Abdullah’s first week as Prime Minister – are things changing for the better, worse or unchanged?
by Lim Kit Siang
(Petaling Jaya, Friday): What appeared to be a very trivial matter happened in Parliament on Wednesday.
The Dewan Rakyat was adjourned at 5.15 p.m, 15 minutes ahead of the daily adjournment time at 5.30 p.m., during the government winding-up of the debate on the Eighth Malaysia Plan Mid-Term Review. Although there were still 15 minutes of meeting time, and the government’s winding-up had not been completed, as the reply of the Prime Minister’s Department in the debate had still to be delivered, the House was adjourned till the next morning.
This was unprecedented in the history of Parliament, where parliamentary business have to wait for any member of the government front-benches. Backbenchers, from both the government and the opposition, as well as members of the press, were given to understand that this was to accommodate the new Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who wanted to be in Parliament to personally reply on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Department.
But on Thursday morning, Abdullah did not turn up in Parliament to wind up the Mid-Term Review debate, as it was the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Dr. Rais Yatim, who stood in for the Prime Minister.
In retrospect, it was clear that Abdullah was never scheduled to appear in Parliament to wind up the Mid-Term Review debate, and Parliament was made to adjourn 15 minutes earlier to wait not for the Prime Minister but for Rais Yatim, who did not want to inconvenience himself in having to rush to Parliament from his office in Putrajaya just for the last 15 minutes of the parliamentary meeting on Wednesday, preferring to wait until the next day when he had to be in Parliament to also pilot the Penal Code Amendment Bill after the Mid-Term Review debate.
This is a most unhealthy, undesirable and unprecedented parliamentary practice in five decades of history of Parliament.
Under the previous four Prime Ministers spanning 46 years since Merdeka in 1957, obeisance is at least paid to Parliament for its supremacy over the Cabinet and Ministers had to queue up to take their turn if they wish to take the floor of the House to reply to policy debates, whether on the Royal Address, the annual Budget, the Five-Year Development Plans or their Mid-Term Reviews.
In the first week of a new Prime Minister, Parliament seems to have started on a worse footing – having to chop and change its parliamentary schedule, and even to adjourn earlier, just to suit the convenience of a Cabinet Minister from Putrajaya!
Is this a sign of the new relationship between the Executive and Parliament? This is a shocking pisode demonstrating the further degradation of the role and place of the legislature, despite the speech by the new Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in Parliament on Monday expressing support for parliamentary democracy and respect for the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and judiciary – raising questions about the quality and meaning of such support and respect.
At the end of the first week of the fifth Prime Minister, the question people are asking is: are things changing for the better, are they getting worse or have they remained unchanged?
The episode of Parliament having to adjourn earlier to wait for the indulgence of Rais shows that things could get worse, when in other aspects, things appear to be brightening up – at least on rhetorics against corruption.
But what is the message the various sectors of society are getting from the new administration – whether there would be no more openness, democratic space, accountability, transparency and tolerance of criticism?
In his first maiden official speech, Abdullah declared that “we must be open and ready to accept criticism and contrary views to ensure that the culture of democracy thrives”. This, however, has not been reflected by the mainstream media in the past week, with no loosening of the stifling and suffocating grip on freedom of information, particularly dissent and contrary views.
Parliament’s debate yesterday for instance on the proposed anti-terrorism law with the amendments to the Penal Code – a most important issue of far-reaching import to the nation and people - was dismissed by one mainstream media today in three paragraphs, all quoting the speech of the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Rais Yatim, while the views of MPs on this subject, whether from ruling or opposition parties, were totally ignored!
On Tuesday night, DAP organized a public meeting to pay tribute to a great Malaysian judge, the late Tan Sri Harun Hashim in Petaling Jaya – the only public tribute ever held so far in the country. Among the speakers who paid tribute to Harun were prominent Malaysian jurists, lawyers and political leaders including former Court of Appeal judge Datuk V C George, former Bar Council Chairman Raja Aziz Addruse, former United Nations Special Rapporteur Dato' Param Cumaraswamy, HAKAM Chairman Ramdas Tikamdas, Bar Council Secretary Dato' Mohd Sofian, former Bar Council Secretary, Tommy Thomas, DAP National Deputy Chairman Karpal Singh and PAS Member of Parliament Mohd Sabu.
Another mainstream media gave a short report of the public meeting, totally omitting to mention that it was organized by the DAP or the presence of DAP leaders who paid tribute to Harun.
Are things changing for the better, worse or unchanged in the early days of the Abdullah premiership?
* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman