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500. Act 342 will not be amended, says PM

The government has decided to scrap plans to amend the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342), says Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

The proposed amendments had sought to increase compound fines for individuals from the current RM1,000 to RM10,000. Businesses, which can currently be fined RM10,000, could be compounded RM500,000 for the first offence and up to RM2 million for repeat offences if the amendments had been passed.

“The fine of RM1,000 for those who flout Covid-19 SOPs under the current Act stays,” said Ismail at Umno’s general assembly today.

He added that the decision not to table the amendments was made after taking into consideration calls from within Umno.

Tabled for the first reading in the Dewan Rakyat last December, the amendments to Act 342 also provided for imprisonment of up to seven years for those who flouted Covid-19 SOPs.

Initially, health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah had pushed for the amendments to be made, stating that provisions under the Emergency Ordinance had been found to have been effective in preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Under the Emergency (Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases) Ordinance 2021, the government had raised penalties for SOP breaches to a maximum of RM10,000 for individuals and RM50,000 for organisations or companies.

The amendments to Act 342 had been met with backlash from the opposition and businesses for allegedly giving draconian powers to the enforcement authorities to impose harsh penalties and fines.

The Malaysian Health Coalition is deeply concerned with several proposed amendments to the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act (or Act 342).

We believe that some amendments are necessary, such as:

  1. Section 2, to clarify the correct title of Environmental Health Officer (instead of the old title of Health Inspector);

  2. Section 10, to require medical practitioners to inform the Health Ministry of an infectious disease through any channel specified by the Health director-general (instead of only through submitting a paper form);

  3. Section 15A, to require the temporary wearing of tracking devices for a patient deemed to be infectious (to ensure patients isolate at home); and

  4. Section 22A, to separate the penalties between individuals and companies (instead of the previous single-standard for both individuals and companies).

However, we are deeply concerned with several proposed amendments, such as:

  1. Section 14A, which allows an authorised officer to “use such force as may be necessary” (without specifying any training for them to use such force or ways to hold them accountable);

  2. Section 21A, which provides the Health DG wide powers to issue any instruction to prevent or control any infectious disease (without specifying any accountability mechanism);

  3. Section 22A, which presumes an organisation is “guilty until proven innocent” (instead of the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty”); and

  4. Section 24, which proposes maximum fines or imprisonment for individual offences that are excessive and disproportionate.

We believe that existing laws are not enforced fairly and consistently; we do not necessarily need new laws. There is a risk that the amendments may cause even more unnecessary suffering by the Rakyat, especially if deployed in harsh, unfair or arbitrary ways.

Some amendments can and should be passed in Dewan Rakyat sitting. Some amendments need more debate and scrutiny before passing.

Therefore, we urge the government to clearly show us how these amendments will truly protect us and how these powers will be implemented in fair and equal ways. Otherwise, the alarming amendments should not pass.

Lawyers have criticised the increased criminal penalties for breaches of Covid-19 rules in proposed amendments to Act 342 that they described as “disproportionate” to the offence.

The Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) amendment Bill 2021 imposes maximum compounds of RM10,000 for individuals and RM1 million for corporate bodies.

“These amendments are oppressive. The punishment is totally disproportionate to the offence. It’s madness,” former Malaysian Bar president Ambiga Sreenevasan told CodeBlue.

“It is especially worrying because of the way in which such laws are enforced. Ordinary Malaysians face the full brunt of the law while others get off scot free.

“I also cannot understand why it is necessary right now when most Malaysians are vaccinated and they are generally very responsible. Laws are supposed to respond to address a particular situation or problem. What is that in the current situation? It’s an irresponsible law.”

Throughout the state of Emergency from January 12 — which legislated an Emergency Ordinance that imposed a maximum RM10,000 and RM50,000 compound on individuals and companies respectively for breach of Covid standard operating procedures (SOPs) — daily new Covid-19 cases rose to a peak of nearly 25,000 infections on August 26. Covid-19 deaths similarly spiked to a peak of over 350 fatalities on August 6.

Daily new cases have declined since, falling to a seven-day average of about 4,500 cases as of yesterday. Daily coronavirus-related fatalities have similarly fallen to a seven-day average of less than 40 on December 7, after the government’s Covid-19 vaccination programme successfully inoculated nearly the entire adult and adolescent population.

Compounds of Covid-related offences were only restored to the RM1,000 limit under the current Act 342 after the Senate repeal of the Emergency Ordinances was gazetted on December 8.

Criminal lawyer New Sin Yew said he completely opposed any jail sentence for the violation of Covid SOPs.

“The way I see it is that the penalty imposed must be proportionate, otherwise it’ll infringe Article 8 of the Federal Constitution on equal protection of the law. It needs to be proportionate to the aims you want to achieve,” New told CodeBlue.

“If the aim is to protect public health and you impose a penalty that would have the effect of backfiring against public health, where you imprison the guy for seven years but he gets Covid in prison. That’s one very crude example.

“But that principle simply means that if I’m going to stop you from wearing face masks, I can’t impose death penalty. They’re imposing less severe punishments, but it’s still very, very severe.”

New suggested a scale of punishments with lesser penalties for lesser offences, pointing out that the amendment Bill treats a person who temporarily takes off his face mask while alone in a park the same as a person who did not wear a face mask at all while walking to the park.

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