‘Watered-down’ Covid-19 relief Bill ‘too little, too late’ for affected groups, says Bangi MP

According to DAP’s Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming, since it was only tabled in Parliament for the first reading on August 12, the Bill can only be gazetted at the end of September at the earliest. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
According to DAP’s Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming, since it was only tabled in Parliament for the first reading on August 12, the Bill can only be gazetted at the end of September at the earliest. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 14 — The long-delayed tabling of the Temporary Measures for Reducing the Impact of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) Bill 2020 poses loopholes that could render it irrelevant for certain affected groups.

According to DAP’s Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming, since it was only tabled in Parliament for the first reading on August 12, the Bill can only be gazetted at the end of September at the earliest. 

“This is more than six months since the movement control order (MCO) was declared on March 18. 

“Furthermore, if certain legal actions and claims commenced or were concluded before this Bill comes into force, the protections provided by this Bill would not apply to these actions,” he said in a statement today.

In other words, Ong who is also DAP’s political education assistant director, said this Bill is too little too late and does not provide the necessary relief to the groups most affected by the MCO.

Citing the Bill, Ong said Section 7 of the Bill is supposed to protect parties who cannot perform their contractual obligations as a result of the MCO.

But in contrast, Ong said Section 10 of this Bill also states that: “Notwithstanding section 7, any contract terminated, any deposit or performance bond forfeited, any damages received, any legal proceedings, arbitration or mediation commenced, any judgement or award granted and any execution carried out for the period from March 18 until the date of the publication of this Act shall be deemed to have been validly terminated, forfeited, received, commenced, granted or carried out”.

“Section 10 effectively negates the protections provided by Section 7 to those most affected by the MCO.

“For example, if you were a retailer renting a shop in a shopping mall and had your rental contract terminated by the shopping mall owner in July because you were not able to pay your rent during the MCO, then this Bill will be irrelevant to you,” he said.

Similarly, he cited another example of an event company that had signed a contract to rent thousands of tents and portable toilets for a project that had to be cancelled.

“As long as the company providing tents and portable toilets filed a legal claim against you before the Act is gazetted, the protections provided by this Act will also be irrelevant to you.

“It is highly likely that Section 10 may have the effect of encouraging more potential claimants to quickly file their legal claims against companies in the next few months before this Act comes into force,” he said.

Ong added that there are other loopholes in this Bill which also weakens the relief it is supposed to provide.

“For example, Section 20 of this Bill increases the minimum threshold of debts owed by a debtor before a creditor can commence a bankruptcy petition from RM50,0001 to RM100,000.

“But Section 21 also states that: “Any proceedings, actions or other matters required to be done under the Insolvency Act 1967 which are still pending immediately before the date of publication of this Act shall be dealt with under the Insolvency Act as if the Insolvency Act 1967 has not been modified by this Act”.

“This encourages creditors to start bankruptcy proceedings against debtors before this Act comes into force,” he said.

He added that the same kind of loophole can be found in other areas such as taking possession of goods in the event of a default under the Hire Purchase Act 1967, defaults for instalment payments under the Consumer Protection Act 1999, late payment charges imposed by the developer against the property purchaser under the Housing Development (Control and Licensing) Act 1966 and the seizure of assets in lieu of rental arrears under the Distress Act 1951.

“In addition, the poorly specified mediation clauses (Section 9 of the Bill) which are lacking in detail, will further motivate more parties to file legal claims and suits in the next few months before this Bill comes into force,” he said.

Ong said what makes this Bill even more frustrating is the fact that the government had many months to study what other countries have done including Singapore, since the republic started its lockdown on April 7 and on the same day, its Covid-19 Relief Bill was passed.

“Singapore’s version of the Bill is much more substantive compared to Malaysia’s.

“Just to give one example, Singapore’s Bill even specifies that a landlord cannot draw down a tenant’s security deposit to pay for rental arrears during the period of their third lockdown.

“Singapore also amended its Covid-19 relief Bill on June 5, in order to provide more relief including cash and other grants to ease the economic pains arising from the fourth lockdown,” he said.

Calling out the Malaysian government’s late reaction, Ong said it could have provided a more comprehensive Covid-19 relief Bill during the parliamentary sitting on the May 18 — two months after the start of the MCO and businesses still had time to seek proper relief and protection — but the government refused to convene a full Parliament sitting until July 13.

“Six months later, what we have is a watered-down Covid-19 relief Bill that is full of loopholes and comes too little, too late,” he said.

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