Monday, January 30

Parliament must halt the torrent of despair


AT the beginning of the first Movement Control Order, the messages came occasionally: colleagues delayed planned business expansions, friends needed help with rent, and I joined brainstorming sessions on teaching online. A few months later, and concerns had escalated: charities were worried about ensuring enough food and medicine (especially to stateless and refugee children), musicians had to find other jobs, and frontline doctors began to express exasperation and then exhaustion.

Those trickles of anxiety have now become a torrent of despair. Every day there are urgent appeals for basic necessities and hospital fees, and this week the Director-General of Health revealed the shocking statistic of four suicides per day so far in 2021 (compared to a total of 631 in 2020). The #benderaputih movement encapsulates this latest manifestation of unprecedented difficulties.

Throughout this period, the contributions of sympathetic compatriots, together with efforts by NGOs and innovations from the private sector, have helped to alleviate the suffering of so many: from providing supplies to protecting mental health.  Amid bleak times, this generosity and solidarity is something to celebrate.

Naturally, however, citizens, civil society, and businesses look mainly to governments for help during unexpected national challenges. All around the world, dealing with Covid-19 has become the priority above other policy objectives. It is an aphorism to say that some governments have performed better than others, though with the benefit of hindsight, many early decisions about vaccinations, border closures and economic interventions were speculative, because there was limited data available to inform policies. But now, with more experiences and best practices shared from around the world, politicians can and must make decisions based on science rather than guesswork. The ongoing vaccination drive provides much hope in this regard.

However, a look back at reported poll ratings shows that Malaysians have had varying levels of confidence in the decision-makers over time. Individuals who were once praised for finding solutions are now criticised, and it is no secret that disagreement among politicians, bureaucrats and advisors is hindering a clearly communicated united effort to defeat the pandemic. Furthermore, while some disagreements arise from well-intended but different interpretations of the data, others arise because politics is being prioritised over public health.

This combination of public desperation and decision-making confusion emphasises the urgency for public confidence to be restored to the institutions the rakyat needs for their survival.

And this is why Parliament must reconvene.

In response to the many calls for this to happen — and even after the announcements that most state legislative assemblies have now agreed to meet — some observers have asked whether it will make any difference.

The scepticism is understandable. It is assumed as natural that politicians will use every opportunity available to increase their power and position. Thus, if Parliament sits, there may simply be more rounds of enticements, promises and reconfigurations of power among MPs.

However, for better or for worse, our Federal Constitution does not give our nation an unlimited number of tools to overcome the situation we are facing. The only way to peacefully break the deadlock is for our national institutions to step up, fully realise the weight of their responsibilities and do the right thing to help the people. Restoring clarity and confidence is absolutely necessary, and Parliament is the correct platform to attempt to achieve this.

While many commentators will still have doubts, never before has there been such constant and open disgust against the political elite. Social media has exposed the routine, brazen and hypocritical double standards in breaches of standard operating procedures, even as generous salaries and perks as a result of political patronage continue. Furthermore, with now repeated royal commands for politicians to provide a stable government to tackle the pandemic, there may be a chance for a “reset” and and even reforms to help break the deadlock.

Sadly, even now, there are those who misunderstand the Rulers’ calls for action. Even though Their Royal Highnesses’ objective is clearly to restore parliamentary democracy and enable elected politicians to perform their duties, some critics imagine some sort of inappropriate royal power grab! Curiously, even some hitherto ardent proponents of royal prestige have suddenly changed their tune, misreading the Federal Constitution to give the government unlimited and unfettered power to ignore checks and balances.

That has never been what Malaysia was intended to be, and at a time like this, this interpretation is potentially catastrophic.

In the first ever sitting of the Dewan Ra’ayat in 1959, the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong described Parliament and the Constitution as the “dynamos of democracy”. Now, more than ever, this dynamo needs to stop our country’s torrent of despair before it becomes a irreparable deluge.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas.