Malaysia's striking doctors defiant after police probe, vow further action 'if promises are not kept'

Contract doctors participate in a walkout strike at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital on July 26.
PHOTO: Reuters

Malaysian contract doctors who staged a wildcat walkout on Monday in protest over unfair treatment are satisfied with the wide public attention their industrial action has received and will co-operate with police investigations, according to a spokesman.

Organisers of the Hartal Doktor Kontrak - or "contract doctors' strike" - estimated that some 6,000 to 8,000 of the 23,077 contract doctors in the national health care system took part in the walkout at 11am.

This Week in Asia could not independently verify the figure, but pictures on social media showed hundreds of black-clad medics holding placards and posters outside their places of employment just before noon.

Most of the images posted online were taken outside hospitals in the country's commercial capital Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital Putrajaya and the surrounding state of Selangor.

Local media reported that many of those who took part in the walkout subsequently returned to their places of employment.

"Why did I go back to work? Because our priority is our patients, of course. We always put our patients first," one doctor told the Malaysiakini portal.

Mohamad Zainal Abdullah, the police chief in downtown Kuala Lumpur's Dang Wangi district, told local media the mass walkouts would be probed for violating Covid-19 rules that bar "any gathering at any place for any purpose whether religious, social, sports, marriage or cultural, without the permission of the health director general".

Dr Mustapha Kamal, the public face of the Hartal Doktor Kontrak movement, told This Week in Asia the group was in talks with lawyers following the opening of a police probe.

"Let the police do their job, and we will do ours. We are not criminals, [our actions] were based on the federal constitution," he said by phone. "We are not murderers and we are not burning down the hospitals."

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Mustapha vowed that another hartal - a South Asian term for industrial action - would be held if the government failed to deliver on its recent promises to contract doctors. He added that this would involve other contract professionals in the health sector who were facing a similar predicament as the doctors.

The contract doctors are aggrieved that their employment terms, including salary and perks such as grants for further studies, are vastly different from their counterparts with permanent jobs.

These doctors were recruited following a stopgap policy implemented in 2016 that offered temporary contracts to freshly graduated housemen as a way to employ them without permanently expanding the national headcount for public sector doctors.

Authorities have said this was aimed at dealing with a years-long glut of local doctors; but contract doctors say there remain shortages in various niche fields.

Contract doctors earn far less than those with permanent jobs, face slow career progression dependent on contract renewals and cannot move to the private sector until they have served close to five years in the public health system - as is mandated for all medical graduates.

Hartal Doktor Kontrak organisers had warned of their industrial action for weeks - delivering memos to senior officials in early July - but Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's government only responded last Friday.

The government offered a list of concessions, including two-year contract extensions, but the protesting group said the solution was "half-baked" and not set in stone as it was made through a press statement rather than an official circular.

Finance minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz, speaking during a chaotic first day of a special five-day parliamentary sitting, said the Perikatan Nasional administration was intent on following through with the pledges it had made to the contract doctors.

"The government is very concerned about the demands of contract-status health workers and is aware of their contribution and role as the front line of health in providing the best health services to the people, especially in the Covid-19 pandemic situation," he said.

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Opposition lawmakers furious over the conduct of the sitting - the first session of parliament since a state of emergency was declared in January - meanwhile voiced support for the contract doctors.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, a former deputy prime minister and key figure in the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, said the government needed to walk its talk of wanting to preserve and enhance the country's health care institution amid the Covid-19 crisis.

"Call them up and speak to them, because whatever recovery plan that you have is unlikely to be effectively implemented on the ground if these doctors are not taken care of," she said, responding to Muhyiddin's speech outlining a four-phase road map for reopening the economy.

The doctors' strike was the subject of intense debate within the local medical community. In a Sunday Facebook post, health ministry director general Noor Hisham Abdullah urged "junior colleagues" not to join the demonstration, saying medical practitioners had to take into account their oath to patients of primum non nocere, or "first do no harm".

"Remember the oath we took sincerely and be there for your patients at the time when they and [the] country needed you the most," he wrote. "We are the last bastion of defence to make a difference to our patients and every life matters."

Those comments were lampooned by those backing the movement. Junior doctor Pearl Zi'Anne wrote in a response to Noor Hisham's post: "You should be standing with us. You should be lending your voice and power to help us. Not asking us to keep quiet and continue working. You should be on our side."

Monday's walkout did not have the backing of the Malaysian Medical Association, an industry body, or the Malaysian Medical Council - the country's oversight body for doctors. The latter had previously said those striking risked losing their licenses.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.