An Insider’s Account of Malaysia’s Parliament 2018-2020

By Fauwaz Abdul Aziz

main image

BOOK REVIEW: Parliament, Unexpected: Recollections of Parliament, Politics, and Pandemic in Malaysia (Matahari Books)

PARLIAMENT, UNEXPECTED: Recollections of Parliament, Politics, and Pandemic in Malaysia is the whirlwind ride experienced by Tan Sri Ariff Yusof from the time he was appointed Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat of the Parliament of Malaysia on July 16, 2018 by Pakatan Harapan up until he was replaced by the government of Muhyiddin Yassin on July 13, 2020.

One of the latest titles published this year by Matahari Books, this book consists of four parts, divided into 19 chapters of varying lengths.

Part One marks out the main contours of Ariff’s life and career: He lectured for 11 years at Universiti Malaya on constitutional law, founded the (now-defunct) Parti Nasionalis Malaysia (NASMA), and ran (unsuccessfully, but performed respectably) under PAS for the Kota Damansara, Selangor, state seat in 2004. At some point, he left PAS and joined Parti Amanah Negara. After founding his own legal practice, Ariff went into public service as Judicial Commissioner and High Court judge, before retiring in 2015 as a Court of Appeal judge. It was while spending his retirement years as a legal consultant to his partners in Messrs Cheang & Arif that Ariff was called on by Pakatan (following their May 9, 2018 electoral victory) to serve as Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat.

In Part Two, Ariff introduces the reader to the men and women – in and outside Parliament – with whom he worked during his stint. He then discusses the sources of the rules and principles that (theoretically) govern the federal legislative assembly, such as the constitutional provisions on the powers and functions of Parliament and its officers vis-à-vis the Executive, the Houses of Parliament Act 1952, and the Standing Orders. He subsequently proceeds to some of the rules and principles that structure the procedures, processes and “order of business” of the Dewan Rakyat: From the recitation of prayers that begin the day’s proceedings to the reading of the Titah Diraja and other messages from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, on to Minister’s Question Time, Question to Ministers, Motions, presentation of Government Bills, public business, and so on.

Notwithstanding the formal rules and regulations, Ariff makes clear that other non-written norms, values, practices, and dynamics make up a distinct “political culture” among the Yang Berhormats. It is this political culture that determine what rules and regulations are followed or ignored. Thus, “points of order” are often raised by MPs interjecting in speeches of ministers and their fellow MPs to introduce disorder, rather than order, to the proceedings. (In a later chapter, Ariff laments the sad depths to which the Yang Berhormat have come to display. Depending on where they stand, opposing MPs can be called “communist”, “Taliban”, “racialist”, “extremist”, “perompak”, “pencuri”, “pembohong”, “penipu”, phrases such as “kepala bapak kamu”, “abu Chin Peng”, “kurang ajar”, “biadab”, “and other unmentionables”. Ariff said he once caught the word “p******” being thrown into the Dewan. Ariff admits having to apologise to visitors to the “august” House, who ranged from local school children to foreign dignitaries, for the undignified conduct of the parliamentarians.

In Part Three, Ariff’s vision and passion for political and institutional change emerges more fully into the open. He writes about his efforts at parliamentary reform and to restore “the dignity and constitutional position of Parliament” given its decline over the past few decades into the putative “rubber stamp” of the Executive. Over five chapters, Ariff discusses the efforts of his Office to improve the system of parliamentary committees to make them more engaged with matters of public policy and public concern. The system also aimed at balancing the works being carried out in the plenary sessions of the Dewan Rakyat – occupied usually with general, political and policy issues – and so channel energies to the details and technicalities of legislation, their implementation, and consequences.

The effectiveness and efficiency of Question Time was also a matter for Ariff’s attention and that of his staff. Merakyatkan Parlimen was a programme of events aimed at opening Parliament to the people. Among his proud achievements is the publication of Law, Principles and Practice in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) of Malaysia to provide a comprehensive and detailed work of reference that was nevertheless accessible to the general reader to explain parliamentary procedure in the country. These five areas or activities targeted for reform, except for the successful publication of Law, Principles and Practice, were prematurely ended with the political storm that engulfed and, ultimately, led to the toppling of the Pakatan Harapan government.

In the fourth and final part, “The Political Storm”, Ariff writes of the discernable increase in communal politics and discourse in the Dewan, especially over the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), coupled with the growing tensions in Pakatan over the question of whether, and when, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad would hand over the reins to Anwar Ibrahim. These two developments set the stage for the Sheraton Move, the end of the Pakatan government and Ariff’s term as Speaker.   

While the implications of the Sheraton Move to Ariff’s position were wholly predictable, Ariff’s role as Speaker in the immediate aftermath of the Sheraton Move was a surprise to most people. To cut the story short, Bersatu’s departure from Pakatan led to Mahathir’s resignation and Perikatan Nasional’s partnership with UMNO to form the government. The critical question then was: Who commanded the confidence of the majority in Parliament to be the next Prime Minister?

While the Agong was in the midst of interviewing the leaders of the parties and individual MPs to determine that question, Mahathir wrote officially as interim prime minister to Ariff to request the Speaker to convene a special sitting on March 2, 2020 under Standing Order 11(3) “to decide on a matter of national interest”. Mahathir also requested that the meeting of the Dewan scheduled to be held on March 9 be adjourned to another date yet to be fixed.

While it was obvious that the “matter of national interest” was Mahathir’s plan to show who he believed had the support of the majority of the Dewan Rakyat, it was to many people’s surprise that Ariff declined Mahathir’s request. His detailed arguments for the decision centre on two grounds. Firstly, the interim prime minister’s request did not fulfill the requirement of Standing Order 11(3) for the specific articulation of the “business set down for the day”. There was no proposed motion to be deliberated, said Ariff, and to his mind, “‘a matter of national interest” was just too vague’”. The other ground for Ariff’s rejection of Mahathir’s request was his concern that acceding to the request would pre-empt, or even violate, the constitutional function and prerogative of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to decide on the appointment of the Prime Minister and, thereby, precipitate a constitutional crisis.

In the remaining chapters, Ariff narrates the developments following the fall of the Pakatan government, the rise of Muhyiddin Yassin’s government (and subsequently, Ismail Sabri and UMNO), the efforts of Parliament to attempt some semblance of continuity amid the disruptions caused by the Coronavirus-19 pandemic, and the state of national emergency declared lasting from January to August of 2021.

NOTE: Parliament, Unexpected: In Conversation with Ariff Yusof, a seminar-cum-book launch is to be held at Penang Institute on May 14, 2022. Register for the event here.

Fauwaz Abdul Aziz

is a Projects Researcher at Penang Institute, and is currently completing his PhD dissertation in anthropology at the Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) Erlangen–Nürnberg in Bayern, Germany.