May 20, 2024


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Missing the little things: What life is like under Malaysia’s movement control order

KUALA LUMPUR: For the past few days, I have been bothered by this tiny prickling pain on my fingertips, most possibly from swiping the cracked screen of my handphone.

The phone had fallen from the couch and hit the marble floor with a thud last Tuesday (Mar 17), just hours before Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO) came into effect for two weeks.

With everyone urged to stay at home unless necessary, the government’s announcement was aimed at breaking the COVID-19 infection chain, as daily confirmed cases grew at an alarming rate. There are now more than 1,500 cases.

Non-essential businesses and schools have been ordered to close, while restaurants can only provide takeaways. Mobile phone shops, of course, are not open and I cannot get my cracked screen replaced.

Inconvenient? Yes. But urgent and life-threatening? Certainly not, especially when compared to the stress and pressure faced by frontline healthcare workers who are racing against time to treat patients and contain the outbreak.

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A cafe in Taman Paramount, Petaling Jaya, is open for takeaways. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi)

The unprecedented two-week MCO and its measures have rattled Malaysians, as they tried to adjust to a new lifestyle.

The initial confusion over whether interstate travel was allowed, or whether leaving home was permitted at all was unsettling. The call by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for all to just stay home underlined the severity of the pandemic, while drawing attention to the role each Malaysian has to play in combating the spread of the coronavirus.

READ: Some Malaysians brace for two weeks of no income as movement control order disrupts daily activities

Being confined indoors, not as a matter of choice, made me appreciate the freedom of movement and life’s little things that are often taken for granted.

Keeping a safe distance from my young niece and nephew – and only talking to them on video call even though we live near each other – feels unnatural.

Malaysia MCO

A deserted shopping mall in Petaling Jaya on Mar 21, 2020. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi) 

Outside, the empty roads and malls devoid of the usual congestion are unusual sights. An air of caution seemed to hang over the streets, almost as suffocating as the hot, humid afternoon.


With the neighbourhood wet market closed, I headed out on Saturday to the supermarket to stock up on groceries.

Malaysia MCO

A morning market at SS2, Petaling Jaya, has been told to close during the Movement Control Order. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi)

Plastic gloves were dispensed at the entrance for shoppers to wear before they touched the trolleys.

One section of the vegetable display chillers was completely empty. I felt a tinge of panic, but soon found more choices in other chillers, albeit not in abundant quantities.

I filled my basket with a variety of fresh produce, including pumpkin, aubergine, bak choy, okra and cherry tomatoes. The government has promised that grocery stores will still be allowed to open during MCO and there will be enough supplies.

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A shopper looking at an empty section of the vegetable display chillers in a supermarket. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi) 

Biscuits, instant noodles, milk and cheese were also available, so there was really no need to worry. It just felt odd to see everyone donning face masks, fearful of breathing in the invisible virus and germs, while adhering to the 1m distance as demarcated with masking tapes on the floor.

On my way home, I dropped by a fast food restaurant to pick up lunch. A staff member stopped me in my tracks: “If you want to make an order, return to your car and I’ll come to you.”

Like other eateries, the restaurant has closed its dining area. Several staff members stood by the entrance to take orders and bring food from the kitchen.

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With restaurants closed for dine-in service, their employees have to deliver orders directly to customers’ cars. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi) 

For two weeks, there will be no “lepak at mamak” – whiling away time with friends, chit chatting over the much loved frothy pulled milk tea at 24-hour food establishments.

Even for grocery runs, the National Security Council has reminded Malaysians through SMS that only one person is allowed to be out per family.


On Sunday, troops were deployed to the streets to deter people from unnecessary gatherings.

This seemed to have reduced the number of people out there, as observed by a staff member in a pharmacy. “There are fewer customers today,” he said.

I had earlier called to enquire if the pharmacy was open for business. When I arrived, my temperature was taken at the door, and I had to wear a mask before I was allowed in.

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Shoppers keeping a safe distance from each other when queuing to get into a supermarket. 

These inconveniences are nothing, given the importance of social distancing and stay-at-home order to rein in the spread. These are especially crucial for the sake of the elderly and people with chronic conditions.

A former colleague of mine, who has type 1 diabetes and needs four peritoneal dialysis sessions at home a day, said: “Now more than ever, I need to be careful since there’s failed kidneys. And because of the type of dialysis I’m doing, I have to be extra careful (to avoid) infections”.

And there’s also the problem of not being able to purchase masks and alcohol-based hand sanitiser. She used to be able to get three-ply masks easily but they are now either sold out, or available only at expensive prices. She has resorted to using one-ply masks.

What can Malaysians do? Have a heart and stay at home, she said.


For the first week at home, friends kept each other updated on the daily news via WhatsApp chat groups.

We shared photos of our homemade meals (the latest fad is dalgona coffee, Google it) and laughed over a viral video that supposedly showed Malaysian police dispersing crowds by shooting fireworks with a drone.

We gasped at the three-figure jump in confirmed cases and mourned over those who died.

READ: Malaysia government allocates additional RM600 million for Health Ministry to combat COVID-19

At grim times like this, it is the kindness of Malaysians that remind everyone that we are in this together.

On Facebook, photos of NGOs distributing food to the homeless – the forgotten lot when MCO kicked in – made their rounds. There’s also a Facebook group detailing the efforts of people in the 3D printing community coming together to make face shields for healthcare providers.

While not all of us can contribute the same, the least we can do is to stay at home.

At the grocer’s cashier on Saturday, my bill had come up to RM123.45 (US$27.77), and the amused staff said: “Miss, it’s your lucky day today.”

Indeed – I have sufficient groceries to last me a week, and all my loved ones are just a WhatsApp away. What is there not to be grateful about?

Just stay at home. We’ll see each other in a week’s time. 

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