The most popular public face in Malaysia right now isn't an actor or a singer. He is a civil servant.
Noor Hisham Abdullah, the Director-General of Health at Malaysia's Ministry of Health, has become a familiar presence for Malaysians.
He frequently helms press conferences where he delivers updates about the spread of Covid-19 in the country, as well as the steps taken to fight it.
He's been featured in a comic strip:
Had fan art made of him:
Happy Birthday Malaysian Hero 😊 pic.twitter.com/wBexetfy7G— Nishnish (@drawtitian) April 23, 2020
And despite his busy schedule, he found the time to respond to fan mail from one Malaysian student:
Noor Hisham was also praised for his humility during a press conference in March 2020, in which he brushed off the "hero" label and instead paid tribute to the group effort by his team and the healthcare professionals around Malaysia.
During his birthday on Apr. 22, Noor Hisham expressed his thanks to all the well-wishes he received from the public, and said that he would never have imagined marking the occasion with netizens and the media.
The New Straits Times reported that #HappyBirthdayDGHisham trended on Twitter on his birthday.
Instead, he used the occasion to urge Malaysians to keep fighting the virus.
Encouraging signs in Malaysia's fight against Covid-19
Despite its large population size, Malaysia has seen some success in battling the spread of Covid-19.
On Apr. 14, CNA reported that it has 43 labs that can process tests for the virus, with plans to open more, and Malaysia tested around 9,000 to 10,000 people per day.
Malaysia has also implemented a strict Movement Control Order that began on March 18. It is scheduled to last until May 12.
But on Apr. 23, Malaysia recorded new cases of Covid-19 infections under 100 per day, for seven days in a row.
According to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia's recovery rate stands at 63 per cent.
The low rate of infection may have prompted the government to begin easing certain restrictions on movement, with students living on campus allowed to return home if they pass health checks.
Face of the government's Covid-19 fight
Perhaps because of the tangible results, Malaysians strongly support government measures taken to combat Covid-19.
The Malaysian Insight reported that 89 per cent of Malaysians polled by the National Security Council support extended the MCO beyond Apr. 18.
And as the public face behind the government's initiatives, Noor Hisham has turned into something of a rallying point for Malaysians.
As Malaysia recently experienced a tumultuous series of events that saw the Pakatan Harapan coalition turfed out and replaced by the Perikatan Nasional coalition, politics may still be controversial for Malaysians.
But as a civil servant, Noor Hisham is a non-partisan figure, viewed as above party politics.
This may contribute to his popularity, as Malaysians on both sides of the political divide, or public figures, can openly support him without worrying about political squabbles.
In an interview with Vox, writer Max Brooks described a similar role played by the United States Surgeon General in the 1980s, C. Everett Koop.
Although the Surgeon General is nominated by the President, the role is considered non-partisan. Brooks explained how Koop played a vital role in helping manage the AIDS crisis at the time.
"In the 1980s, you had one voice, you had [US Surgeon General] C. Everett Koop. You didn’t have Reagan. You didn’t have political commentaries. You had the surgeon general, and he was the authority, and you listened to him and you respected him and you followed his instructions," said Brooks.
Health Minister's gaffes
In contrast to Noor Hisham, the Malaysian Health Minister Adham Baba committed a number of gaffes that may have hurt his standing among the public.
During a television appearance on March 19, Adham courted controversy by claiming that drinking warm water would help to kill off the Covid-19 virus.
On April 19, he admitted that he misspoke by mentioning that he held a teleconference with the World Health Organization (WHO) and "500 countries".
Adham was also criticised for supposedly politicising the Covid-19 outbreak.
In a video that was uploaded to UMNO's Facebook page on Apr. 18, Adham said that the previous Pakatan Harapan government failed to contain the "tabligh cluster" at a Malaysian mosque, where a gathering was held from March 27 to Feb. 1.
In response, the previous Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said "now is not the time for politics" and urged everyone to come together to fight Covid-19, according to Free Malaysia Today.
Adham's Deputy Health Minister Noor Azmi Ghazali also shared a photo of himself sharing a meal with another politician and a group of around 30 students.
After receiving backlash for supposedly flouting the MCO rules, Noor Azmi deleted the photo and apologised.
Top image from Noor Hisham Abdullah's Facebook page.