Categorised | Interviews

Towards an independent Parliament

In the first part of his interview last week, Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia talked about the speaker’s impartiality and dealing with accusations of bias. In part two, he discusses improvements for Malaysia’s Parliament, and the realities of local parliamentary and political culture.

TNG: In line with other advanced parliamentary systems, what about giving greater recognition to the role of a parliamentary opposition by having the SO (Standing Orders of the Dewan Rakyat) allot more time for opposition and private members’ bills and motions, and by having a shadow cabinet system?

First and foremost, there must be an understanding between the opposition and the government. In Britain, the official name of the opposition is Her Royal Majesty’s Official Opposition. In our case, [the SO only recognises] a ketua pembangkang, and he [or she] must be given an office and an allowance for that.

Assuming the opposition MPs here want the kind of recognition as in the UK, why don’t they start moving in that direction by naming a shadow cabinet? So that people can know what they have to offer, and it can be a start. But [the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)] can’t even name a shadow cabinet. (Editor’s note: The PR has only named ministerial committees comprising an MP from each of its member parties.)

Their counterargument is that the parliamentary system here doesn’t formally recognise a shadow cabinet the way other parliaments do, and MPs are not provided with resources and research staff to perform that role.

In the UK, they are able to do it because they have a real two-party system. Not all countries pay their shadow ministers. Only the opposition leader gets a special allowance. If they are serious about it, show it, do something. Like me, I’m serious about my position as speaker, so I resigned from politics. At least it is a sign that I’m trying to move in the right direction. From the opposition side, what have they done to indicate that they want to move in that direction?

If you want parliamentary reform, show it. If a shadow cabinet is what the opposition wants, why didn’t they raise a motion to debate it? They could ask the government to consider it, that if [the opposition] can name a shadow cabinet, will the government also provide resources and privileges? Nobody raised it. They could have raised it, if it is good for the people. And if the government doesn’t respond, it will be blamed. They should use Parliament to raise things that are good for reform. I don’t mind if they quarrel about good things, instead of attacking the speaker.

What about allotting more time for opposition and private members’ bills and motions, as done in the UK Parliament?

That’s what I’m saying – if the government and the opposition can work together, of course it can be done. In the British system, there is something called “pairing”. When one member of the government is absent for a vote, their “pair” from the opposition will also be absent, so that nobody will be caught with their pants down.

Here, there is none of this. Here, the opposition will be observing the government bench, and if the government numbers are not enough, then the opposition will ask to vote by division. The government almost lost the 2010 Budget because of this. So in order for the government to trust the opposition, [Members of] Parliament must be [well-mannered].

It’s like playing golf, you must respect each other. Do you see anybody on either side of the divide trying to move in that direction? No one. What they do is ridicule each other, every day, every morning. Every opportunity the opposition has will be to try to embarrass the government or the ministers. That’s the agenda.

How do you rate BN MPs and backbenchers?

In any parliament you will have colourful characters. When I compare our Parliament with Britain’s, I compare our current Dewan with the House of Commons 60 or 70 years ago.  They are far more advanced. But to head in that direction, we must start now. And the MPs must [move] towards that. As it is, we are more headed towards Taiwan’s Parliament.

How independent is our Parliament when we have a minister to oversee it?

Some people say it is not supposed to be like that. It is true. In all Commonwealth countries, no House of Commons has that. But I look at it from a positive point of view. When I was a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, we took turns to look after parliamentary affairs on a weekly basis. This was under (Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad). But (Tun) Abdullah (Badawi) decided to put (Datuk Seri) Nazri (Aziz) in charge as an overseer.

So Nazri is like a bridge between the executive and Parliament. And I look at it positively because it makes my work easier. Anything I want the executive to know, I don’t have to deal with the PM’s office because there is a minister here.

But there are others who look at it critically: why should there be a minister in charge when there is already a speaker? Shouldn’t the speaker be running Parliament’s affairs? But this is part of democracy, there is no one formula. In the House of Commons, it’s unheard of to have a minister in charge of Parliament. But Malaysia has its own mould.

But isn’t perception also important, [that] Parliament must be seen to be independent?

Of course it is a perception. Maybe there will be a new speaker who might not want this. Perception is always open to challenge. Sometimes it is just the wrong perception.

Besides the issue of a minister in charge of Parliament, some MPs have said they feel the executive is too powerful in Parliament, and dominates the law-making process. Do you agree, and is this healthy?

What is Parliament all about? Parliament is like that. Democracy is like that. The reason you fight so hard in elections is to get the numbers, to implement what you wish.

But, in some other countries, like Australia, [where the government] only holds the majority by two seats, you don’t hear any commotion or anything about a vote of no confidence. Because their political culture is this: after elections, no matter what, whether you have a big majority or a small majority, the decision of the masses is respected. Politicking ends.

There is a new politics in Parliament. This is something we here, still don’t understand, with due respect to all our MPs. Neither the government side nor the opposition seems to understand that politics must end at the end of elections. A new politics must come in when you sit in Parliament. You must behave like a parliamentarian. This is another challenge I have – trying to instil parliamentary understanding and behaviour.

So I don’t think it’s about whether the executive is too powerful or not, but whether MPs understand parliamentary politics and whether they respect the system.

With regards to the law-making process, the SO provide for standing and select committees to monitor government and debate bills. Is our Parliament ready for this?

Our system is such we that we deal with everything in a sitting of the House. The ministries are the ones that see to all the details of sponsoring a bill, then it goes to the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and then it goes to the cabinet, which will decide on it. This has been our practice.

I personally feel that having committees will be good for the speaker because then all those heated arguments can be done at the committee stage. Only the final decision will be made in the House.

But we must be practical. Having committees means that MPs must be here to attend meetings the whole year round.  Not all MPs may be able to attend, and if you don’t have a quorum, you can’t do anything. Even the House Committee that I chair has trouble finding a quorum.

How will we implement the committee system year round when our political culture is for MPs to turun padang, attend ceramah, kenduri kahwin? If you want to do this, you have to forgo the turun padang culture. And yet, we still have constituents who complain that they never see their wakil rakyat.

Would the executive be reluctant to have a committee system for bills because it might mean they can’t push laws through as quickly as they’d like?

I don’t see why the executive shouldn’t be keen. It will be easier for their ministers because the pressure is then on the civil service officers. But it also comes back to the issue of trust between the government and opposition, and our political culture of turun padang.

See also Part 1: In the Speaker’s chair: The challenge of impartiality

Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia wrote the forward to The Nut Graph’s new book Understanding the Dewan Rakyat. He also launched the book on 23 March 2011 in a ceremony in Parliament. The book is available in major bookstores from April 2011 on a limited print run and retails for RM95 per copy.

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