The MAF has been deployed since 21 March to help patrol and enforce the MCO in response to COVID-19. At the time of writing, the MCO has been extended twice and is now set to end on 28 April 2020. During this prolonged period, some thought should be given to the possibility of the MAF’s expanded role in the crisis.
By Puteri Nor Ariane Yasmin, Muhammad Sinatra and Thomas Daniel
There are two issues to consider. First, there is the role that the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) can play in a public health crisis. Its magnitude would largely depend on its healthcare capacity and capabilities. Second, whether or not there is sufficient space for a military operation within the wider context of a public health crisis. This includes the justification and objective of the operation, as well as civilian cooperation.
To begin with, policymakers could explore the conditions that necessitate the deployment of the MAF’s medical assets. The following questions are worth asking: (1) Is the current situation considered urgent enough for such a course of action?; (2) Are the MAF’s assets the right sources to tap on?; and (3) Will a more visible and expanded role for the military cause any discomfort for the public?
If the answer is “yes” to the first two questions, then the government must communicate the reasons for the deployment to allay any potential fears that could develop among the general public. Most Malaysians are not accustomed to seeing troops – armed and in camouflage – operationally deployed, especially in towns and cities. Only older Malaysians remember the security restrictions of the Emergency and the aftermath of the 13 May riots – the last time troops were out in force.
The sight of the military being deployed on social media, television and in newspapers could inadvertently lead to more panic buying and hoarding – something that the country does not need.
Transparency is crucial in order to avoid panic. Further deployment of the MAF’s assets will mean more public exposure. It follows that information about said assets will become public. However, this is not necessarily a cause for concern because there is a clear difference between being transparent and informative on the capacity and functions of the military, and disclosing military secrets or sensitive technical data.
Another potential complication comes from the lack of information within the defence budget beyond the broad categories of operational and development expenditure. There is no information, for example, on the specific allocation to the military health service, which would then give us an idea of the resources that are currently available and what is needed.
Sources indicate that while the MAF does have technical capacity and expertise, it falls short on quantity particularly if they have to be deployed on a nationwide scale. For example, while the 12 Squadron Rejimen Askar Jurutera Diraja (RAJD) are trained and equipped to manage Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNe) threats, supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) are, however, limited. In terms of resources, the MAF must dip into the same pool as civilian agencies. This might have changed since the Movement Control Order (MCO) has come into force and more resources are allocated to procure such equipment.
It is also unclear if the field hospitals that Kor Kesihatan Diraja can set up are equipped to manage infectious disease outbreaks. As with other militaries elsewhere, field hospitals are mostly tailored to support those wounded in combat or humanitarian missions. Nevertheless, military doctors, medical assistants and nurses can provide a valuable service in alleviating the workload of their Ministry of Health (MoH) counterparts.
The practices in other countries provide examples. In the United States, US Naval Hospital Ship Comfort has been deployed in New York Harbour to provide an additional 1,000 beds. In China, military scientists have started clinical trials for a vaccine, while in Russia, military medics and supplies have been sent to help Serbia’s response to COVID-19.
Besides its role in medical and health services, there are other capacities in which the military could be of assistance during the MCO. Both the current Defence Minister and former Deputy Defence Minister have highlighted a number of these. They include disinfection efforts, setting up tents for healthcare workers to rest in, flying patients to intensive care centres, assisting the rakyat if the MCO shifts to a more extreme “lockdown” and logistics support. Indeed, the MAF is already doing a number of these.
Perhaps where the MAF could be most effective is in helping to ease the burden of the police in enforcing the MCO, so that the latter is freed up to assist the MoH in contact tracing for those who have tested positive or are suspected of contracting the virus. This remains a major challenge in Malaysia’s response to COVID-19 given the numbers of the tabligh gathering in Sri Petaling and other emerging clusters. According to Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham, as of 3 April, the tabligh gathering itself has led to a fifth-generation cluster of infections, with 3,000 participants yet to be tested and a possible infection rate of up to 40,000 people.
Another possible role for the MAF is to assist in identifying, testing and quarantining undocumented refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. The experience is already there given recent MAF humanitarian missions for the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. However, some thought must be given to the lack of trust in these groups of people towards anyone in uniform offering help and protection during the MCO. This calls for greater cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and refugee community groups. The new arrivals of the Rohingya refugees in Langkawi on 5 April also indicate that MAF personnel are needed to enforce tighter security of our land and sea borders in order to confront the likely risk of more refugees taking advantage of the pandemic and making their way to Malaysia.
In any conversation about the role of the MAF, however, an important issue that needs to be addressed is the “securitisation” of the COVID-19 response. This is imperative to avoid overlooking and overwhelming both the health and economic aspects in managing a public health emergency, to ensure that all response measures are not just legal, but constitutionally sound, and to also protect the MAF as well as other law enforcement officials from contracting the virus.
For a classic example of what happens when a public health crisis is dealt with through a security lens, look no further than the Polis Diraja Malaysia’s (PDRM) restrictions on interstate travel, which led to large gatherings at police stations to obtain a travel permit.
At a time when health authorities were advising social distancing and staying in place to flatten the curve, this and the subsequent exodus of city dwellers and students back to their hometowns and villages before travel restrictions were imposed created optimal conditions for the further spread of the virus. Moreover, conflicting narratives between the National Security Council (NSC) and the MoH on masks led to conflicting standards of procedure for those in essential services and further confusion among the public.
It should also be made clear that participation of the security sector, both the military and police, is to assist the security aspects of the government’s pandemic response based on the advice of the MoH. Managing a pandemic is not, and should not, be a military or police operation. In other words, the MoH must continue to be the lead ministry in Malaysia’s response, with the MAF largely playing a supporting role. Securitising Malaysia’s response risks the sidelining of medical, scientific and socio-cultural imperatives in favour of policies that only make sense in a security mindset.
The procedural and hierarchical nature of the wider Malaysian bureaucracy in the management of this pandemic is another issue that needs to be paid attention to. The response to this pandemic necessitates a whole-of- government response and, unfortunately, this is where the Achilles heel of most bureaucracies come to the fore – in terms of a lack of inter-agency communication as well as agencies working in silos. This was a clear problem in the first weeks of the MCO and is still an issue, though much reduced.
Navigating the power dynamics among agencies involved is essential in ensuring the efficiency and efficacy of the entire operation. How the government will achieve this, especially in light of some glaring policy inconsistencies, will be something to anticipate as we press on further into the MCO period and beyond.
“…the MoH must continue to be the lead ministry in Malaysia’s response, with the MAF largely playing a supporting role.”