Wednesday, June 16

State of the Hall

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THE call to abolish the Dewan Negara because it is a costly rubberstamp is not as incendiary as some people make it out to be: several democracies have unicameral parliaments. But given Malaysia’s circumstances, abolition would be overkill. Instead, the Dewan Negara should be improved.

The advantages of a second chamber can be immense – apart from additional scrutiny and refinements of bills, it offers another platform to debate national issues.

Furthermore, Malaysia’s status as a federation demands a second chamber, and that was the logic of our founding fathers, following the USA, Australia, Switzerland and India. Unfortunately, later leaders diluted that principle, such that Prime Ministerial appointments now dominate the chamber. The framers of our constitution embedded the idea of elections for the Dewan Negara, Article 45(4)(b) stating: “Parliament may by law provide that the members to be elected for each state shall be so elected by the direct vote of the electors that state.”

I was just in Australia where they have bicameral legislatures at both state and federal level. For the latter, their House of Representatives is elected from single-member divisions using preferential voting (in which voters rank candidates, enabling the majority’s second preference to be elected), while their Senate uses a form of proportional representation (the single transferable vote). This means that both Houses have democratic legitimacy but through different methods.

The principles of ‘one person one vote’ and ‘all states are equal’ are both met, although the House of Representatives is still more powerful because the Senate cannot initiate money bills (as is already the case in Malaysia).

This is a very logical system, and more examples are offered in the December 2011 Ideas Report ‘A New Dawn for the Dewan Negara?’ that features a foreword from the President of the Dewan Negara Tan Sri Abu Zahar Ujang. My own preference is to retain First Past The Post for the Dewan Rakyat (after fixing the problem of unequal constituencies) and introducing elections for the Dewan Negara in which each state sends an equal number of senators (say four), elected by proportional representation.

This would restore the principle that the Dewan Negara represents the states of the federation, while giving it democratic legitimacy. The Federal Territories can then get one senator each, to make a total of two, assuming Kuala Lumpur has been rightly returned to the Sultanate of Selangor (where it can still enjoy autonomy by having an elected mayor).

An adjustment should be made to take into account the fact that when Malaysia was created in 1963, it was agreed that Sabah and Sarawak should get more seats in parliament. Point 17 of the 20/18-point agreement states that ‘representation in the federal parliament should take account not only of the population but also size and potentialities’.

Today this manifests itself in enormous but sparsely-populated constituencies in Sabah and Sarawak, to the chagrin of many peninsula voters who demand equally-populated constituencies. It might thus be neater to fulfil this point of the agreement in the Dewan Negara instead — so that in my proposal, Sabah and Sarawak could get more than four senators each. This will then enable the Dewan Rakyat to strictly abide by the rule that constituencies should be as equal as possible.

Another adjustment arises from a potential problem as a result of both houses being equally legitimate: if they disagree with each other and keep sending bills back and forth, then the legislative process is effectively stalled. It is thus important for one house to have the final say. There are many ways to do this (again described in the Ideas Report) but I suggest two methods: firstly, by diluting the legitimacy of the Dewan Negara by only electing a proportion of the house at each election, thus ensuring that the Dewan Rakyat always has a more recent and fuller mandate; and secondly, re-introducing a non-elected element into the Dewan Negara.

There is a good case for this. Some of our current senators are very well-qualified patriots who just don’t want to be party apparatchiks, and their inclusion could be maintained by creating a transparent, non-political appointments commission reporting directly to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to recommend say, another 20 senators to join the elected members.

Clearly, a reform of this nature needs further research, consultation and parliamentary approval.

But it is necessary.   The Election Commission has been accused of being unfair and incompetent. With a constituency re-delineation exercise due soon, a golden opportunity now exists for them to prove that they are committed to the expansion of democracy in Malaysia by beginning a process of holistic, far-reaching rejuvenation of our parliament. We would be delighted to help.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.