We can’t RUN but they can still use HIDE!

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant Political Education Director for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the 7th of May, 2021

Use the Hotspot Identification by Dynamic Engagement (HIDE) detection system to determine whether jogging or exercising by yourself or in small groups, going to gyms and cinemas are the source of large COVID19 clusters
It was announced yesterday that all gyms in the MCO 3.0 areas would be closed as would the cinemas and jogging outdoors, even individually, would be banned.

Not surprisingly, this decision has been heavily criticized by the public and also by medical professionals including the current President of the Malaysian Aids Council, Dr Chris Lee.

The Prime Minister announced in a speech on the 17th of March, 2021 that a more targeted approach to control the spread of the COVID19 virus would be used, including stricter SOPs. Unfortunately, we have not seen this being applied in the policy announcements under MCO 3.0.
Since a new hotspot identification system has been developed by Bank Negara Malaysia and is now being applied, I call upon the authorities to use the past MySejahtera data (assuming it has been stored properly and not deleted) to identify how many clusters were created as a result of outdoor jogging and exercise as well as watching movies in cinemas and exercising in gyms. If the number of clusters are not large (which I think will be the case), then the National Security Council (NSC) should immediately reverse the ban on outdoor jogging and exercise and allow gyms and cinemas to re-open with the already strict SOPs in place.

The same kind of analysis should also be conducted by HIDE for other economic activities such as dining in for restaurants. If there are some restaurants and outlets that have been the source of COVID19 clusters in the past, then these places should be investigated and closed down temporarily if the SOPs were not strictly followed. It does not make sense to have a “one-size-fits-all” approach when MySejahtera login data is available to the authorities and a hotspot detection system has been FINALLY developed by the Malaysian authorities.

While we all can’t RUN (at the moment), the authorities can still use HIDE so that we can be allowed to RUN again, in the near future!

Dr. Ong Kian Ming can be reached at [email protected] or via twitter @imokman.

Media Statement on the cost and rollout of the National Covid19 Immunisation Program (NCIP / PICK)

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming (Bangi), Steven Sim (Bukit Mertajam) & Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen (Bandar Kuching) on the 3rd of May, 2021

The Democratic Action Party (DAP) fully supports the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (NCIP / PICK) and urges the government to accelerate its implementation in order for us to protect the health of the people and also to restore the country’s economy.

However, we express concerns over the lack of transparency with regards to the government’s recent decision to pass an emergency ordinance allowing it to tap into the National Trust Fund (KWAN) reportedly for the procurement of vaccines and related expenditures.
The RM 5 billion that is being used represents almost 30% of the estimated RM17.4b within the Fund, and that is why utmost transparency and accountability is needed to instil public confidence, avoid wastage, mismanagement, and abuse. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary transparency. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary transparency.

The fact that the government needs to tap into the National Trust Fund also points to the need for the Parliament Accounts Committee (PAC) to reconvene since when the Vaccine rollout Coordinating Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin and Health Minister Adham Baba, first met the PAC on the 5th of January, 2021, there was no mention of using funds from the National Trust Fund up to the tune of RM5 billion to fund the procurement and rollout of the various COVID19 vaccines. For the PAC to reconvene, the emergency must be lifted and parliament must be allowed to sit again.

Without the option of parliament or the PAC as a channel to ask more detailed questions with regards to the spending on the NCIP / PICK, we secured a meeting with Minister Khairy Jamaluddin to get a clearer breakdown of the RM 5 billion expenditure for proper scrutiny as well as raise certain pertinent issues to improve the progress of the NCIP / PICK.

Among the issues pertaining to the RM5 billion expenditure allocated to the NCIP / PICK, including the procurement of vaccines, are the following:

1. We take note that up to RM1.5 billion has been allocated for the rollout of the COVID19 vaccine including setting up various large scale vaccination sites across the country (“Pusat Pemberian Vaksin (PPVs)”) for RM280 million, Sanitation and Cleaning Services (RM100 million), Community Outreach and Advocacy (RM55 million), just to name a few examples. We want to know, how many of these large scale contracts were awarded via open tender? Did they go through the usual e-perolehan process or were they awarded via directo negotiation or limited tender? Given the scale of the expenditure involved, it is only right that MPs are able to ask for this information to be disclosed, as we would have requested were parliament in session.

2. At the same time, we question the total amount allocated for “allowances” (the word “saguhati” is a term used in the Ministry of Finance terminology and actually means “allowances”) for both medical and non-medical volunteers amounting to RM347 million. There has to be a breakdown on how many volunteers this involves and the expected allowances to be paid out per volunteer including civil servants who will be stationed at the PPVs.

3. Furthermore, we question the total allocation for Data Integration & Appointment System, and post-inoculations evaluations which amounts to a total of RM85 million. We request a clear breakdown of such expenditure and question the need for such a sum especially since there is already the existence of MySejahtera, and other existing dashboard and database.

4. In addition, we want to raise the issue of how the RM55 million for community programs and vaccination outreach is being used especially since the total registration rate is approximately 39% of the targeted population (as of the 1st of May) or 9.5 million persons. What other methods is the Ministry planning to roll out in order to incentivize the rest of the population to register for the vaccine?

5. On top of that, based on the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates from “COVAX Working Group on Delivery Cost, the recommended budgeting for both innovations and post-introduction evaluations for a total of 1 billion doses or a 500 million population is at USD 91.2 million. This covers data integration, digital micro-planning, appointment systems, post-immunisation evaluation and others (items 6+9 in the expenditure chart released by the Ministry.) If we take that into account in our local context and our country’s target of vaccinating 28 million (80%) of our population, the total recommended cost for such items should only be at RM 21.45 million, which is almost a quarter of the amount allocated based on the public statement released by the Ministry.

That is why we question the sum allocated and ask for greater transparency contractors involved, job scope and deliverables to avoid risk of abuse and over-profiteering.

With regard to vaccine administration and deployment, we have the following questions:

1. We want to know why is it that so many high-risk groups including the elderly and those with comorbidities that have registered earlier are not getting their appointment dates especially in the Klang Valley? This includes safeguards to ensure State Governments do not overstep and prioritise groups outside of the recommended groups just like what happened in Pahang. We also suggested improvements on notifications especially for the elderly group that may not be too familiar with the MySejahtera app.

2. We also want to know the government’s position on introducing parallel and multi-streams vaccination drive by including both the State Governments and the private sectors. The Federal Government should also just allow but offer assistance to the State Governments and Private Sector to procure additional vaccines especially from the international manufacturers to accelerate the process in order for us to achieve our target herd immunity. We hope that the issue of state governments procuring supplies of the vaccines for themselves to deploy can be expedited by the federal government once the official request has been sent by the respective state governments, including the most populous state in Malaysia, namely Selangor and also the largest state in Malaysia in terms of land size, Sarawak and the most important state in terms of E&E exports, namely Penang.

3. We also want to know the government’s strategy on improving and enhancing logistical improvements including better transportation of vaccines from Vaccine Storage Centres (PSV) to the selected Vaccine Distribution Centres (PPV) especially the rural areas of Sabah & Sarawak.

4. In addition, we want to know the latest absentee rate figures and the amount of Pfizer and Sinovac vaccines which have been “waste” because those whose appointments had been set did not show up and not enough volunteers to take those shots could be contacted in time.

5. The government has decided to rebottle Sinovac vaccines locally after buying the stock in bulk from China. While this decision was taken to promote technology transfer, rebottling the vaccine locally is totally different from manufacturing the vaccine locally. Rebottling involves only the packaging of finished goods and not the production of the goods itself. In fact, rebottling may affect the speed of production, integrity of the vaccine and even create unnecessary layers of middle-men. Earlier news reports have stated that locally manufactured vaccines can be ready and supplied to hospitals by the end of March. This does not seem to be happening. Will the government continue to rebottle Sinovac, and other vaccines in the future, locally? How much additional cost this involves instead of buying the finished goods directly from source manufacturers? And what is the status of the government’s plan to manufacture vaccines locally?

6. Finally, we also want a full explanation on the challenges faced by people wanting to register to take the Astra Zeneca vaccine on a voluntary basis. Especially important is what the government will do to enhance this system for the next round of AZ vaccines when they arrive in Malaysia, hopefully in June or thereabouts.

We urge for the Prime Minister to reconvene Parliament to allow such important decisions to be debated and scrutinised. The Parliamentary Select Committee should also be allowed to provide parliamentary oversight over the rollout and approach towards the pandemic. During this pandemic, where billions of public funds of money is being used, it is of utmost importance that all matters, procedures and financial procedures of the country are complied, to make sure that people’s money is really being spent prudently and efficiently.

We must be allowed to play an effective role in providing a ‘check and balance’ mechanism in the democratic system to the Government to promote the spirit of transparency and accountability, especially during this period. To repeat, “extraordinary times calls for extraordinary transparency”.

We had a fruitful and productive meeting with Minister Khairy today from 130pm to 2.45pm. Many of our questions were answered and the Minister also said that he would supply as much of the detailed breakdown of the expenditure items as possible. We look forward to his official reply to us and to the public.

Open Letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the 30th of April 2021

Dear President Biden and Vice President Harris,

First of all, I would like to congratulate you on a historic 100 days in office. Among some of your many achievements are (i) vaccinating more than 200 million Americans and other residents in the United States (ii) passing a US$1.9 trillion stimulus package despite no support from the other side of the aisle (iii) started the process of restoring the role of the United States in global alliances starting with re-joining the Paris Climate Accords.

I would also like to thank the both of you for speaking strongly and unequivocally on the attacks in Atlanta, where Asian Americans were targeted and killed by an extremely disturbed man for extremely disturbing reasons. As someone of Asian descent (I am a Malaysian Chinese) who lived in Durham, North Carolina, for 6 years from 2004 to 2010, whilst pursuing my PhD in political science at Duke University as a Fulbright scholar, I am somewhat aware of the racial dynamics in a Southern city in the United States. And I can only somewhat imagine the psychological impact on people of Asian descent in the United States as a result of the racial rhetoric that has been “amped” up over the past couple of years, no doubt fueled by the actions and words of your predecessor.

I am writing this letter primarily to lay out my thoughts for what I think a reasonable US foreign policy towards South East Asia (SEA) would look like. I am not an International Relations specialist (my focus areas in political science were Comparative and American politics) but I did serve a Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry for Malaysia for 20 months from July 2018 to February 2020. As such, my views and preferences are more pragmatic in nature and less “calculative” and “strategic”, if this makes sense. The following are a few recommendations which I hope that someone from your office or from the state department who is currently thinking about US foreign policy options in SEA would consider reading.

Firstly, US foreign policy in SEA should not and cannot be only about how to react to and counter China. This was the mistake made by your predecessor. Under Secretary Pompeo’s tenure, there was a dread among the SEA diplomatic community and foreign ministers when dealing with his office and his visits because all he would do would be to lecture and badger them about all the bad things which China was doing in SEA and around the world. While China is an important player in SEA in the military, economic and social realms, this cannot be the ONE and ONLY issue on the table when it comes to US foreign policy priorities in SEA. The US has a long standing presence in the region and I am confident that you and your experienced team will re-engage leaders, policy makers and important stakeholders in a number of important policy areas including climate change, trade and investment flows, educational and cultural exchanges and of course, COVID 19 related policy areas. It is important for the governments as well as the people of South East Asia to see the whole range of priority areas which the US wants to re-engage the region in. This kind of approach will lead to more ‘win-win’ situations for us and will increase the probability that US priority goals will be achieved hand in hand with the individual governments in SEA and with ASEAN as well.

Here, I want to express my deepest disappointment with your recent joint address to both Houses of Congress. “China” was mentioned 4 times and “Beijing” once (By the way, I don’t think Beijing produces that many wind turbines any more. It would have been more accurate for you to have mentioned Xinjiang instead). The “European Union” was mentioned just once, “India” once, “NATO” once and the word “allies” appeared twice, presumably a stand in for countries like “Japan” which was not even mentioned once. Africa and the Middle East was mentioned just once and this was linked to terrorism. The word “ASIA” or “SOUTHEAST ASIA” did not even appear once in your address. I know that the audience for your address was primary domestic but surely, as someone with your international experience, you must have known that the world was watching and paying close attention to your words? I guess we can cut you some slack since this isn’t a foreign policy speech per se. But we hope we don’t have to wait too long before you share with us more details about your engagement with the rest of the world including the nations of SEA.

Secondly, I hope that you will be able to find some “win-win” approaches when it comes to dealing with China especially in the SEA region. We do not want to be called upon (and you and your foreign policy team knows this well) to choose between China and the US. Both are important economic and security partners in the region and we want to maintain good ties with both countries. While I understand the rationale of you having to appear “tough” on China, especially for the domestic audience, I hope that you can empower your cabinet members and members of your diplomatic core to seek out win-win opportunities on the ground especially in the area of sustainable development and renewable energy (more on this below). Even in the “sensitive” area of infrastructure development, would your administration be bold enough to push for regional multilateral institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to co-fund infrastructure projects in SEA (perhaps the on again off again Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail project) with involvement from Chinese, Japanese, Korean and American companies with meaningful involvement from SEA companies?

Thirdly, I hope that you are able to moderate your tone and messaging on investment and manufacturing in the United States and beyond. You are right in saying that there is no reason why wind turbines cannot be built in Pittsburgh. There is already a company by the name of WindStax in Plum Borough, Pittsburgh that is already doing this. But it does not make sense for all or most of the wind turbines in the world to be build in the United States! Forcing US wind turbine and solar panel companies with global operations to bring back their manufacturing activities to the US would have a great negative impact on their financial positions which would put into question, the long term sustainability of these companies! Surely you don’t want US solar panel producers to go bust and be taken over by competitors from other countries ? Some on-shoring can take place but rather than being overly focused on increase domestic manufacturing, why not focus on retraining and re-skilling your workers in the manufacturing sector to be installers of wind turbines and solar panels across the United States? These kinds of service related jobs are much more difficult to outsource to other countries and can potentially provide higher paying jobs to blue collar Americans! Not to mention that the comparative advantage for the US is not so much in the manufacturing of basic models of wind turbines and solar panels but more so in the design and software which powers these renewable energy installations! Did you also not mention the lack of R&D in renewable energy in the US during your address?

In the specific context of Malaysia, my home country, why not take a look at a win-win solution provided by First Solar, one of the biggest solar panel manufacturers in the world, with a large factory in Kulim, Kedah and with plans to work with Jing Jing, a Chinese solar glass manufacturer which is building a factory in the vicinity of First Solar’s factories? Why not look for win-win partnerships involving US and Indonesian companies in the manufacturing of EV batteries in the most populous nation in SEA? Why not highlight the strong presence of US bio-tech companies that are already doing cutting edge R&D in the Biopolis, a biomedical R&D hub in Singapore? The list can be easily expanded with the attention of your political and economic councillors and your ambassadors in all the SEA nations.

Fourthly, we come to the tricky area of democracy and human rights advocacy. The word “democracy” appears 17 times in your address and the word “human rights” twice. I truly believe that you mean it when you say that human rights is the “essence” of what the United States stands for. But I also believe that we in SEA are very wary of this kind of “lecturing”. Yes, we have many democratic deficits among the SEA nations including Malaysia, where an emergency was declared in January this year ostensibly to control to COVID19 pandemic. But there are other better ways to support the cause of democracy and human rights in SEA. This would include working with international agencies such as the UN and also ASEAN on tricky issues such as the military coup in Myanmar and the deportation of Rohingya refugees. This would include providing technical assistance on strengthening civil society, the civil service and electoral and parliamentary processes in SEA nations, just to name a few. The strategies and avenues are multiple and varied.

Fifthly and finally, don’t forget to deploy your substantial soft power in the region. You can start with the small stuff first such having your respective embassies re-engage with various alumni groups such as former students of US universities and those who have attended various State Department sponsored programs including YSEALI, IVP and Fulbright, just to name a few (Thankfully, your predecessor didn’t think that these programs were deserving of his attention). Perhaps work with local cinema operators in SEA to showcase some of the best entertainment products which the US has to offer such as recent Oscar winners “Nomadland” (with a Chinese born female best director), Minari (with a Korean winner in the best supporting female actor category) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (nominated for 7 Oscars and a film which dares to take a very critical look at the US justice system). And as the pandemic recedes, opportunities for more meaningful engagement with present themselves.

I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you of an important component of the Asian “pivot” undertaken by President Obama when you were his Vice President. The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) was one of the key components of Obama’s Asian pivot. It will take some time but I hope that you will apply for the US to join the CPTPP before the end of your term as President.

Dr. Ong Kian Ming (former Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry, Malaysia and current Member of Parliament for Bangi) can be reached at [email protected] or via twitter @imokman)