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Understanding the Dewan Rakyat

PETALING JAYA, 21 March 2011: How does Parliament work? How well do you know your Members of Parliament (MPs) and what they stand for? And what is the state of democracy in Malaysia?

Answers to these questions will soon be out in a new book, Understanding the Dewan Rakyat, by The Nut Graph in collaboration with the Malaysian Bar Council’s constitutional law committee through its MyConstitution campaign.

book cover

Book jacket for Understanding the Dewan Rakyat

The book will be launched by Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, this Wednesday, 23 March, in Parliament, in a closed-door function.

In conjunction with the book’s launch, a public forum will be held this Sunday, 27 March 2011, at the restaurant Leonardo’s on Jalan Bangkung, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, from 3pm to 5pm. The forum will feature three MPs who will talk about their roles and the challenges MPs face. Due to limited space, attendance is by registration via email to [email protected]. Please type “Leonardo’s forum” as the subject heading.

The book is an expansion of The Nut Graph’s MP Watch: Eye on Parliament project conducted in 2010. The purpose of the project was to profile the Dewan Rakyat’s members and to gauge the strength of our democracy. All the 222 MPs elected in the 2008 general election and subsequent by-elections were contacted and asked six questions on the Internal Security Act, the Islamic state issue, freedom of information, separation of powers, their roles as MPs, and ways to improve parliamentary democracy. Three of these questions were selected by The Nut Graph team, and three others were chosen by the website’s readers through a poll. A total of 113 MPs replied all the questions and their responses are available on The Nut Graph’s website.

Analyses

Exclusive to the book are analyses of the MPs’ responses. The analyses were written so as to understand the MPs’ replies in the wider contexts of their respective parties and in relation to other political parties.

Some highlights in the analyses are:

    The contrast in positions between Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) MPs on the Internal Security Act (ISA). PR MPs wanted full abolishment of the Act. BN MPs largely supported a review of the Act and differed in their opinions about whether the provision on indefinite detention without trial should be retained. At least one BN MP acknowledged that the ISA should not be used as a tool for political suppression.
    The lack of understanding on what the concept of freedom of information is. Many MPs appeared to confuse freedom of information with freedom of speech and press freedom.
    The “reverse” positions of PAS and Umno MPs on the issue of whether Malaysia should be an Islamic or secular state. PAS MPs were largely coy on declaring their intentions for Malaysia to be an Islamic state, while more Umno MPs were open about this goal, with several saying that Malaysia was already such. PKR MPs, meanwhile, contradicted each other when answering this question. Several also avoided answering the question directly. DAP MPs were the most consistent in stating that Malaysia is and should continue to be a secular state.
    The inability of MPs to fully conduct their roles as lawmakers, because of constituency demands, lack of support and resources from Parliament, and the dominance of the executive branch of government in drafting and pushing bills through.
    The acknowledgement of MPs that greater bi-partisanship was needed in Parliament, such as through standing and select committees, to monitor government ministries, to scrutinise bills, and to raise the overall stature of Parliament.
    The awareness of MPs that the separation of powers between the branches of government is necessary, but is not fully practised in Malaysia.

Public education

The book is aimed at voters, the media, political parties, analysts, and MPs themselves. This book is likely the first attempt ever to profile and compile the views of all sitting MPs. It is not only a reference and record of testimonials by MPs about their political positions and challenges faced, but can also be an educational tool in furthering public awareness about Parliament and the legislative process in Malaysia.

As a guidebook, it also contains chapters written by the Bar Council’s MyConstitution team, who have simplified for readers’ understanding:

    The system of governance in Malaysia and the role of Parliament;
    The electoral system;
    The roles of an MP; and,
    How MPs are funded.

Also written in a way lay readers can understand, is a chapter on the powers and functions of the Dewan Rakyat Speaker as provided for by the Standing Orders. This was written by lawyer Norshila Shahar.

A similar project has been done by a German website, called “Watching Members of Parliament”. Through this site, Germans could pose questions to their elected representatives in the national parliament, who would post their replies online. People could also find information about their representatives. The premise of the project was simply: “How do I vote for a certain person if I don’t know who they are?”

Working with The Nut Graph to take the project beyond the website and the book is the MyConstitution team, which will organise a series of public forums on the topics raised in the book in the coming months. MPs and analysts will be invited as panelists to these forums.

The Konrad-Adenauer Foundation (KAS) provided financial support for both the online project and the book. KAS is a German foundation that works to further international and inter-cultural cooperation in the areas of democracy, human rights and rule of law. It has representations worldwide and has been working in Malaysia for 30 years.

The book Understanding the Dewan Rakyat is published by ZI Publications Sdn Bhd and will be available at major book stores on a limited print run from mid-April. The book is 564 pages long and will cost RM95.

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