Parliamentary reform and modernization is the first critical test whether there is political will for  Malaysia to become a first-world nation, not only in infrastructure, but in mentality, mindset and culture starting with a First World Parliament

Speech (Part 2)
in the debate on the Motion of Thanks for  the Royal Address
by Lim Kit Siang

(Dewan Rakyat, Thursday): All MPs, regardless of party, should take to heart His Majesty’s injunction to “carry out their responsibilities with a sense of maturity, a desire to uphold the spirit of democracy and a determination to enhance the quality and sanctity of Parliament”. 

His Majesty said: 

“The people’s trust and respect for the Parliament as the nation’s legislative body depends upon the performance of its Honourable Members.  The quality of debate, attendance and active involvement of the Honourable Members will have a huge bearing on the image of Parliament as well as the strength of democracy in this country.” (Para 3) 

One question all press asked me was how I felt returning to Parliament after five years’ absence. 

Firstly, I found Parliament transformed physically, after a renovation which clearly exceeded the original parliamentary approval of RM50 million and could end as high as RM80 million – giving it a very glitzy appearance.  The question is whether the upgrading of what was already a “First World Parliament Building” will be  accompanied by transformation into a First World Parliament in mind-set, culture, practices and performance. 

Secondly, I return to Parliament with a heavy sense of responsibility and some foreboding, fully conscious that the Opposition had never been weaker in Parliament in the nation’s history and democracy more fragile.   

For the past few decades, in one general election after another, the realistic battle cry was to deny the ruling coalition its unbroken  two-thirds parliamentary majority, to end its political hegemony to unleash the suppressed democratic energies and forces in the country  to lay the basis for a more responsible,  responsive and democratic governance.


But suddenly, the country is landed with the unprecedented nine-tenth Barisan Nasional parliamentary majority, as a result of the Abdullah tsunami effect in the last general election generated by a “feel good” euphoria from the pledge of a clean, efficient and trustworthy governance  -  facilitated by the conduct of the  most unfair, chaotic and disgraceful  general election in the nation’s 46-year history.

The unprecedented nine-tenth parliamentary majority of the Barisan Nasional is a time-bomb to democracy  and good governance in Malaysia because of the truism of the maxim by  British historian, Lord Acton – “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”! 

Even with the Opposition, with less than ten per cent parliamentary representation, trying to make up the lack of numbers with the  Herculean feat of manifold improvement in their  quality of Parliamentary debate and representation, it is no real check to such overbearing power for things can 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. 

I have found from my discussion with the Prime Minister that he is quite open and supportive of parliamentary reform and modernization. In fact, Abdullah made many significant statements on Parliament  in his interview with The Sun Weekend published last Saturday, such as:

  • Parliament should not be a “rubber stamp”;
  • his wish to see  “more select committees for bills relating to matters and issues of high public interest to get public’s views”;
  • his support  to make the Public Accounts Committee more “active and effective”;
  • bipartisan approach to some key issues on which both sides of the House can find common ground;
  • to raise the bar of quality of parliamentary debate;

I am therefore most surprised that despite the Prime Minister’s open and positive response to proposals for parliamentary reform and modernization, there is so much resistance and even objection when it comes to concrete proposals from Barisan Nasional Ministers and leaders.

In past few weeks, the DAP parliamentary caucus had made  various proposals of parliamentary reform and modernization for Malaysia to have a “First World Parliament” not only in  infrastructure, but mindset, culture, practices and performance. These include:

  • live telecast of parliamentary proceedings;
  • daily two-hour question time;
  • Prime Minister’s Question Time twice a week;
  • Opposition MP heading the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
  • some 30 specialist Parliamentary Select Committees with a Select Committee for every Ministry;
  • about ten general Parliamentary Select Committees to produce annual reports on progress, trends and recommendations on national integrity,  IT, women’s agenda, environment, mass media, corruption, etc; 
  • allocation of certain days a week  specifically to deal with Opposition business;
  • research and constituency staffing for MPs.
  • an Opposition Deputy Speaker
  • modernization and democratization of Standing Orders
  • code of ethics for all MPs.
  • Ministers’ Parliamentary code of conduct

Since being assigned the portfolio of parliamentary affairs in the new Cabinet, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Nazri Aziz has shown to be a conscientious, diligent and “hands-on” Minister although one may not fully agree with his statement or action.

Nazri’s preparedness to speak at the DAP National Consultation “Agenda for a First World Parliament” at the Crystal Crown Hotel, Petaling Jaya on Sunday  is most commendable, and hopefully, can herald a more consultative, collaborative and co-operative chapter of parliamentary relations, not only among MPs from both sides of the House but also between MPs  and the public.  Parliament is the forum for the scrutiny of the government, but the public must also have the facilities to exercise scrutiny on Parliament.

DAP and the Opposition propose to invite Ministers to more  public parliamentary consultations and it is hoped that all Ministers would be as ready as Nazri to take part in such discussions – just as Opposition MPs should be as ready to accept similar invitations from the  Barisan Nasional.

Nazri should not  be bogged down with trivial and even non-issues when   he should be addressing  the big and substantive issues of parliamentary reform and modernization to make the Malaysian Parliament a “First World Parliament” that could be a model institution of the 116 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries as Malaysia is currently Chair of  NAM for three years. 

He has come up with a very novel and even creative way to address the problem of absenteeism of Barisan Nasional MPs, what he called the “buddy system” for the BN backbenchers to ensure quorums during Parliament sittings. 

As the quorum is only  26 MPs, why is absenteeism among the 198 Barisan Nasional MPs so intractable that it could not at any one time ensure that at least 13 per cent of the Barisan Nasional  MPs are in the House?  The Malaysian voters are entitled to ask why Barisan Nasional leaders are so keen to be candidates and to win in the general election, and yet are not prepared to perform the most elementary duty of attending Parliament? 

What intrigues me is  why Nazri’s “buddy system” is applicable only to Barisan Nasional backbenchers and not the front-benchers?  Malaysia has one of the biggest jumbo Cabinets in the world – having more full Ministers than even India, although Malaysia has only 2.3 per cent of India’s one billion population!  Malaysia has 33 Ministers while India had 27 Ministers  in the Vajpayee coalition cabinet which was massacred in the Indian general election, with one third of the Ministers defeated by the voters. 

The  33 Ministers, together with  38 Deputy Ministers and 22 Parliamentary Secretaries make up a grand total of 93 on the government front-benchers in Malaysia  – almost one out of every two Barisan Nasional MPs. 

If the “buddy system” also applies to the front-benchers, providing that at any one time for any Ministerial portfolio,  there should be a Minister, Deputy Minister or parliamentary secretary present in the House, the quorum of 26 would have been met without having to apply the “buddy system” on the Barisan Nasional back-benchers or  even depending on the Opposition’s 21 MPs to make up the quorum. 

What is urgently needed is  a Minister’s  parliamentary code of conduct because Cabinet Ministers had been setting a bad example of parliamentary responsibility and public accountability, even more guilty than backbenchers in playing truant from parliamentary attendance and duties. 

In other Commonwealth countries where Ministerial and parliamentary responsibilities are taken seriously, Ministers are required to be in attendance in Parliament to personally answer questions, reply to debates affecting their Ministries and to shepherd departmental bills, and which are only delegated to Deputy Ministers or parliamentary secretaries in exceptional circumstances.  There is a standing rule that Ministers should not go outstation or overseas which will take them away from Parliament when it is in session  except for  very important functions. 

As a result, in other countries  Ministers are in attendance in Parliament 90 per cent of the time when matters affecting their departments come up for accounting but in Malaysia, Ministers disappear from Parliament 90 per cent of the time when they are required to answer questions or reply to speeches about their Ministries! 

The most infamous case of Ministerial irresponsibility of parliamentary duties was when a senior Cabinet Minister and leader of one of the Barisan Nasional component parties was too busy to attend Parliament because he had to officiate the opening of an eating shop operated by a strong supporter! 

Nazri should be addressing the big and substantive issues which can  transform the Malaysian Parliament into a “First World Parliament” not just in terms of Parliament building and infrastructure, but in parliamentary mind-set, culture,  practices and performance. 

His continued objection to the idea of having an Opposition MP to head the Public Accounts Committee is one such example of misguided thinking. 


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Member of Parliament for Ipoh Timor & DAP National Chairman