THE Nut Graph is well into the process of contacting Members of Parliament (MPs) and getting them to respond to MP Watch: Eye on Parliament. We dare say it’s the first project of its kind in Malaysia, to get all 222 MPs to state their stand on specific democratic issues. The project is expected to run until July 2010.
The six questions posed to all MPs are essentially questions of principle. These are issues that have frequently been featured in the media, quoting political party leaders and even some MPs themselves. Every political party more or less has a stand.
So it’s hard to fathom why, in this day and age of internet accessibility and portability, some MPs seemed unable to whip up even one-paragraph answers to each question within their respective two-week deadlines.
Sure, MPs are busy people, and several are cabinet ministers as well. The last thing they need is the additional task of replying to a list of issues that are not newsworthy.
Then again, federal ministers like Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat, Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, Datuk Razali Ibrahim and Datuk Liew Vui Keong, and state government leaders like Tan Sri Abd Khalid Ibrahim and Prof Dr P Ramasamy found the time. Behind these busy MPs who replied are efficient aides who recognised the public relations impact MP Watch could have on their bosses.
Indeed, our team is learning more than we expected to know about where MPs stand on issues. We’re learning about the pressure of toeing party lines, the level of efficiency in their offices, their accessibility, and how internet-savvy they are. Most of all, we are learning about how much they or their aides understand public accountability.
Strange, stranger, strangest
Every MP or his or her aide is first informed of MP Watch through a personal phone call from The Nut Graph. This includes explaining that not meeting their respective two-week deadlines to reply will result in a “no reply” being published on the website. However, responses submitted late will still be published. The reason for publishing non-responses is simply for public accountability, and to show that all MPs are treated the same, regardless which side of the political divide they are from.
After this phone call is made, the MPs are sent a letter with the six questions via e-mail or fax. Throughout the two-week period, reminders are sent either directly to the MPs’ personal mobile phones or through their aides.
For many of the non-responses published so far, these reminder messages and calls usually went unanswered.
Some MPs clearly had no interest in replying, even if they didn’t say so. A Johor MP throughout the two-week period said he had received the e-mail, but hadn’t opened it to look at the questions. On the day after his deadline expired, he said he still hadn’t opened the e-mail. Others said they were just too busy.
Some MPs see this in their inbox and ignore it
In some cases, MPs were upfront about not wanting to participate. An East Malaysian MP declined on the grounds that it was “difficult to do so” because he was also a cabinet minister. Through an aide, he said his own position on some of the issues might put him at odds with the federal government.
A Perak MP, formerly a cabinet minister, said she couldn’t “do justice” to the questions and therefore wouldn’t be replying.
The most bizarre rejection came from an Umno MP from Malacca. While attempting to explain the project to him, he had already decided it wasn’t worth his time. He refused to have the six questions read out to him over the phone, saying he didn’t want to know them since he was not planning to answer anything. He didn’t want to be told that other Barisan Nasional MPs had begun participating, saying, “I’m not like other MPs.” He was suspicious of the project’s support by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and said he would have to check up on it.
But the real clincher was: “I already have a following, I don’t need to do this.”
Jaguh kampung vs federal lawmaker
Maybe the reality is as one aide of another Umno MP said to me: “Biasalah, kadang-kadang kita hanya tolong yang kita kenal.”
Don’t we know it. It’s why someone who knew the director-general of such-and-such government department got his or her tender approved, but someone else didn’t.
Would more MPs be replying if MP Watch were run by one of the politically-linked traditional media outlets, and not some relatively new and independent news site like The Nut Graph? According to such logic, an MP needs only to be accessible and accountable to his or her immediate constituency, but not to other Malaysians, despite being elected as a federal lawmaker.
So it is to the credit of other Umno MPs, such as Padang Besar’s Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid, who replied despite having misgivings about the project.
Because apart from the MPs’ views on the issues posed to them, the value of MP Watch is to gauge how well accountability and transparency are understood. An MP may be a “jaguh kampung” to his or her own constituents, doling out aid and unclogging drains, but other Malaysians want to know what to expect out of their legislators. Surely, with Malaysia hoping to be a world-class nation, MPs cannot just be village champions.
An MP must do more than unclog drains (Stock pic by Editor_B @ Flickr)
Some do get it
On the other end of the spectrum were some MPs who were more enthusiastic about MP Watch than we ever imagined.
An aide to Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin pestered us for the questions to be formally sent to him.
MCA’s president Ong wrote out his answers on his hospital bed while recovering from heel surgery, one of his aides said.
Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar e-mailed out of the blue apologising for missing the two-week deadline when we had not yet even contacted her. It turned out that Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s parliamentary research unit had alerted all the party’s MPs about the project. For the record, The Nut Graph is only dealing directly with MPs and not through their political parties.
After all the politicking since the Barisan Nasional was denied its two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2008, we feel MP Watch is one way voters can cut through the nonsense and discover what their legislators really stand for.
Ultimately, the ideal is for MP Watch to become like Germany’s Abgeordnetenwatch.de, a website that connects citizens and elected representatives in two-way dialogue. Any German can ask any MP a question and track the legislator’s performance. It faced initial resistance, but is now an almost indispensible political communication tool for MPs there.
For that to happen in Malaysia is still a long way off. But by starting small with MP Watch, we hope we can get there.
Deborah Loh knows replying to MP Watch isn’t the ultimate measure of an MP’s performance, but is grateful to every MP who nevertheless found the time to reply.
Read previous Sideways columns