Muhyiddin’s new clothes

185 years ago, a Danish writer called Hans Christian Andersen released his third and final volume of fairy tale stories that would change his life. His previous works, which included The Ugly DucklingThe Red ShoesThe Princess and the Pea, and Thumbelina, were poorly received. The criticisms were so harsh that he put off writing fairy tales for a whole year.

But his final volume became an instant classic. Together with The Little Mermaid, he published The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came to be recognised as one of the great works of 19th-century literature. Modelled after the 14th-century Spanish fable called Libro de Los Ejemplos, the 1,500-word story became a cautionary tale for children and adults alike about the temptation of pride and ignorance.

The emperor in the story was known to be vain and pompous, who wanted only the best and finest of the land – and this included clothes. Two weavers promised him the best clothes anyone has ever seen. Only the smartest and greatest in society could see it, and because the material was as fine and light “as a spider web”, the emperor would not even know it was worn over him. The emperor loved the idea.

The caution that this fable makes is that sometimes even the simplest of truth – like whether the emperor has clothes on – is clouded by our pride and ignorance. Thus, we choose to ignore the truth, or even hide the truth, because we are afraid of offending the ruler. So we take comfort in the thought that others are as afraid as we are, so we become condemned to live in denial.

What clothes would the Emperor wear?

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s recent visits to one of the Covid-19’s worst-hit hospitals, the Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital (HTAR) in Klang, and the aid distribution centre, reminded me of this fable. In one, he wore light-blue clothes, in the other, he held up dark-blue clothes.

Before Muhyiddin’s visit on July 13, the name “Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital” became synonymous with a collapsing healthcare system. Photos and videos circulated on the internet proved that the hospital indeed looked like a “disaster movie”.

Despite weeks of doctors warning about the rising admissions, the hospital management seemed ignorant to requests until infamous pictures of the canvas beds outside the Emergency Department were circulated. Videos showed patients lying on the bench, bed and floor, with only an arm’s length separating them, struggling for clear breaths and daylight when they awake.

Overworked medical officers also started resigning almost immediately due to exhaustion and fatigue, potentially also over the uncertain future of being a contract worker.

Canvas beds outside the Emergency Department of the Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital, Klang, which is overloaded with Covid-19 patients

The scenes of HTAR were shared in other hospitals as well. Ampang Hospital has quadrupled admissions that necessitated using corridors and walkways for beds; Selayang Hospital saw oxygen ports meant for one being shared with several patients, with more hospitals being forced to ration their care and choose who to save.

Most of these anecdotes are the only glimpse we have of what is going on. Due to the gag order imposed on the medical staff, most of them could only speak anonymously.

The suppression of truth is the first step towards donning the emperor with an invisible cloth. These gag orders underlie a fear – if the public finds out the truth, they would be furious at the government and the prime minister, and these hospitals do not want to be a problem to their masters.

When the prime minister visited HTAR, he was greeted with smiling staff through a rehearsed protocol made necessary by the prime minister’s officers. Staff put a face shield on him, and the prime minister donned light-blue medical attire.

Rumours spread in the form of WhatsApp screenshots in a doctors’ group that the hospital has cleared the Emergency Department, and housemen were displaced from their hostels, with one day’s notice, to make way for new admissions. The purpose, they say, is to give the impression to the prime minister that the situation is under control.

“Big boss comes to visit the Emergency Department, with magic, the Emergency Department becomes empty today,” a message with the prime minister’s photo read.

HTAR’s hospital director Dr Zulkarnain Mohd Rawi has subsequently dismissed these rumours, claiming that the relocation of the patients was planned in advance and that the housemen were displaced with four days’ notice, not one.

Even after the clarification, citizens were still not convinced. Bending over backwards to please our bosses seemed long embedded in our culture.

Full kitchens of supplies


After his diarrhoea held him captive, the prime minister charged on with his planned site visits. Two days later, he met minister Rina Harun at the Bakul Prihatin Negara aid distribution centre. This time, staff were stationed around the Dewan Perdana Nur in Putrajaya to show the variety of food included in each RM50 basket.

The prime minister held a box, shook it, and posed for flashing cameras, before holding up a T-shirt that was printed with the words “Prihatin Negara”. He then walked to a table covered in a blue table cloth and tucked his hands on his waist as Rina explained the items that the prime minister rarely uses – sardine, biscuits, bee hoon, ketchup and flour.

At a brief press conference, he said that he is satisfied with the progress so far.

“There is no need to hang a white or black flag, but it’s okay to hang a blue flag,” the prime minister said.

Then comes the punchline: “I think if we go to the ground we will probably find the kitchen of homes to be full (of supplies).”

I trust that if Muhyiddin arranges for house visits to aid the recipient’s kitchens, he would be able to find kitchens that are full of supplies. He could have Minister Rina as the explainer again to show him which are the sardines he has given, and which are the biscuits. He would then finish his visit with photo ops.

Because the emperor is fully clothed.