Sunday, September 19

Parley over parliament

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THE institution of parliament has rarely been so prominent in the public consciousness as it has been now for the past few months. Since the proclamation of a state of Emergency, and more so since its expiry, politicians, lawyers, think tankers, pundits, and netizens have referred to parliament as a vital body in moving our country forward.

In June, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Conference of Rulers issued statements asking for Parliament to convene as soon as possible. Upon the appointment of the ninth Prime Minister last month, the Comptroller of the Royal Household’s statement was explicit, “The Prime Minister who has been appointed pursuant to Article 40(2)(a) and 43(2)(a) of the Federal Constitution shall as soon as possible submit a motion of confidence in the Dewan Rakyat.”

(Incidentally, this notion of the monarchy as a protector of parliamentary democracy is not new: in 1959, the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong spoke of Parliament as “the crown and climax” and “the very essence” of our Federal Constitution.)

In the last week, however, we have seen politicians backtrack on this commitment. Their legal acolytes have argued preposterously that the motion is unnecessary and goes against the absolute powers of the king to appoint a new Prime Minister! Thankfully, other learned constitutional lawyers have provided ample precedents in which Prime Ministers have subjected themselves to a vote of confidence after being appointed. Now there is a claim that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong has consented to this backtracking, but until there is an explicit statement by the Comptroller of the Royal Household, it remains hearsay.

Looking longer term, there has been much talk about parliamentary reform, with proponents coming from unlikely parties. Some MPs are being celebrated as heroes for championing such reforms, but a look at their political record shows that they were certainly been hitherto beneficiaries of the status quo.

What has led to this change of attitude? Partly it is the realisation that unless they improve the system, they will continue having to hedge their bets every time there is a potential change of leader: stability is good for MPs who fear backing the wrong horse. It is also the realisation that trust in the country’s institutions is at an all-time low, with parliamentary reform being a catalyst in restoring faith in Malaysian democracy, improving governance in other public institutions too.

In either case, it affirms the idea that for most of human civilisation, people with power have rarely reduced their power unless they feel they have to. Reforms often happen because leaders want to stay in office without losing everything (eg in a violent revolution). This was the pragmatic logic of those who supported the previous Prime Minister’s last-ditch reform offers, “I don’t care who does the reforms, or why they are doing them, as long as they get done.”

For much of civil society, and the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) in particular, seeking parliamentary reform has been a constant plank of our efforts, independent of political woes affecting our country. Now is a good time to revisit this work as different stakeholders seek consensus of which reforms will have the most impact and potential of success.

Thus, in 2012, my paper on reform of the Dewan Negara mused the possibility of elections to the second chamber with a view to strengthening its foundational logic of representing the states. In 2013, our paper on strengthening democracy in Malaysia spoke of Election Commission oversight, equal resource allocations to MPs and involvement of civil society in law-making. In 2017, we proposed the establishment of an Ombudsman to help protect democratic governance. In 2018, we urged the newly-formed committee of institutional reforms to empower Parliament through an allocated budget, the establishment of Parliamentary Select Committees and official recognition of the Opposition. See ideas.org.my for much more!

There are differences of opinion among civil society too. For example, to me, preventing unjustified party hopping is best achieved by democratising candidate selection within political parties and creating a mechanism for constituents to sack their MPs early (if they change allegiance, or indeed any other reason). However, some wish to radically alter the constitution by making Malaysians vote explicitly for political parties (instead of individual candidates as is now) and introducing proportional representation.  These are important debates to have, for the effect of these reforms will impact our country for generations.

So much has already been lost since the pandemic and incessant political intrigue. If there is one institution whose reform can enable us to emerge stronger from both, it is parliament, and I urge politicians, regardless of their motivations, to achieve them.

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