Time for parliamentary reform

14 Mar 2019 / 09:46 H.

WHEN May 9 happened it opened up hope and opportunities to correct a flawed governance system and bring in substantive democracy that functions in the interest of Malaysians. Parliament is one such place to start the reform agenda. Malaysia practises parliamentary democracy and is complemented with constitutional monarchy with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as the federal head of state. In any parliamentary democracy, elected members of parliament are free to speak and raise questions on policies and laws. Freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 10(1)(b), read with 10(2)(b), of the Federal Constitution.

When we propose parliamentary reforms, we must first review two draconian laws that contravene freedom of speech and expression of MPs and citizens. Under the former administration, draconian amendments were introduced in the Penal Code with new sections 124(b) to 124 (j) on “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy”. It was argued that the laws were necessary to deal with violent offences such as assassination of heads of state, coups, armed insurgency and breach of constitutional provisions.

Second, are the amendments to the Sedition Act, 1948 which were meant to deal with “the threats against peace, public order and the security of Malaysia”. In both these laws, definition of what constitutes “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and “sedition” is vague and open to abuse. Under these provisions, politicians, cartoonists and journalists were charged and arrested. It had a chilling effect on democracy and struck fear into citizens. These provisions erode and run contrary to the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression.

Among the parliamentary reforms introduced include the formation of the six parliamentary select committees (PSC), including the Consideration of Bills Committee; the Budget Committee; the Rights and Gender Equality Committee; the Major Public Appointments Committee; the Defence and Home Affairs Committee; and the Federal State Relations Committee. In addition, there are five PSCs dealing with administration, namely, the Public Accounts Committee; the Standing Orders Committee; the House Committee; the Privileges Committee; and the Selection Committee. A good start and hopefully all committees’ hearing will be open to the public unless closed-door sessions are required.

MPs must have the independence and powers to manage parliamentary affairs so that they can effectively monitor and evaluate the executive. Public consultation will help to capture citizens’ grievances.

Committees will ensure that bills are not withdrawn after their presentation to Parliament. If stakeholders disagree with aspects of legislation, these can be highlighted in the committee stages instead of in the debates in the Dewan Rakyat. Incorporating public scrutiny will make better laws and give greater sensitivity to society’s needs. With the media allowed to sit in on the hearings, they can have a full picture of the intricacies of the issues.

Presently, most ministries have to manage government agencies and government-linked companies, which depend on ministries’ funds for private businesses.

These should be made more accountable or be terminated if they are non-functional.

In the UK, there are select committees that scrutinise every ministry, the operation of government departments, examine policy issues and review legislation before they are enacted. The committees’ reports are published on the parliament website for public consumption, with the expectation that the executive will reply to the recommendations within 60 days.

In Parliament, we have question time, minister’s question time and special chambers to allow issues to be raised. Civil society has recommended a few processes to enhance vigorous debate in Parliament, such as to:

» Reform the agenda-setting in Parliament. In New Zealand, the business committee represented by all parties determines the order of business, time set for debates, speaking time and so forth, to be transacted in the house.

» Encourage the formation of a shadow cabinet. This will flow with setting up opposition leader’s business time where the opposition leader can raise questions to the prime minister.

» Have prime minister question time where the questions can be specifically raised to the prime minister on his engagements, political issues and others. A specific date can be fixed for this question time.

In some countries, space is also given for non-government business to be raised in parliament. Most of the time the house is pre-occupied with government matters which is necessary.

However, to advance greater participation from MPs, consideration can be given to allow MPs to raise or initiate private member’s bills, motions, and propose procedures to expedite and enhance the government business. This in many ways can encourage leadership and initiatives from the MPs as well as build stronger legislation, motions and processes.

Yet another parliamentary reform needed is to strengthen research support for MPs. There have been many complaints of the lack of research support from Parliament.

In Indonesia, for example, each MP has two staff – a personal assistant and a research assistant – paid for by its parliament.

In Taiwan, each MP is entitled to have eight to 14 government paid staff to help with research and constituency work.

It is important for MPs to have comprehensive research support for parliamentary work to initiate policies and legislation and in turn when backed with evidence-based and substantive arguments, we will be able to raise the bar for quality discussions and debates in Parliament.

Other priorities already in discussion include fixed two terms for the prime minister, allowing drafting of laws to be carried out by MPs, having an ombudsman for public grievances, having a minimum of 100 days of Dewan Rakyat sittings, parliamentary caucus, and restoring the Parliamentary Service Act 1963 to allow for the independence of the Parliament.

Strengthening Parliament will provide an opportunity to have quality debates that can rise above racial politics, extremism and conservative thinking which seemingly dominate the political discussions.

Parliament needs to rejuvenate functioning select committees, have more topical debates, allow for cross party debates on matters of substance to reinstate Parliament at the heart of representative democracy and allow democracy to dominate the discourse of nation building.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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