARS outbreak, which can be left to a later date as the immediate challenge is not how to do a better P.R. job but to fully restore public confidence that the government is on top of the SARS outbreak with full transparency to the people by giving accurate and timely updated information with no cover-ups whatsoever as happened in the series of previous epidemics which had been aggravated by sheer mishandling and crisis mismanagement, whether coxsackie, nipah or still ongoing worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history.

Chua should be reminded however that although he bragged on March 25 that the World Health Organisation (WHO) acting representative for Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore Joel A. Vanderbug had commended Malaysia for its handling of SARS, the Health Ministry had to admit one week later that there were 59 suspected SARS cases many of which would have occurred very much earlier - which even the WHO was completely unaware or it would not have issued the commendation to be repeatedly exploited by Chua!

That Chua's special session with the newspaper editors-in-chief yesterday to convince them that he was unconditionally complying with the new Cabinet directive of full transparency on the SARS outbreak was quite a disaster could be seen from the New Straits Times "Comment" by its News Editor Balan Moses, after the briefing, entitled "The public's right to all available information on issue of health", which suggested in very polite language that Chua "obviously has not learnt from recent medical history in the country".

The column said:

"The Nipah virus episode left the Health Ministry's credibility in tatters, with different segments of the public generally concluding that more information should have been disseminated much earlier.

"t was almost the same with the Coxsackie virus, with the paucity of information for the man in the street begging the question if the full story was being told.

"The debate on whether the health authorities have been fully forthcoming in respect of the dengue fever outbreak is still ongoing.

"The common denominator in all these has been the precious little information in the early days of the crisis, when rumour mills work overtime and the grapevine is full of unsubstantiated drivel on the situation.

"But few can be chastised for believing in such, if the official version of events unfurling lack the ring of complete truth."

The column continued:

"The ministry may not have realised it in its feverish effort to set things right, but the unvarnished truth is that the country is in the international spotlight for the wrong reasons. Even the Singapore Straits Times, not the most representative of what a newspaper should be in a thriving democracy, took a swipe at Chua last week for his reticence in thorny issues affecting public health.

"Underlining the fact that his 'deafening silence speaks volumes', the newspaper outlined its version of how Chua had allegedly kept mum in all major health issues since he became Health Minister in 1995.

"It is obvious that the Health Ministry and Chua are facing a credibility crisis, with indications that the situation may not improve in future.

"History is replete with instances of those who chose not to learn from their mistakes being doomed to repeat them.

"Chua and his functionaries will be well advised to pay heed to maxims like these, which more often than not, have an element of truth in them.

"The public has an undeniable right to all available information on the issue of health. The media will not renege on this duty to the people."

That Chua has not learnt from the mistakes of the past and appears condemned to repeat them at great cost to the public, including loss of human lives, could be gauged from the announcement at the briefing with editors-in-chief yesterday that the Ministry would no longer give the cumulative number of suspected SARS cases - a big step backwards from the present semi-transparency instead of moving forwards towards full transparency on the SARS outbreak!

In my third email in a week on the SARS outbreak to the Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, yesterday, I said:

"I wish to express my deep concern that restoring and ensuring full public confidence, co-operation and support in the nation-wide SARS alert and awareness campaign has not been given top priority, which can only come about if the public are fully convinced that the health authorities are fully complying with the new Cabinet policy of full transparency on the SARS outbreak and not pursuing a semi-transparency approach by withholding all the facts and figures about the SARS outbreak or engaging in a game of semantics to downplay its full severity, particularly in failing to comply with the WHO case definitions of 'suspected' and 'probable' SARS cases.

"When the Health Minister and the Health director-general were striking the 'no SARS cases, no suspected SARS cases or deaths caused by SARS' stance, I sent an email to YAB expressing my disbelief that there were no SARS cases in the country.

"Now that the Health Minister and the Health director-general are claiming that there are 75 suspected SARS cases as on Saturday but not a single 'probable' SARS case, I wish to state that I do not believe the figures released by the National Committee on SARS.

"I am prepared however to be proved wrong by the Health Minister or the Health director-general, and I am also prepared to openly admit that I was wrong in my disbelief if either one of them could convince me otherwise.

"If I do not believe that the National Committee on SARS is fully complying with the Cabinet directive of full transparency on SARS, how could the authorities expect the public to have such a belief and to have full public confidence and support in the nation-wide SARS alert and awareness campaign?"

In my second email to Abdullah on the SARS outbreak last Friday, I had made five proposals to fully restore public confidence in the government handling of the new killer virus, that the Health Ministry should follow the WHO case definitions of "suspected" and "probable" SARS cases and give a daily update of these two categories of cases.

Yesterday, Chua boasted that unlike Singapore who had 101 probable SARS cases and six deaths (which have now increased to 113 with eight deaths, with 73 recovered and no longer in hospital), Malaysia has only one probable SARS case and one death, which was the same person.

Chua does not seem to realize what he is talking about: firstly, if he is right that Malaysia has only one probable SARS case and one death, from the same person, this would mean Malaysia has the world's highest SARS case fatality rate standing at 100%, when in other countries, it is established the SARS case fatality rate is around 3.5%.
If Malaysia's SARS case fatality rate is comparable to those of other countries, this would mean that there should be some 30 to 40 probable SARS cases in Malaysia, which has been strenuously denied by Chua.

Chua has repeatedly warned that air passengers from the six countries affected by SARS (which should now be seven, including Malaysia), who make false declarations in the "Health Declaration Cards" about SARS could be prosecuted under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988.

Can the Health Minister and the Health director-general be prosecuted under the law for giving false declarations to the people about the state of the SARS outbreak in Malaysia?

As at stake in the issues I have adverted are the quintuple violations of human rights - the right to life, information, personal liberty, freedom of expression and good governance over the SARS outbreak in Malaysia, Suhakam should immediately commission a full inquiry into the human rights dimensions of Chua's handling of the SARS outbreak.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman