Parliamentary reform and modernization – a great disappointment one year later

Speech (2)
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”. 

I said: 

“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: 

  • the gross abuse of the parliamentary majority in the six-month suspension of the DAP MP for Bukit Glugor, Karpal Singh, when six members of the Committee of Privileges had unanimously agreed that Karpal was not guilty of any breach of parliamentary privilege in making a false statement and misleading the House when he raised the issue of the propriety of MPs not putting up their right hand during the oath-taking ceremony of MPs on May 17 last year – but which decision was subsequently reversed by five votes to one without any good or reasonable cause because of pressures from outside the Committee.
  • The arbitrary Speaker’s ruling disallowing an impeachment motion of no confidence on the Election Commission Chairman and members for the most disgraceful, unfair and chaotic conduct of the 2004 general election, one year after the general election, on the ground of sub judice as the whole process of election court appeals had not been exhausted – making a mockery of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.
  • The failure of Parliament to address important issues and reports like the Suhakam Annual Report.  I am shocked that in his dialogue with the Bar Council, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz gave two reasons why the Suhakam Report was not specifically debated by Parliament – that most MPs are not lawyers and would not understand the Suhakam report on human rights and secondly, that it was not necessary as the Barisan Nasional had an overwhelming majority in Parliament.  Nazri is in fact confirming that Parliament is still a mere “rubber stamp” of the Executive which is not allowed to have any meaningful role to hold the Executive to scrutiny and accountability.

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: 

  • 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

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:  

  • To bring to the House for a decision to be taken before the end of the current meeting on April 28 urgent proposals for immediate parliamentary reform and modernization where consensus can be reached between Parliament and the Executive – such as doing away with the four-month rule on notice  for parliamentary questions; and
  • Proposals for parliamentary reform and modernization which require more time for study but which must nonetheless be submitted to the House for decision either in the middle of the year or latest by before the end of the year.

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