By Maria Chin Abdullah, BERSIH 2.0 chairperson
In 2011, Malaysians were promised by the Najib Abdul Razak administration that there will be “functional and inclusive democracy”, which he solemnly declared in his Malaysia Day message.
However, making the Parliament function and inclusive is an uphill task and only rarely exciting. One such rare instance was the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code in 2004, where parliamentarians went round the country soliciting views and debating with the public.
The other time was by the Select Committee on National Unity and National Service. Since 2004, we have not experienced any such consultations.
There are many issues of concern surrounding the Parliament and not surprisingly, people have lost faith in the process of law and policy making.
In a study carried out by Ngeow Yeok Meng, et al on ‘Politeness and Ethnic Sensitivities in the Malaysian Parliament’ (2008), she found that out of 222 MPs, 5 percent or 10 MPs were found to be involved in using negative remarks to attack others or to defend themselves, with name-calling using animals such as pigs and snakes or adjectives like “biadap” (rude) and so forth. Not to mention unchecked sexist remarks by parliamentarians such as Bung Moktar Radin.
The larger assault to parliamentary democracy other than name-calling is of course the deliberate acts to silence debates, making one wonders what is still left of democracy in the Parliament.
Recently, N Surendran (Padang Serai) and Fuziah Saleh (Kuantan) were slapped with six-month and one day suspensions respectively for simply questioning the speaker’s decision. Their suspension was not given sufficient time for Parliament to debate but rushed through by the speaker.
In 2011, the passing of the Peaceful Assembly Act was completed within seven days of its introduction. The opposition MPs walked out in protest at the limited time allowance for debate on the amendments to the bill.
We also have a situation where, within one day, eight bills were rushed through on April 19, 2011, including crucial bills like the Election Offences (Amendment) Bill 2012, Universities and University Colleges (Amendment) Bill 2012, and Printing Presses and Publications (Amendment) (PPPA) Bill 2012.
As a result of bad law-making, students and academicians are now taken to task, suspended or persuaded to even take early retirement for expressing views deemed to be anti-government. Also, the PPPA still hovers over media companies’ existence with avenues remain closed for constructive amendments.
All these are but symptoms of an executive-controlled Parliament, with powerful and unelected (i.e., unpunishable by voters) speaker, partisan and arbitrary agenda setting, last-minute tabling of bills, inadequate debate time, unanswered or poorly answered parliamentary questions, no room for non-governmental business, insufficient resource support for MPs, and last but not least, lack of public consultation, access and participation in legislative processes.
Now, what “functional and inclusive democracy”, if we do not even have a functional and inclusive parliament? And, if the August House is but a rubber-stamp of the executive?
Urgent need for reform and public confidence-building
Parliamentary reforms need to happen to restore public confidence. It will restore effective legislative function, give MPs a more meaningful space to debate and counter-propose in the formation of laws and public policies, allow for public feedbacks as well as to ensure we truly have a working, “functional and inclusive” parliament.
Bersih 2.0 and like-minded civil society groups \are now working on a comprehensive agenda on parliamentary reform. We would like to invite all concerned members of the public to share with us their knowledge and insights. Here are some of the issues we are looking into.
1. Reform of speaker’s power
The speaker and deputy speakers now enjoy unchecked power and their partial decisions confirm their representation of the interests of only one coalition, and not the entire Parliament. To make matters worse, the speaker is not even an elected parliamentarian so much so he can never be punished by voters!
Hence, it is timely to review the Standing Order that govern the day-to-day running and rules of debates in Parliament, the discipline and code of conduct of MPs, and public businesses.
2. Non-governmental business
In place of the speaker and his deputies’ unquestionable discretion, there must be a bi-party or multiparty mechanism to set the agenda of the House. The parliamentary session now is exclusively occupied by governmental business such as bills tabled by ministers, leaving no room for non-governmental businesses.
Reforms must take place for government backbenchers and opposition parliamentarians must be able to push their agenda. These include (a) greater priority to private members’ bills to ensure they are debated; (b) “voting by division” on every bill and conscience voting so that MPs can take individual positions and not be held back by party whips; (c) recognition and access to ministerial information for shadow cabinet; and (d) “opposition week” for the opposition to raise issues.
3. Ample time for questioning and debates
Time allocation must be reasonable that it is not used as a convenient excuse to bury the opposition or backbench questions. To begin with, question time should be extended to ensure a maximum number of questions – especially the difficult ones – get to be answered orally. There should also be Prime Minister’s Question (PMQ) Time so that the prime minister can be scrunitised and grilled by opposition MPs and government backbenchers.
For tabling of bills, MPs must be given ample time to study the bills and prepare for the debates by way of stakeholder consultation amongst others. Only then, parliamentarians can play the role of lawmakers to propose amendments when necessary and not just be reduced to the rubber-stamp of the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), which is now the de facto lawmaking body.
This would mean more days that the Parliament should convened in a year. In 2012, the Dewan Rakyat met for 68 days or precisely 560 hours 58 minutes. Divided by 222 MPs, on an average an MP had only 2 hours 31 minutes 37 seconds to speak and be heard of the entire year in 2012.
This also comes back to the size of the Parliament. The more MPs, then the less time each of them can speak, and they are more inclined to go for their 15 minutes of fame rather than deliberating on laws and policies substantially.
4. Parliamentary committees
Modern Parliaments set up standing and select committees to facilitate division of labour amongst MPs. This is however under-utilised in the Malaysian Parliament, and most members of the public have probably only heard of one standing committee, the Public Accounts Committee.
With members from across parties, standing committees can be set up to monitor ministerial business or to formulate specific laws or policies. One important advantage of such committees is that they facilitate public access and participation in the legislative and policy-formulation process through mechanisms like hearings, making the political system more consultative.
5. Research support for MPs
MPs are usually left to their device to carry out their own law and policy researches with little or no support in terms of staff and availability of data or information. A handful of Parliament staff are allocated and shared by 222 parliamentarians and this limits building substantive debates that could happen. Budgets need to be set aside to build capacity and support from resource staff.
Parliamentary reform hand-in-hand with electoral reform
At the end of the day, what we really need is an institutional reform of Parliament so as to rebuild it to represent the democracy that we want. The problem will not get fixed even if we see a change of government.
This requires political will, not just from the political parties, but also from the public. Parliamentary reform must be seen as an inseparable extension to electoral reform.
Really, what is the point of fighting for free and fair elections if that would only deliver us dysfunctional parliament and legislatures?
This article was originally published by Malaysiakini in the Column section on 23 July 2014.