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Checking power in Malaysia

Hamid Pawanteh in front of parliament picture
Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh

TAN Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh has had an interesting career in Malaysian politics. An Umno member, he was Member of Parliament (MP), first for the Arau seat in the 1980s, and then for the Kangar seat in 1999. The 1944-born medical graduate was appointed Deputy Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat in 1983, shortly before returning to Perlis to become the state’s menteri besar from 1986 to 1995.

In 2003, he resigned as Kangar MP to take on the position of Dewan Negara (Senate) President. He said recently that it was a way of putting his own country “above self and party”. Given the upper house’s reputation until then as being a mere rubber stamp in the country’s lawmaking process, it would have been easy to dismiss Hamid’s lofty ideals. But it was under Hamid’s presidency that the upper house started making the headlines, most notably in 2005, when controversial amendments to the Islamic Family Law (Amendment) Bill caused an uproar among women senators.

Earlier in 2009, Hamid also weighed in, as Senate President, on the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s controversial takeover of Perak, and called for fresh state elections. When a group of Selangor Umno Youth members accosted DAP chairperson and Bukit Gelugor MP Karpal Singh in Parliament, Hamid called them “hooligans”. 

In part one of this exclusive interview with The Nut Graph on 23 July 2009 in Kuala Lumpur, Hamid, who retired as Senate president on 6 July 2009, gives us a primer on legislative checks and balances and parliamentary reforms.

TNG: If you were to evaluate your own performance, do you feel you were effective as Dewan Negara President?

Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh: I have this vague sense that perhaps the Senate has made its presence a little more [felt]. I would attribute it, not take credit for it, to its increased assertiveness. That assertiveness is important so that it can play its role fundamentally in the check and balance equation. So if the Senate has made its presence felt through being more assertive, it has been made possible by the climate of relative freedom with the new politics, starting with the assumption of office by Tun Abdullah (Ahmad Badawi).

Under his leadership there was this degree of, not to say license, [but] comfort to say what you want. The Senate could also do that, and of course I must admit that I took full advantage of it. To try to nudge the Senate along to be more assertive so that it would make its presence felt so that [the] image of it as a rubber stamp or a dumping ground or a rubbish bin, [these] epithets would not apply so much.

Does any incident or experience stand out for you as the most encouraging?

Yes, there was this Islamic Family Law [Amendment Bill] in 2005. To many people [it was] not much, but to me it was significant compared to the previous perception that Senate approval was a formality, or a rubber stamp.

But when that Bill got stuck, and the government under Tun Abdullah was big enough to say, “Let’s have a relook at it”, and [was] instructed by Senators to defer passage, and [the Bill] then went back for redrafting — that for me was the highlight.

You said just now that it was during these recent years that the Senate has shown it is not just a rubber stamp …

This is why also, as pro-chancellor of Universiti Utara Malaysia, when they decided to award Tun Abdullah an honorary PhD for his contributions to democracy in Malaysia, it pleased me to no end. Because for me, that was his single biggest contribution [during] his leadership.


Previously, I chaffed that [institutions gave] mere lip service to democracy in the interest, of course, of progress, of development. Compromises [were made], the constitution was tampered with too often.

But what really are the checks and balances that the upper house can offer?

You see, that’s the thing about the Malaysian public. They largely react [to] political issues almost in a knee-jerk manner out of a sudden awareness. You know very well [the relation between] our society and in-depth reading. [But] once they are made aware, now that that maelstrom [has been] crossed — that’s why [the Senate is] making its presence felt, and making the public aware. But to answer your question, I think many people are not even aware that we have a bicameral system.

So you think the checks and balances are there, but people don’t know they exist?


So that’s why we don’t access these checks and balances?



Yes. The rulers themselves are a check and balance. What happened in Perak was a check-and-balance mechanism operating, but operating in ways that some people like, some people don’t like. But in itself, it shows [the existence of this check and balance], because our country is a country [with] a multiplicity of centres of power. I say that in the sense that we have the customary political power centres, then we have the rulers, then we have the civil service which is in its own right a power centre, [and] there are the territorial power centres of Sabah and Sarawak.

You could say that after the March 2008 general election, the centre has shifted slightly towards Sabah and Sarawak, away from the peninsula. Some Malaysians might see this, but I doubt a majority of Malaysians see this. Even Umno, the way Umno behaves, I think it hasn’t sunk in that the power centre has shifted. Favicon

See also Part II:  
Confusing party with government

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2 Responses to “Checking power in Malaysia”

  1. D Lim says:

    Yes, I agree that the centre of power has shifted to East Malaysia. East Malaysia does not possess as deep the divisions as those felt in West Malaysia. They do not have a ruler/sultan as head of state. The people there are more integrated than in West Malaysia. Interestingly, some of them (especially the younger generation) didn’t even realise 13 May [happened] in West Malaysia and they are shocked that it did.

  2. Patriot says:

    Not impressed.

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