Parliamentary reform and modernization – a great disappointment one year later
- on the Royal Address
by Lim Kit Siang
(Dewan Rakyat, Wednesday): I had warned during the debate on the Royal Address last May that the unprecedented 91% parliamentary majority, which resulted from the Abdullah tsunami effect in the March 2004 general election generated by a “feel good” euphoria from the pledge of a clean, efficient and trustworthy governance and facilitated by the conduct of the most unfair, chaotic and disgraceful general election in the nation’s 46-year history, is “a time-bomb to democracy and good governance in Malaysia”. I reminded the House of the truism of the maxim by British historian, Lord Acton – “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
With nine per cent parliamentary representation, there was no way that the Opposition could provide any real or effective check to such overbearing power which could go wrong, “very quickly, dangerously, catastrophically and on a mega-scale, when it is corrupted into unbridled arrogance of power”.
“The only saving grace is the full realization by the Prime Minister and the Barisan Nasional leaders of their great responsibility to fulfill their election pledge of a clean, incorruptible, efficient, trustworthy, people-oriented government prepared to hear the truth from the people and its slogan of ‘Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang’; their full consciousness that their unprecedented nine-tenth parliamentary majority carries the great historic responsibility to restore the independence, professionalism and integrity of the major institutions and organs of the state which had been seriously compromised in the past two decades including Parliament, the judiciary and the civil service; and their full commitment to restore democracy and good governance in Malaysia.
“Parliamentary reform and modernization is the first critical test whether there is the political will to put into action the injunction of the Yang di Pertuan Agong in his Royal Address and for Malaysia to become a first-world nation, not only in infrastructure, but in mentality, mindset and culture starting with a First World Parliament.”
When the 11th Parliament opened last May, there were high hopes that it could go down in Malaysian history as the Reform Parliament to become a First-World Parliament, for three reasons:
Firstly, the reality that parliamentary reform and modernization can only succeed with government support, and Abdullah had been very open-minded and supportive when I met up with him before the official opening of Parliament last year to discuss an agenda of wide-ranging proposals for parliamentary reform and modernization. He seemed to agree that an active and effective Parliament which would meaningfully call the government to account does not weaken but strengthen good governance.
Secondly, effective and meaningful parliamentary reform requires a confident government, which the Abdullah administration should have in abundance with its control of 91 per cent parliamentary majority which is completely unprecedented in Malaysian history.
Thirdly, parliamentary reform and modernization is in fact the easiest to accomplish in a wide-ranging reform programme of government institutions to restore their independence and enhance their effectiveness.
This makes the comparative lack of progress in parliamentary reform and modernization in the first year of the 11th Parliament a great disappointment – betraying no sense of urgency or understanding of both its urgency and need.
There had been some positive changes, but they are too few and limited like the establishment of Parliamentary Select Committees on the Criminal Procedure Code and Penal Code Amendment Bills and on National Unity. There was also the appointment of an Opposition MP as Deputy Chairman of Public Accounts Committee when the Commonwealth parliamentary tradition and convention of an Opposition MP to head the PAC should have been followed.
But there were also “blots” in the first-year of the 11th Parliament, such as:
There is another parliamentary “blot” in-the-making. Last Friday, the Minister for Energy, Water and Communications Datuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik was reported by Sin Chew Daily as making a surprise disclosure of Cabinet reversal of its January decision to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee on water federalization and privatization and the two water bills of National Water Services Commission (SPAN) and the water services industry.
He said the Cabinet has agreed not to have a Parliamentary Select Committee on the two water bills as it would involve a tedious process which will be very timestaking of at least one year.
This was in direct contradiction of his promise in this House during the debate on the Constitution Amendment Bill 2004 on water federalization and privatization in the special parliamentary sitting in January to raise the issue in Cabinet for approval, and the subsequent announcement by Nazri that the Cabinet had approved the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee on the two water bills after presentation of their first reading at the current meeting.
According to Nazri, the Parliamentary Select Committee would be headed by Keng Yaik and will comprise six other MPs, with two members from the Opposition, one each from DAP and PAS. It would have three to six months with which to gather public feedback and present its report to Parliament, so that the two water bills could be passed by the end of the year.
Apart from being a setback to a programme of wide-ranging parliamentary reforms to make the Malaysian Parliament a “First-World Parliament”, where MPs regardless of political party play a meaningful role in the decision-making process for laws and policies, the sudden reversal of the Cabinet decision to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee on water federalization and privatization appears to be another example of the government buckling under the pressure of
vested interests of water companies which put their corporate interests above the public interests and are not prepared for any further delay in the exploitation of water as “blue gold” for profit.
As a result, what should be an exciting first year of a Reform Parliament has very little to show whether in terms of results or reform activities.
The failure of the two Standing Committees, the Standing Orders Committee and the House Committee, to meet at all in the first year of the llth Parliament is quite inexcusable, making nonsense of parliamentary reform and modernization of practices and procedures as top priority in the current agenda to make Parliament a more effective and efficient legislature to hold the government to account and to ensure that the voice of the voters is heard by the government between elections.
Let us do quick rundown of the checklist of some of the proposals of parliamentary reform and modernization for Malaysia to have a “First World Parliament” which I had personally submitted to the Prime Minister, viz:
A year has passed but none of these proposals have been given serious consideration. The most ridiculous Standing Orders, which had been amended over the years not to empower MPs to perform their important mandate to hold the government to scrutiny and accountability but to help civil servants avoid such parliamentary oversight, are still the order the day.
For instance, Standing Order 22(2) requires at least 14 working days’ notice to be given for parliamentary questions “before the commencement of the meeting” and not of the particular sitting, or the day on which the question is put down for answer.
The worst example was last year’s budget meeting from 1st September 2004 to 14th December 2004, with a five-week break in between from October 15 to November 21. Questions even for the last sitting of the budget meeting on 14th December 2004 had to be submitted by August 12, 2004, as was the case for all questions for the meeting, which commenced from 1st September – or notice of more than four months.
It is most ridiculous that MPs have to give more than four months’ notice for a question to be asked in Parliament, depriving such questions of all contemporaneity and topicality, and making Parliament completely irrelevant and operating like a museum institution! On this score alone, the Malaysian Parliament is entitled to get into the Guinnes Book of Records!
Why is such an outrageous Standing Order still the rule of the day if we are serious about reform and modernization of the Malaysian Parliament to become a “First World Parliament”, and why has it not been amended to reduce notice for parliamentary questions to less than ten days before the sitting it is to be asked, as is the case in “First World” Commonwealth Parliaments?
We must also ask why in the first quarter century of Malaysian Parliament until the early 1980s, only two hours’ notice was required to enable an MP to raise a motion of urgent, definite public importance in the House to highlight emergency developments and events under Standing Order 18, but which now requires 24 hours’ notice and which is stretched to 72 – 96 hours’ notice if there is a coincidence of weekends and holidays following one another?
This is contrary to government profession about its ICT agenda and e-government as one of the seven flagship applications of the Multimedia Super Corridor, as it seems to have no idea of the 24/7 concept of uninterrupted information flow 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year in the ICT world, when it is demanding an ever longer time to respond to parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.
The Chairman of the Barisan Backbenchers’ Club, Datuk Shahrir Samad, had called for the restoration of the former independence of the Parliamentary administration particularly on finance so that it does not become just a government department, which will enable MPs’ meeting and travelling claims to be processed and paid without undue delay.
I fully support Parliament administration becoming once more autonomous from any government Ministry, for there can be no separation of powers with Parliament independent from the Executive if the Parliamentary administration does not enjoy autonomy in the disbursement of the annual parliamentary budget.
This is however only one part, and not the most important, of wide-ranging parliamentary reform and modernization that must be undertaken urgently, and MPs run the risk of being regarded by the Malaysian people as being more concerned about their own welfare and interests than ensuring the emergence of an efficient, effective and vibrant Parliament to exercise meaningful oversight of the government, if they are seen as only interested about the more speedy processing and payment of their meeting and travelling allowances to the exclusion of weightier parliamentary matters.
As one year has been wasted, MPs must demonstrate the political will to make up for the lost time to grasp the window of opportunity for parliamentary reform and modernization - either through the moribund Standing Orders Committee or better still, having a Parliamentary Select Committee on wide-ranging parliamentary reform and modernization with a two-point terms of reference:
May be, the Prime Minister should seriously consider appointing the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department responsible for parliamentary affairs as the Leader of the Dewan Rakyat to be specifically tasked not only for the handling of the business of the House but the government’s response to parliamentary reform and modernization.
At present, the Prime Minister is the Leader of the House in the Dewan Rakyat. This was the parliamentary tradition and practice in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom going back to the 18th century, but it has been discarded for more than half a century since the Second World War with an ordinary Cabinet Minister appointed Leader of the House of Commons with the special remit on parliamentary reform and modernisation. This is an example the Malaysian Parliament can follow with advantage in order to further the cause of parliamentary reform and modernization, as it will become one of the criteria to judge the success and effectiveness of the Leader of the House.
* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman