Apo nak dikato?

Conservatively-speaking-freEVERY Friday, the Yam Tuan of Negeri Sembilan prays at a different mosque within the Luak Tanah Mengandong, and the local MP and ADUN are invited together with mosque officials to lunch at Istana Besar afterwards.

The sole non-Umno representative elected within the area in 2008 was the Bahau assemblyman Teo Kok Seong, who, over daging masak kuning after prayers in a mosque in his constituency, told me that it was the first time a DAP representative was ever invited to lunch with the Head of State.

Last Friday, prayers were at Masjid Yam Tuan Raden in Kuala Pilah, and so the assemblyman for Pilah, Adnan Abu Hassan, joined us.

I greeted him as “Yang Berhormat”, and he joked that it would be “Yang Bersara” (the retired) next week.

As he well knew, the state assembly would have dissolved automatically by the following Friday.

I say “well knew”, but in fact the exact date of the expiry was disputed.

Armed with the Interpretation Act 1948 and 1967, the Menteri Besar said that expiry would occur at 0000 hours on Thursday Mar 28, instead of 24 hours before.

Then there was debate over a key phrase.

The State Constitution says: “The Legislative Assembly unless sooner dissolved shall continue for five years from the date of its first sitting and then stand dissolved.”

What happened on Mar 27, 2008 was the election of the Speaker and swearing-in ceremony, while it was on April 25, 2008 that the late Tuanku Ja’afar opened the session.

Some opined that the latter corresponds to the “first sitting”.

However, other constitutional experts have confirmed that it is the former.

Some might say that fussing over this is unnecessary, particularly since there is no appetite to delay the election any more.

But it’s important to get it right, because the integrity of the law is paramount, and furthermore a precedent is being set.

Indeed, the pundits state that it is the first time in Malaysian history that a state assembly has been allowed to expire.

But nothing else about the process changes: the Speaker of the State Assembly has duly informed the Election Commission, who will then in turn set nomination and polling days in accordance with the law.

Since yesterday, the government has operated in caretaker mode, and here too there was some contention, with a suggestion that the incumbent Menteri Besar had to be formally re-appointed as a caretaker.

But that has never happened in the past after a dissolution (the method of dissolution is immaterial) nor is it usual practice in other Westminster democracies.

In theory, the process in Negeri Sembilan is entirely independent: it does not matter what happens in other states or at the federal level.

However, the EC made a definitive statement last week to the effect that elections for the Dewan Rakyat and 12 state assemblies will be held simultaneously (Sarawak continues to hold its elections separately).

Since the Negeri Sembilan State Constitution mandates that the “a general election shall be held within 60 days from the date of dissolution”, it follows that the final possible date for a simultaneous polling day is May 26, 2013.

Since the minimum campaign period is 10 days, the final possible date for nomination day would be May 16.

This still gives the Prime Minister six more weeks to seek an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to request the dissolution of the Dewan Rakyat.

Two alternative scenarios would upset these assumptions.

The first is that a state of emergency could be declared, and parliament and the state legislatures would be suspended as happened in 1969 until 1971.

This is extremely unlikely: even if the situation in Sabah might genuinely warrant a state of emergency (as a retired soldier suggested to me last week), the perception of “buying more time” would be electorally damaging.

The second is that Negeri Sembilan, contrary to the EC’s statement, may undergo elections first.

The next state legislatures to expire are Johor and Melaka on Apr 21, more than three weeks away.

An early election in Malaysia’s oldest democratic polity may give political leaders in the rest of the country some useful insights, but whatever transpires, Negeri Sembilan has once again led the country in creating history in its democratic institutions.

The state legislature sits in a building adorned by a roof upturned at the ends, in homage to the young bull whose horns pierced through the belly of a bull it thought was his mother, which is why adat perpatih and its Negeri Sembilan offshoot are matrilineal, decentralised and democratic.

I hope the next batch of representatives to sit in that building will be worthy heirs of this tradition.

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS.

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