Gobind Singh Deo
HAVING a famous father helps, but first-time Member of Parliament (MP) Gobind Singh Deo, 38, has carved his own reputation as a lawyer and a politician.
The “little lion of Puchong” as he is fondly known, has become as well known as his father for being thrown out of Parliament sittings.
On 16 March, he was suspended from attending the Dewan Rakyat and stripped of his salary and allowances for one year, for alleging during a parliamentary debate that then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was involved in the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder.
The Puchong MP from DAP is challenging his suspension in court with a suit against the Dewan Rakyat speaker, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, the Dewan Rakyat secretary, and the federal government.
In the first of a two-part interview with The Nut Graph, Gobind talks about his suit and explains that the consequence of such decisions by legislative assemblies not only impact elected representatives, but the constituents they serve.
TNG: Have you got the trial date for your suit against the Dewan Rakyat speaker?
Gobind: Not yet, although we’ve asked for an early date, specifically before 15 June when the next session of Parliament begins. I am hopeful, despite it being against the odds.
What have you been doing since your suspension?
I’ve been making it a point to go to my constituency even more often. We have events mostly over the weekends when people are around. During the week, there’s still a lot of political activity like talks and conferences. So apart from the fact of physically being unable to go to Parliament, nothing has changed. It’s still a political life for me.
What weekend programmes do you hold for your constituents?
I make it a point to visit a market every weekend for morning walkabouts. Then a breakfast meeting with my committee members and residents. Then I rotate my visits to my three service centres, one in Bandar Puchong Jaya, one in Batu 14 Puchong, and recently we opened one in Seri Serdang. At the centres, we try to solve people’s problems on the spot, or get MPSJ (Subang Jaya Municipal Council) councillors to assist with more complex problems. I always move around with some MPSJ councillors. Then I have meetings to plan for our events and on national issues which I feel strongly about. I make it a point to speak to my committee about these issues before statements are made so they have a feel of politics, not only at [the] constituency level but so they also understand how an MP works.
How are you funding your work in your constituency now that your parliamentary income has been suspended?
I’ve not had my MP’s salary since the middle of March. The service centres are currently funded by donations and money from fundraisers. There are also volunteers who consistently help. A large portion of my parliamentary salary was channelled to the service centres. After it was taken away, I’ve faced some difficulty but somehow we manage. I used to pay the volunteers allowances to cover their petrol or phone calls and now they don’t receive anything, but they continue to work and they don’t even ask because they feel strongly about the cause. It is during these difficult times that you realise [that] about the people you work with, and how they feel about the cause.
You are using personal funds?
Yes, I’ve had to resort to that. I have a legal practice. It’s not particularly big, but it helps.
How much of your firm’s earnings do you put into your constituency?
It ranges between RM5,000 and RM10,000 a month. I just spend it as and when needed. Like you go for a wedding and you make a contribution, then I go to another wedding and another contribution, and then another function at a temple … The amount includes spending on the upkeep of my service centres. I’m also getting some help from a special fund set up by the Selangor government at the beginning of this year. It is a fund for all MPs in the state.
How much does an MP get from this fund?
It’s a total of RM150,000 a year of which RM100,000 is used for various community-orientated purposes, and RM50,000 goes towards the upkeep of your service centres. You get the funding through making claims.
It’s been said that an MP’s salary is often not enough to do constituency work.
MPs don’t get enough at all. Even the salary we get, we struggle with that. Imagine how it is when you have to survive without that salary. It sets you back about RM2,500 [a month] to run one service centre. Being an MP, you attend a lot of functions, so there are a lot of times you make contributions. These expenses dig very deep into the MP’s pocket, in particular if you’re from the Opposition because you do not get the peruntukan that government MPs get.
What is this peruntukan? Is it from the federal government?
All MPs are supposed to get a special allocation set aside for each constituency. The practice has been such that Barisan Nasional MPs get it but the Opposition MPs don’t. That’s been the norm.
How much is this entitlement?
I don’t know the figure because I’ve never got it. But this has been an issue we’ve raised in Parliament before.
Who do you take up this complaint with?
We raise it in debates in the Dewan and ask the prime minister to explain. Their argument is that the allocation exists and it is up to us to make the application, but we don’t get it.
Who are you supposed to apply to?
The district officer is one person; there are various different people. It’s not channelled through one agency or one office.
All the Pakatan Rakyat MPs are not getting this allocation?
Many aren’t. I don’t know if it affects all.
In total it comes up to RM15,000, plus allowances, including an office allowance and for a driver. It is separate from the special federal allocation we have to apply for.
In your suit against the Dewan Rakyat speaker, what are the constitutionally, or maybe ethical, points that you are trying to prove?
That’s a long one. I’ll take it in stages. I’ve just written a press statement that I’m against the suspension of [former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr] Khir Toyo‘s allowances.
Now, the motion against me in Parliament sought to suspend me not only from attending the Dewan Rakyat but it went further and it read that I am suspended as MP. Ordinarily, as in the case of Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh and Fong Poh Kuan, the motions are clear that they are only suspended from attending the Dewan Rakyat sittings. So to my mind, the Dewan can only do that much to suspend you from attending the sitting. But it cannot suspend you as an MP because you become an MP by way of election. So to me, the Dewan Rakyat went beyond its powers.
The second aspect is the fact that after the motion was tabled, the charge was read, and I was never given a chance to defend myself. I was fully prepared to defend myself. I’m a lawyer by profession; I don’t make statements without basis. And it was most disappointing when the Speaker of Parliament denied my request to speak. Disappointing because Parliament is supposed to be the seat of democracy. Parliament is supposed to uphold fundamental rights such as the right to be heard. If you were going to suspend me, to take away my allowances, then it follows as night would day, that I be given my right to speak. You must hear somebody before you condemn [him/her]. How can you condemn someone unheard? What if [he/she] can defend [him/herself]? What if you have made a mistake? These are basic tenets of fundamental justice. Having been denied that right in Parliament, it’s changed my entire perception of parliamentary democracy in this country. There’s no democracy in Parliament.
The third part is in respect of salary and remuneration. Unlike in England, where Parliament is supreme, we are different. England does not have a written constitution but we do here. And it’s crystal clear in Article 4 of the Federal Constitution that the constitution is supreme. The provision with regards to allowances of an MP is provided for in the constitution. Article 64 says Parliament shall by law provide for the remuneration of each house. So it’s a constitutional provision. The argument here is this: can the Dewan Rakyat pass a motion which is against an expressed provision of the constitution? To me it cannot be done. It’s unconstitutional, simple as that. Unlike England where Parliament can do whatever it wants because it’s supreme. But here it’s not supreme. Parliament is subservient to the constitution.
At the end of the day, this suit is filed on principle, not so much the salary. Members of Parliament do more than just attend sittings. The greater part of it is going to the constituency and serving as a Member of Parliament there. Serving the people incurs cost, and the speaker should have thought of that.
I thinks around 85% of the MPs, particularly those from Pakatan, are full-time. They don’t have any other profession or source of income to fall back on. These people also have their overheads and liabilities. What would happen to them if by just the stroke of the pen their livelihood is taken away?
And if you were an MP who relied solely on income from Parliament, knowing it could be taken away so easily, by a simple majority in the house, would you be able to carry out your duties without fear or favour? Would you want to say things which would upset the majority, knowing that they could destroy you? I’m lucky because I have my legal practice to fall on. So what do rulings like this do? MPs are supposed to go to Parliament to speak their mind, and sometimes what they say may be very serious and very sensitive.
See also: Picking the right battles