Creating A World Class Parliament

Much mention has been made in recent weeks of the desire to make the Malaysian Parliament a “world-class Parliament”. What would this entail? We focus on 3 recommendations.

Firstly, backbenchers should be given an increased role through the setting up of Parliamentary committees to oversee the work of the government of the day. At present, the Standing Orders of the Dewan Rakyat provide for 5 committees, all known as Select Committees. There is a Committee of Selection, a Public Accounts Committee, a Standing Orders Committee, a House Committee and a Committee of Privileges.

The Standing Orders do provide for the establishment of what are termed Special Select Committees, to be appointed by order of the Dewan Rakyat. These are the select committees with which we are familiar. In the previous Parliament we had several select committees, namely on Unity and National Integration, on Integrity, and to review proposed amendments to the Penal Code. Such select committees have restricted terms of reference and a limited time frame. They tend to focus on particular issues that arise in the public life from time to time, with a view to gathering information and making recommendations on the particular subject-matter for which they were formed. They do not, by their nature, act as an on-going check and balance to the workings of Government.

All but 1 of these 5 committees focus on internal matters pertaining to the Dewan Rakyat. The Public Accounts Committee, is specifically tasked with a public duty, namely to review the functions of the entire Executive branch of Government, with a focus primarily on the utilisation of public monies. As Parliamentary time is limited, the Public Accounts Committee is only able to review a handful of matters at any one session of Parliament. Partly because it is the only permanent committee of the Dewan Rakyat tasked with a public function, there is unnecessarily an over-attention paid to its functions and the matters brought before it. This tends towards over-sensationalisation, and therefore what has been brought before it has always been viewed as politically sensitive. Further evidence of this over-sensitivity can be seen in the fact that the Government is not inclined to allow the Leader of the Opposition to be its Chairman, as is the practice in mature Parliamentary democracies.

What is needed are permanent committees of the Dewan Rakyat to oversee each ministry of Government. Such permanent committees would act as permanent scrutinisers of the work of Government, providing the needed check and balance of the Legislative branch over the function of the Executive branch. This is done in the Parliaments of Australia, New Zealand and the U.K., as well as in the U.S. Congress. We have all seen, for example, members of the U.S. Cabinet and even the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank testify before Congress. Ideally there should be one permanent committee for each ministry of Government (unless 2 or more areas can sensibly be incorporated within the purview of a single permanent committee). Standing Order 83 already empowers a Select Committee “to send for persons, documents or papers, and shall have leave to report its opinion and observations, together with the minutes of evidence taken before it, to the House”. Thus such a permanent committee would be entitled to call for hearings and/or otherwise investigate matters falling within the ambit of the ministry it is to oversee. It would be the permanent committee’s responsibility to vet proposed legislation and amendments, to hold public sessions where interested parties can give testimony on matters of public policy, and to have ministers appear to answer questions and to provide explanations. It would be in a position to receive oral and written submissions. Witnesses could be summoned to appear and to testify before such permanent committees on pain of being found in contempt of Parliament. Potential whistleblowers could be granted immunity from legal action. Such hearings would normally be open to members of the public.

In a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, the Executive branch of Government has wide-ranging powers. However this is not to say that the Legislative branch acts as a mere rubber stamp. Parliament must have and exercise a supervisory function. However this role has not been allowed to develop in a significant way. To his credit, soon after Parliament was convened following the 11th General Elections in 2004, the Prime Minister indicated that one of his objectives was to strengthen the Dewan Rakyat. This was ostensibly to be achieved by strengthening the role of backbenchers in the Dewan Rakyat. The establishment of permanent committees would contribute significantly to the realisation of this stated objective.

Secondly, we need to have much better and more focused scrutiny of proposed legislation. This is where having permanent committees would be extremely beneficial, instead of having a committee of the whole House, which is the current practice. Examples from other legislatures around the world show that the real work of Parliament is done through the work of Parliamentary committees. However for this to succeed, the Government would have to end its current practice of classifying Parliamentary bills as official secrets and withholding them from open distribution until first reading. Members of the public and parliamentarians alike should have the opportunity to properly study proposed legislation. This is where we need a change in Parliamentary culture. In fact, given that we are entering the era of bilateral free trade agreements which may eventually contain commitments giving our trading partners the opportunity to be informed of, review and comment on proposed changes to legislation that may affect them, we should commence this change of culture by being open to the Malaysian public first.

By strengthening the power of backbenchers (both from the Government and the Opposition) to scrutinise legislation and question ministers, senior civil servants, captains of industry and other decision-makers, we will make the Executive branch more transparent and accountable. It would make for an active and participative Legislative branch working together with the Rakyat for the betterment of our country. This can only serve to strengthen Parliament, and to deepen the practice of democracy in our Nation.

The third recommendation would be to share the leadership of Parliament. With Barisan Nasional (BN) now holding only 140 seats in the Dewan Rakyat and the Pakatan Rakyat holding 82 seats, there is a perception of a greater sense of balance in this new Parliament. Now it is the turn of the Malaysian Parliament as an institution to show its own maturity in line with the aspirations of a more demanding electorate. The overriding rationale to do so is in order to ensure that, regardless of which political party (or coalition of parties) helms the government of the day, Parliament will operate on as level a playing field as possible. As it is now not inconceivable that the BN of today may be the opposition of tomorrow, it behoves the BN to work with the PR to progress towards a stronger and more mature Parliament.

The Federal Constitution does not mention the office of the Leader of the Opposition, although the same is recognised in Standing Order 4A. This is an anomaly which should immediately be put right. It is noteworthy that some state governments have amended or are in the course of amending their respective state constitutions to do this at the state assembly level. Currently Article 57 of the Federal Constitution provides for the Dewan Rakyat to have one Speaker and 2 Deputy Speakers. To better reflect the political plurality that now exists (and possibly permanently in the future) in the country, as seen from the share of the popular vote obtained by both the BN and the PR respectively, one Deputy Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat ought to come from among the ranks of the Parliamentary opposition. Given the potential for a possible change in the majority party in the Dewan Rakyat, this practice of selecting one Deputy Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat from among the ranks of the Federal opposition would serve to entrench the concept of a shared leadership of Parliament. The Speaker and Deputy Speakers are expected to be neutral and non-partisan. Indeed, once appointed Speaker and Deputy Speakers, they must forget their party political affiliation and become impartial umpires in the Dewan Rakyat, presiding and making rulings without fear or favour. A total shut-out of one side of the country’s political representation from leadership in Parliament should be avoided at all costs. Such a practice, if continued, would be detrimental to the full and fair workings of Parliament and a denial of recognition of the will of the Rakyat. It would also be unfair to the minority party, whichever that party might be.

The statement above was penned by Raja Aziz Addruse and Andrew Khoo of the Bar Council of Malaysia

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