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Strengthening parliamentary democracy

Parliament_2013aTHE majority of the 113 Members of Parliament (MPs) who gave full replies to The Nut Graph’s MP Watch: Eye on Parliament project, after the 2008 elections, wanted to see parliamentary democracy strengthened in a variety of ways. They were asked to answer the question, “If there was one thing you could do to strengthen parliamentary democracy in Malaysia, what would it be?”

The top two measures MPs specifically mentioned were reforming election practices and having parliamentary select committees. Eighteen MPs wanted changes to the electoral system, including to the Election Commission (EC). Another 19 said instituting select committees to monitor each government ministry and to scrutinise bills was the step they would take. Others wanted to see various types of changes in Parliament.

Change wanted in Parliament

Seven Pakatan Rakyat (PR) MPs – five from PKR, and one each from PAS and the DAP – wanted the opposition’s role to be recognised by:

Bullet - orange circle having equal time for opposition MPs to debate, and for their motions and private members’ bills to be heard;

Bullet - orange circle releasing federal constituency funds to opposition MPs; and,

Bullet - orange circle recognising an opposition shadow cabinet.

Other MPs’ answers that were related to improving Parliament were:

Bullet - orange circle reduce the use of the party whip and allow MPs to vote according to their conscience (proposed by three independents, three from Umno, and one each from MCA, Gerakan and DAP);

Bullet - orange circle give the speaker the full mandate to run Parliament and remove the executive’s power to interfere (one each from DAP, PAS and PKR, and an independent);

Bullet - orange circle form more bipartisan caucuses among MPs (one each from PKR, Umno and MIC, and an independent);

Bullet - orange circle restore the Parliamentary Services Act to make Parliament administratively and financially independent of the executive (one each from PKR, MCA and PBB);

Bullet - orange circle have stricter rules on MPs’ morality, and on their conduct in the House to prevent MPs from using debates to gain political mileage (one each from PRS, MIC and Umno);

Bullet - orange circle hold live telecast of debates (one each from MIC and PKR);

Bullet - orange circle place law-drafting under Parliament instead of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (one each from MIC and PKR);

Bullet - orange circle have more cooperation between opposition and Barisan Nasional (BN) MPs (two from Umno);

Bullet - orange circle have more time for bills to be debated and for the quality of debates to be improved (two each from PKR and Umno, and one from MCA);

Bullet - orange circle increase MPs’ salaries and allowances to be on par with the region (one from Umno);

Bullet - orange circle increase funding for MPs to hire researchers and support staff (one from MCA, two from PKR, one from PAS, one independent);

Bullet - orange circle give Parliament more authority (one from MCA);

Bullet - orange circle let Parliament sit more often (one from MCA); and

Bullet - orange circle let Parliament be the ultimate body to make law and be a forum for public critique (one from Umno).

Eight MPs wanted a freer press, while six said the public and politicians should be educated about parliamentary democracy. Two MPs wanted the separation of powers among the branches of government to be fully practised, two others wanted a two-party system, and another two suggested voting in a new government. Three MPs proposed making agencies like the police, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and others accountable to Parliament.

Several MPs answered the question rather vaguely and were off-topic in some cases. These answers included realising 1Malaysia, having loyalty to King and country, supporting anything that benefited the public, ensuring only the right laws were passed, giving society more overall freedom, banning party-hopping, strengthening the public delivery system, stopping race-based politics, and practising democracy daily.

Reforming the EC

Of the 18, listed below, who wanted election reforms as a way to strengthen parliamentary democracy, the majority were from the PR, with seven from PAS, seven from the DAP, and two from PKR. Only one BN MP, from Upko, clearly asked for election reforms, while one from Umno hinted at reforms by asking for cleaner and more ethical elections.

green-fancy-line-hi

Name

Constituency

Party

Coalition

Ab Halim Ab Rahman Pengkalan Chepa

PAS

PR

Che Uda Che Nik Sik

PAS

PR

Mohd Hayati Othman Pendang

PAS

PR

Siti Mariah Mahmud Kota Raja

PAS

PR

Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut Kuala Terengganu

PAS

PR

Mohd Hatta Ramli Kuala Krai

PAS

PR

Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff Rantau Panjang

PAS

PR

Fong Kui Lun Bukit Bintang

DAP

PR

John Fernandez Seremban

DAP

PR

Lim Lip Eng Segambut

DAP

PR

Manogaran Marimuthu Teluk Intan

DAP

PR

Teo Nie Ching Serdang

DAP

PR

Teresa Kok Seputeh

DAP

PR

Tony Pua Petaling Jaya Utara

DAP

PR

Anwar Ibrahim Permatang Pauh

PKR

PR

Hee Loy Sian Petaling Jaya Selatan

PKR

PR

Siringan Gubat Ranau

Upko

BN

Ismail Kassim Arau

Umno

BN

green-fancy-line-hiSome answers were general in calling for “a free and independent EC” and “clean and transparent elections”, while others answered in more detail with examples such as:

Bullet - orange circle announcing general elections six months in advance;

Bullet - orange circle automatic voter registration upon the age of 21;

Bullet - orange circle making the EC answerable to Parliament; and

Bullet - orange circle having proportional representation or “one person, one vote”, and ending the manipulation of electoral boundaries.

Political analyst Wong Chin Huat and lawyer Andrew Khoo both agree that, of all the MPs’ suggestions for strengthening parliamentary democracy, reforming the EC would be the hardest to implement.

Khoo observes that some of the MPs’ complaints about the electoral system such as boundary delimitation, where small urban constituencies end up having more voters than large rural seats, would require constitutional changes. So, too, would proposals for automatic voter registration.

There is also the problem of the executive assigning the EC more power than necessary, Khoo says. This was demonstrated when the EC, instead of the speaker, was allowed to decide on casual vacancies in the state legislative assembly during the Perak crisis in 2009.

Most feasible: Parliamentary committees

Of the 19 MPs who wanted select committees, most were from the PR, with four each from the DAP, PKR and PAS. The others included three MPs from Umno, two from the MIC, and one each from PBB and SAPP.

green-fancy-line-hi

Name

Constituency

Party

Coalition

Charles Anthony Santiago Klang

DAP

PR

Fong Po Kuan Batu Gajah

DAP

PR

Loke Siew Fook Rasah

DAP

PR

Teresa Kok Seputeh

DAP

PR

Abd Khalid Ibrahim Bandar Tun Razak

PKR

PR

Chua Tian Chang Batu

PKR

PR

Nurul Izzah Anwar Lembah Pantai

PKR

PR

Sivarasa Rasiah Subang

PKR

PR

Kamarudin Jaffar Tumpat

PAS

PR

Mujahid Yusof Rawa Parit Buntar

PAS

PR

Nasharudin Mat Isa Bachok

PAS

PR

Salahuddin Ayub Kubang Kerian

PAS

PR

Abdul Rahman Dahlan Kota Belud

Umno

BN

Azmi Khalid Padang Besar

Umno

BN

Bung Moktar Radin Kinabatangan

Umno

BN

Devamany Krishnasamy Cameron Highlands

MIC

BN

P Kamalanathan Hulu Selangor

MIC

BN

Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar Santubong

PBB

BN

Chua Soon Bui Tawau

SAPP

Independent

green-fancy-line-hi

Instituting standing and select parliamentary committees is the most immediately feasible of the MPs’ suggestions to strengthen parliamentary democracy, both Khoo and Wong agree.

Khoo notes that select committees have worked when they were previous formed, in the first instance to review amendments to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code in 2004, and in another on National Unity and National Service. Further, most MPs already understand the spirit of how such committees work as many are members of regional parliamentary caucuses, which comprise MPs of different political shades.

“[Forming select committees] could happen tomorrow. The Standing Orders provide for it, but Parliament is not doing [enough of] it,” he says.

“The government must discard the view that select committees might be antagonistic [to the government agenda]. Select committees will give MPs the opportunity to demonstrate bipartisanship and how Parliament’s intended law-making functions should work, instead of being a rubber stamp,” Khoo says.

Wong

Wong

Wong says Parliament will have to be reformed to become a law-making entity as its original role, as inherited from the Westminster system, was not legislative, but to form the government.

“The government here still sees that as Parliament’s main role. The reforms the UK Parliament has undergone to have the committee system have not been adopted here. For that to happen, Malaysian voters must understand and want the committee system, and must make it a condition for votes in elections,” Wong says.

Promoting bi-partisanship

Khoo adds that instituting committees can also help mitigate the effects of the party whip, which nine MPs said should be relaxed. Umno MP Saifuddin Abdullah argued that applying the whip negated debates in the House because MPs still ended up voting en bloc.

Abolishing the party whip altogether is not feasible because it is required for discipline, but it could be used less, says Khoo. The UK Parliament, for example, allows MPs the “free vote” in matters of conscience, as long as the issue does not run counter to an MP’s party election platform.

Select and standing committees can have the effect of fostering bipartisanship, but they also need to be understood as the result of a collective commitment to being bipartisan. Thus, MPs and the government must first understand and appreciate how bi- or multi-party democracy works for the sake of national interest, says Wong.

“It involves recognising the role of the opposition and of the backbenchers as blocs to keep the government in check. It involves shared leadership with and empowerment of these blocs. And it also requires the civil service’s understanding so they can facilitate bipartisanship,” Wong notes.

As examples, he says UK ministers regularly consult shadow ministers from the opposition on serious national issues, and government backbenchers regularly challenge and question executive decisions.

Senior officials in the civil service, when a coalition government was being negotiated between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats after the May 2010 UK elections, were told to engage the parties and facilitate the forming of a new government.

Another aspect of recognising the opposition’s role would be to release bills earlier to allow more scrutiny, including by the public, Khoo adds. As it is, the legislative agenda is already dictated by the executive, and opposition MPs do not see bills until the day they are tabled for first reading.

Government MPs, however, are given special briefings by relevant ministries or agencies on bills to be tabled. Releasing draft legislation from the Official Secrets Act prior to tabling would also promote better quality debates.

Way forward?

Wanting a committee system, more bipartisan caucuses, recognising the role of the opposition, and letting MPs vote according to their conscience can all be taken as the desire for greater bipartisanship. MPs may not have stated it as such, and some may even be unclear on what this actually involves, but their answers indicate some degree of awareness on what is needed to make the Dewan Rakyat fulfill its role.

However, the number of those who expressed this desire, in comparison with the total of those who replied and who did not, is discouraging, Wong notes.

“The majority of MPs still see their roles as mainly to either oppose or support the executive and to ask for money for their constituencies,” he observes. The Nut Graph


This essay first appeared exclusively in Understanding the Dewan Rakyat, together with other analyses on how our government works. The book also contains the profiles of the current 222 MPs and how they and their parties would vote on key issues of democracy. The book is available at PusatLoyarBurok.

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