Why can’t Sabah have a health minister?


By Mariam Mokhtar

Sabah has a land mass that is 40% the total area of peninsular Malaysia. It has a shoreline which is difficult to defend and its interior is not well connected because it lacks proper infrastructure. Sabah has 26 districts and the population is also the third largest among all the states.

So, why does the new Sabah Perikatan Nasional administration think it unnecessary to have its own dedicated health minister, a position created by the previous Warisan government?

Having won last month’s election, politicians rushed to secure the prized positions in the state administration. In the meantime, the number of Covid-19 cases having their roots in Sabah increased at an alarming rate, and records show that this is the worst deterioration since the start of the pandemic in January.

Newly appointed Chief Minister Hajiji Noor has contracted the virus. The state needs decisive and immediate action but its three deputy CMs were unable to convince the Cabinet that a health minister was necessary. Surely one deputy CM is sufficient and then the post of health minister can be created.

Deputy CM Bung Moktar Radin said a health minister will not be appointed because the state does not want an overlap of job scopes. He said that health is under the purview of the federal government.

Isn’t the scope of works and infrastructure, which Bung controls, also under federal purview, as is education and other portfolios like transport and defence?

Bung said the state Cabinet would discuss the matter of appointing a health minister at a meeting supposed to have been held on Wednesday. So far, there has been no report to suggest the meeting took place.

Bung, who is also Sabah works minister, said that during BN’s rule, there was no health portfolio. “We want to make sure there is no overlapping (of work). But the people will still be taken care of,” he said.

Why does he imagine that everything done during BN’s rule was correct and should not be scrutinised?

A health portfolio would ensure that one person is dedicated to providing sound advice to this vast state. During Warisan’s rule, three new ministries were set up – health and people’s wellbeing, education, and law and native affairs.

Have the other portfolios also been scrapped? Perhaps the Cabinet has no one who is competent to manage the health portfolio and, therefore, deems it best to dispense with the post altogether.

Another deputy CM, Jeffrey Kitingan, said the health portfolio has been placed within the purview of state Community Development and People’s Wellbeing Minister, Shahelmey Yahya. He said information on Covid-19 could be obtained from the Coronavirus Disaster Management Committee.

His remark only shows that he underestimates the seriousness of the Covid-19 situation in Sabah. The surge in cases has caused the medical services to be overwhelmed. Most of the infections were caused by the recent political campaign, when politicians ignored the strict SOP guidelines. Deaths have been reported, and the ICU at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital is overworked. Few senior politicians, bar Umno’s Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, have acknowledged that politicians were responsible for the rise in cases in Sabah, Sarawak and the peninsula.

Incredibly, Muhyiddin Yassin blamed undocumented migrants in detention centres for spreading the disease, and he was being disingenuous when he downplayed the role of politicians in spreading the virus.

Many photos captured on social media showed PN politicians ignoring physical distancing during their campaigns. The rise in the number of cases has also exposed the failure of the detention centres to secure their inmates. Last week, 14 detainees managed to escape. Was the facility overcrowded? How many guards have been stricken with Covid-19 and is there a shortage of manpower? Or is it just poor management of the detention centres?

The second wave of Covid-19 came soon after Muhyiddin’s Sheraton move in February. This third wave – the Sabah wave – is another manifestation of political power grab in Malaysia.

Last February, then health minister Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad took steps to try and contain the virus despite the World Health Organization’s failure to declare it a pandemic. The Sheraton move threw Malaysian into political chaos, and for two weeks, we did not have a health minister.

Ten months later, political manoeuvres resulted in the Sabah election. Peninsula-based ministers and senior politicians travelled to Sabah to campaign and the resulting spike can partly be blamed on them.

Hajiji’s administration acted swiftly to appoint a non-elected PAS man to be part of the state administration, but was unable to deal with this health crisis by appointing a dedicated health minister.

Sabahans are understandably furious that while the PN politicians were quick to establish themselves in key government positions, they were slow to serve the people

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