Between 28 April and 15 Dec 2008, four opposition MPs have been thrown out of the House
SINCE the historic 8 March elections, expectations have understandably been high for interesting parliamentary sittings. With the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s two-thirds majority reduced in Parliament, the checks and balances needed in a robust democracy have been more imaginable.
But despite the stronger opposition in Parliament keeping the government on their toes, is Malaysia any closer to achieving a first-class Parliament?
Long way more
The government has initiated some measures towards achieving some semblance of a robust and accountable Parliament.
One of the measures was the 30-minute daily live telecast of question-and-answer time in Parliament. But such improvements may only be cosmetic. They may not do much to strengthen Parliament where laws are made and the government is supposed be held accountable to the people through elected representatives.
Andrew Khoo, a lawyer familiar with parliamentary practices, feels that the Malaysian Parliament still has a long way to go to achieve first-world status.
One setback, he notes in a phone interview, is the unconventional government-led Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
“[Parliamentary democracy] tradition has it that PAC is led by the opposition leader but the government has refused to follow this tradition. So, they [first] had (Datuk) Shahrir Samad (current domestic trade and consumer affairs minister) head the PAC, and now they have [former minister] Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid,” he says.
But apart from the PAC, Khoo points out that it is also common practice to set up permanent parliamentary select committees for every cabinet portfolio. These act as a shadow cabinet to keep the administration accountable. But the Malaysian Parliament has yet to form such select committees, unlike its neighbours Thailand, the Phillippines and Indonesia.
Additionally, Khoo says, BN members of parliament (MPs) have been toeing the line too often and not challenging bad government laws and policies.
He says the whip system in Malaysia is often misunderstood and abused, hence BN MPs have ended up being submissive instead of alert against any government misdeed or incompetence.
“We still have a feudal understanding of loyalty, so the MPs always vote the way they are expected to, and the whip is always exercised,” says Khoo.
Political analyst Ong Kian Ming stresses that as part of the democratic process, backbenchers should be allowed to defy the party whip and not be kicked out of the party.
For example, in 2005 former Deputy Environment and Natural Resources Minister Datuk S Sothinathan was suspended for questioning Deputy Health Minister Datuk Dr Abdul Latif Ahmad on the issue of Crimea State Medical University.
“In the UK, defying the whip occurs now and then. The cost to these MPs is that they will not be in the running for cabinet positions since they are not seen as team players,” Ong says in an e-mail interview.
“I think that this is an acceptable price to pay compared to being kicked out of the party or suspended temporarily.”
The Malaysian Parliament also suffers from a perception that opposition MPs are unfairly dealt with. Emergency motions from the opposition are nearly always rejected by the speaker or deputy speaker.
On top of that, since 28 April 2008 when the 12th Parliament first sat, four opposition MPs have been thrown out of the house as of 15 Dec 2008 (refer to images below).
All were ordered to leave the Dewan Rakyat because they challenged or defied either Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, or one of his deputies, Datuk Ronald Kiandee or Datuk Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar.
This in itself is permissible in a parliamentary democracy. Kiandee tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview that the Parliamentary Standing Orders allow the speaker to order an MP to leave the house if the MP refuses to listen to the speaker.
This is similar to the UK’s House of Commons where an MP can be asked to leave the house if he or she misbehaves.
However, the perception that opposition MPs get the shorter end of the stick persists, especially when no BN MP has been thrown out in the same period despite appalling behavior.
Kiandee says BN MPs are not kicked out because they “are quite smart.”
“When they get angry, they use un-parliamentary words but they withdraw their words after they are told (to do so).
“They are not thrown out because they are not stubborn,” he adds, noting that Tajuddin withdrew his comments after two warnings.
Kiandee feels that no matter how hard he, Pandikar Amin or Wan Junaidi try, the public can never see them as being fair to all MPs. “I think we have been very fair but people fail to see us this way,” he says.
But that’s hardly surprising: All three are members of BN component parties, and it would be challenging to amply demonstrate that the speakers can rule without thinking of party interests.
Political analyst Ong says, based on current circumstances and the number of opposition MPs thrown out of the House, Parliament will continue to be dominated by the BN.
“Unless the BN rethinks the way it wants the parliamentary process to go, there won’t be any checks and balances on the executive in Parliament.
“The only way for significant changes to happen is if the BN loses power.”