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Each time I look at the raids and other punitive actions such as hefty compound by the government’s enforcement agencies on helpless ordinary people for violation of SOP and other minor offences, I imagine something terrible. The image of Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire on 17 December 2010, which set off the Arab Spring uprising, came to mind.

I understand how upset, frustrated and angry Malaysians are, for I feel the same.

The hopelessness is real. The announcement by Prime Minister Tan Sri Mahiaddin Md Yasin on 27 June that the lockdown would continue without a timeline but is instead premised on Covid-19 daily reported cases declining to below 4,000 touched a raw nerve.

Millions of low and middle-income families, especially those in informal sectors without job security, risk not having food on the table. Businesses which survived earlier waves of lockdowns now wonder if they would still be around when this indefinite lockdown is finally lifted. Employees in such establishments are naturally concerned about their own future.

After the indefinite lockdown was announced, the situation was further exacerbated by the announcement that most areas in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor would be placed under EMCO from 3 July to 16 July.

The suffering is real. We see a huge spike in suicide cases. People are losing hope. The “white flag” wave that swept across the nation is a serious indication of a highly digitalised population that is finding ways to express themselves and find solutions for the most pressing problems, especially when the government is completely tone-deaf to its people’s needs.

The authorities must respond in the most empathetic and sympathetic manner and allow for the frustration to be aired while addressing the genuine need for aid. Do not clamp down with an iron fist. Harsh and punitive enforcement measures by a government that has lost the respect of the public will only invite more ridicule and anger.

The current government lacks legitimacy. Since 16 June when the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Malay Rulers made clear their views on the need for Parliament to sit and for the emergency to end on 1 August, the Mahiaddin government has lost whatever left of its already lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Ordinary people questioning the government’s decisions and doubting its motives has become a favourite national pastime, as evident by the comical public responses to the official announcement of the Prime Minister’s diarrhoea episode.

Respect must be earned. No statute books can boost the government’s authority in the eyes of the public. In fact, with its double standards and U-turn decisions, the government has eroded its own authority. We have seen many a time politically connected people getting off the hook over violation of SOP while ordinary Malaysians are punished excessively.

Those in power must find a more conciliatory posture with humility and handle the situation with care, empathy, and sympathy, although they have repeatedly proven to be incapable of doing so.

I am reminded of poor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation because more than a decade ago in Tunisia, his solitary protest against the authorities’ systemic corruption triggered outpouring sympathy for him and widespread expression of anger against the establishment which eventually sparked a revolution. People wanted jobs, better living conditions and dignity. The current situation in Malaysia is not too dissimilar and I am increasingly concerned of the possibility of food riots happening in our country.

I appeal to all officials, whether they are representing the federal, state or local government, to prioritise empathy, not harsh measures. Merciless enforcement actions such as Ops Patuh needs to be reconsidered. Punishment should only be the last resort, not the first reaction.

Liew Chin Tong

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