The Art of Neutering the Malaysian Parliament
Malaysia inherited the Westminster parliamentary system in 1957. But since then the country’s law-making body has been steadily undermined. The innovation exercised in this process is worth studying by any wannabe dictator.
“MPs in Malaysia are often busy performing KBSM duties.”
I am fond of repeating this phrase whenever asked to speak on the roles and responsibilities of Malaysian parliamentarians. Typically, my statement would elicit blank stares, although occasionally someone would ask me if by KBSM I meant “Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah,” in reference to the national integrated school curriculum popularised in the 1980s by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“Not quite,” I would reply. “KBSM stands for kahwin, bersalin, sakit, mati. Basically, as MPs, we are expected to show up at weddings, full moon ceremonies, visit sick patients at the hospital and attend funerals.”
Although my comments are intended to be tongue-in-cheek, it is also not far from the truth. As members of parliament, our core functions should be policy-oriented and legislative in nature. We should be involved in the drafting, amending and debating of laws, performing watchdog tasks on the government and spearheading discourse on national concerns. However, for most of us, much of our time and resources are spent handling constituency complaints, inspecting clogged drains and partaking in any number of KBSM activities.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong in attending to the everyday needs of the people. My office, for one, practices a “no wrong door” policy, and we try to assist as much as we can in any and every issue where possible. Yet, there is also a perverseness in how the responsibilities of members of parliament have been reduced to little more than those of a public complaints bureau.
A Rubber-stamp Institution
The seemingly trivial role played by federal legislators should come as no surprise. Despite its position as one of the three main constitutional bodies wherein lies the legislative authority of the Federation, Parliament as an institution has today been reduced to a bit player whose function is merely perfunctory in nature.
As any standard textbook would reveal, the main responsibilities of Parliament are to enact and amend laws, control government expenditure through money bills such as the annual Supply Bill (known colloquially
as the Budget), monitor the administration of the government, as well as debate policy issues and matters of national interest.
Unfortunately, every single one of these roles has been impaired. Take, for example, the fact that bills are often tabled without adequate time for preparation and debate, sometimes with less than 24 hours’ notice – what a parliamentary colleague of mine calls “legislation by ambush.”
One blatant instance of such a “surprise attack” was the passing of the controversial National Security Council Bill 2015 (NSC).
The NSC bill, now in force as a gazetted law, was a piece of legislation that effectively confers full discretion to the prime minister in declaring “security areas” for up to six months, renewable indefinitely. Within these security areas, which can be as small or as large as the prime minister so determines, enforcement agencies can stop and search, arrest without warrant, enter and search premises and take possession of property.
In other words, it effectively allows the prime minister to proclaim what for all intents and purposes is an emergency situation, without the approval of the Agong as required under Article 150 of the Federal Constitution.
The controversial law was tabled for first reading on the second last day of the 2015 parliamentary calendar, and was put forward for debate and vote the very next day, among seven other bills that needed to be passed. After hours of exasperating debate, the NSC bill was passed at 4am. Similarly, the Prevention of Terrorism Bill 2015, a draconian law that allows for preventive detention without judicial review, was also hurriedly passed earlier the same year after its introduction just a week before it was debated and voted upon.
The same hastiness is adopted even for supply bills. In mature parliaments (and even in many relatively younger ones), budget allocations for each ministry would be extensively debated and combed through within their related select committees, members of which would be familiar with the portfolio.
Unfortunately, because the Malaysian Parliament does not have active select committees besides the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which by itself is also anomalously chaired by a member from the ruling party rather than from the opposition, each ministry’s budget would be debated by a “committee”
As any standard textbook would reveal, the main responsibilities of Parliament are to enact and amend laws, control government expenditure through money bills such as the annual Supply Bill (known colloquially as the Budget), monitor the administration of the government, as well as debate policy issues and matters of national interest.
And as if inadequate debating time was not enough, members of parliament are also not empowered to perform their duties. Most parliamentarians around the world are provided with assistants, but in Malaysia, we are not even given any office space, either at Parliament or in the constituency, much less any staff. In fact, there are currently only eight researchers employed by Parliament to service 222 members of parliament. Not being able to rely on access to them, MPs end up not using them at all and must rely on their own resources. In the end, much of our own resources are spent in maintaining offices and staff, while whatever time we have left is spent undertaking research on policies and legislation, thereby significantly reducing our efficiency.
How is Parliament then to debate issues of national concern, when the House rarely sits? Last year, for example, there was a break of about four months from June to October, during which explosive revelations about the 1MDB scandal occurred, in addition to the Bersih 4.0 rally and the Red Shirt counterrally. These important events could only be debated months later when Parliament resumed.
As icing on the proverbial cake, Parliament has also had much of its symbolic status and powers reduced over the last few decades. For example, parliamentary privilege, a shield that absolves members of parliament from legal challenge on statements made in the course of parliamentary proceedings, was undermined in 1971 when offences under the colonial-era Sedition Act 1948 were exempted. Today, parliamentarians are effectively muzzled, lest they be subjected to a law that is often abused as a tool for political persecution.
In addition, Parliament also lost its symbolic and bureaucratic independence when the Parliamentary Services Act 1963 was repealed in 1992. Prior to that, Parliament managed its own affairs in staffing, spending and maintenance. However, the effect of the law’s abolishment meant that the federal legislature is now just one of the more than 60 departments and agencies within the super-ministry called the Prime Minister’s Department. There is perhaps no clearer symbolic proof of Parliament’s subordination to the executive.
That Parliament requires reform is undeniable, even by government backbenchers. In the last few years, bipartisan efforts to introduce reforms have taken place, with the House Committee finally agreeing to introduce four, namely the creation of a special chamber, a “ministers’ question time,” the shortening of the notice period for submission of questions and, most significantly, the establishment of nine select committees to monitor ministerial portfolios.
Reforms are long overdue in the Malaysian Parliament. The few enhancements made this year are a step in the right direction, but greater political will is needed for real change to take effect.
Many of us looked forward to the reforms, especially the creation of a select committee system. Besides enabling members to specialise in specific portfolios, bipartisan committees would also make the legislative drafting process more inclusive and meaningful.
The recommendations were then forwarded to the Cabinet for approval, which by itself is baffling considering that the executive and the legislative are supposed to be equals and independent of each other. Finally, Cabinet agreed to three out of the four proposals, rejecting the most important one of all – select committees.
Additionally, the government should also consider establishing the institution of the Shadow Cabinet. An official opposition spokesperson on each ministerial portfolio would not only greatly enhance the quality of debates in the House, it would also create more coherent discourse as there would be less noise and confusion on the official stand of the opposition on various matters.
That said, the Shadow Cabinet cannot only exist in name, but must be accorded the corresponding status and privileges that befit the position. Shadow ministers should be given priority in debates and questions, as well as access to resources in the form of information and additional research assistants in order to better assist them in their role of holding the government to account.
Other low-hanging fruits that can be immediately plucked include allowing an opposition member to chair the PAC and providing institutional support in the form of human resources and office facilities. Ideally, the Parliamentary Services Act should also be reinstituted, even if only to send a symbolic message.
Another bone of contention in the Malaysian Parliament is the fact that constituency development funds are not channelled to the opposition, while government members of parliament are allocated up to RM5mil a year. Such biased distribution of development funds unfairly disadvantages the opposition and further perpetuates the rentier culture that is prevalent in our society.
And if such allocations are provided at all, they should be available to all rather than a select group of politicians. In opposition controlled Penang and Selangor, the state governments have offered constituency development funds to opposition state assemblymen, while Selangor has gone further to offer the chair of the state’s PAC to the opposition. None of these offers have been accepted!
Reforms are long overdue in the Malaysian Parliament. The few enhancements made this year are a step in the right direction, but greater political will is needed for real change to take effect. And until and unless Parliament is restored to its rightful status as an independent and functioning platform that provides meaningful legislative participation, effective checks and balances on the government, and where critical national issues can be debated in the present tense, Malaysian legislators will continue to be seen as KBSM MPs.