Saturday, January 23

Mind your language


A place for serious lawmaking, not for shouting matches. — Bernama file photo

LANGUAGE is the main medium of daily communication in all human affairs. The words or symbols used in one situation may be different from those used on another occasion, depending on the norms of each culture. Whatever that culture, language is a powerful tool. The proverbial pen as being mightier than the sword is an illustration of how a word can be a boon as well as a bane.

The language used at the palace (istana) is different. When you speak to a member of the royalty, you do not use the language which you normally use at home or in a restaurant.

And there is such a thing as parliamentary language. Members of Parliament are not (supposed to be) allowed to use unparliamentary language during a meeting of the legislature.

Unparliamentary language

In 1966, I was appointed as one of the part-time translators in the Council Negri (DUN). I was responsible for translating speeches from Iban/English/Iban while the other translator, Hasbie Sulaiman, handled Malay/English/Malay translations. Before we started we were briefed by a senior translator, Abdul Karim Abol, on the dos and don’ts. One of the don’ts was to avoid translating any unparliamentary language. What’s that? A word or statement which casts aspersion on the character of another Honourable Member. Words having seditious tendency would not be translated at all. Statements made must be substantiated with facts and figures, which can be easily verified as being substantially true or lawful. The Speaker would notice this and interrupt anyway; we were to translate what the Speaker was saying.

As I said, that was in 1960s!

The right not to be interrupted

In Parliament or in the State Legislative Assembly, the Speaker will see to it that while one legislator is speaking, no other member of the House may interrupt unless it is on a Point of Order. This digression may take up a couple of minutes only; after that, the speaker continues without further interruption. Any other member wanting a point clarified could always refer to the matter during his own speech later.

During debates or speeches in the Council Negri in 1966, never did the translators find it necessary to avoid translating any unparliamentary language. There was none. The Speaker, Dr Sockalingam, and the Members of the Council Negri were always being courteous to each other in speech, and in behaviour decorous. Such deportment has brought the Council Negri Members great honour, and, to the Council Negri itself, dignity. Those days, the members of Council Negri truly commanded the respect of the public. Quite a number of members at that time were in fact uneducated in the academic sense, but they were civilised, dignified.

Watching Parliament in session

Ironically, the social/physical distancing under the Covid-19 pandemic has some positive side benefit: you have all the time in the world to watch and listen to the debates in Parliament when it is in session. In the early years after the formation of Malaysia, I had the chance to be inside the House of Parliament, not as an Honourable Member, but as a civil servant allocated a seat behind YB Temenggong Jugah Barieng, Minister for Sarawak Affairs.

Despite having absolute privileges in terms of the tort of defamation, no MP was ever heard uttering statements that would be considered libellous or defamatory. Statements made in pointing out defects or errors of government or of the Constitution had to be substantiated with facts and figures. Otherwise, the Speaker would be the subject of sanction by his peers in the Committee of Privileges. In there, the alleged offender would have the right to defend himself for having misused the privileges of a member; he would be ostracised by his peers, without the entire world knowing it.

Fast forward to 2020

How times have changed! In the august House, on several occasions, a number of Honourable Members are showing a bad example to the school children who may be listening. In the commotion, they all speak in tongues! The listeners are all over the world, thanks to the Internet. Ordinary Malaysian mortals cannot be blamed for screaming, “What the heck!” (This is an example of mildly unparliamentary language).

Unnecessary interruptions are not only annoying to the listener but a waste of Parliament’s time. It brings dishonour to the lawmaking body of the country, just because of the few MPs who know not about the importance of decorum. It must be an embarrassment to the rest of the MPs, the majority of whom are truly honourable.

This is not the House of Parliament I used to know. I never witnessed shouting matches in Parliament or unnecessary interruptions; unparliamentary language was only uttered in the canteen or in the VIP loo. A member who was not happy with the proceedings would politely bow to the Chair and quickly moved out of the chamber, sulking, or smoking his heart out.

Mr Speaking flying off the handle

In those good old days, I never heard about or saw the Speaker flying off his handle. Never was there the necessity for him to call on the Police to drag an Honourable Member unceremoniously out of the chamber. Parliament has its own security guards for the purpose of evicting a particularly unruly Member. Cases of breaches of the Standing Orders are not unknown but these would be handled by the Committee of Privileges, not for the whole wide world to see.

What sort of message are we sending to the next generation of potential lawmakers of Malaysia?

Dear Voter, any time you are given the chance to elect a legislator to Parliament, choose the candidate who is likely to be incorruptible. Your man or woman will be truly honourable, responsible, and trustworthy. Your MP need not be a vociferous orator; choose one who is good at talking with people in authority – people who wield real power. An effective negotiator or lobbyist is sometimes more important than a rumbustious MP. As the proverb says, “Still tongue, wise head.”

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]