Some Reflection of an Opposition Parliamentarian

Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader and DAP Secretary-General, Lim Kit Siang, at the Royal Military College Old Putra Association Lunchenn talk at Holiday Inn, Kuala Lumpur, on Saturday, 26th Nov. 1977 at 2.30 p.m.

Some Reflection of an Opposition Parliamentarian

Urgent need for sweeping parliamentary reforms to make parliament a effective body to call Ministers to account and as the supreme forum on the nation

There is an urgent need for sweeping parliamentary reforms in Dewan Rakyat to enhance the effectiveness of Parliament to call Minister to account and to be supreme critical forum in the land where there is full discussion and ventilation of matters of concern to the people.

I have been in Parliament for eight years, and I have seen many devices and techniques whereby Ministers evaded their duty to account to Parliament for their actions, and where parliamentary procedures permitted such evasion.

In fact, there was one occasion on sometime in 1972 where one Senator Minister, who was finding difficulty in answering supplementary questions during Question Time relating matters under his portfolio, stood up and claimed that he was not responsible to the Dewan Rakyat but only to the Prime Minister. This Minister, who is no more in the Cabinet although he hopes to make a come-back, did not realize that even the Prime Minister is responsible to Parliament.

Probably, one reason why it is difficult to call Ministers to account in Parliament is because the Ministers are really no accountable for the policies and actions of their Ministries. For I notice that there are very few Ministries who are really leaders of their Ministries. In more cases than not, I get the feeling that it is the Ministries, the civil servants, who run the Ministers, rather than the Ministers who run the Ministries.

A good example happened in the Dewan Rakyat last week. There w as a question on the adverse report of the United Kingdom General Medical Council delegation on the M.B.B.S. degree of the University of Malaya, which opened the very distinct possibility that after five years, the U.K. Medical Council may de-recognise the Malayan University medical degree.

The Deputy Education Minister, Mr. Chan Siang Sum, who was answering the question, at first claimed that the MBBS degree of the University of Malaya was still of high international standing, but when pressed on the U.K.General Medical Council report. Reluctantly conceded that the authorities concerned were taking at action on the Report. When pressed what is the nature of this ‘action’, the Deputy Minister lamented as to how he should know, since he was no medical person!

One reason why it is difficult to call Ministers to account is the lack of adequate information about Ministerial actions and policies. There is not only a compulsive obsession to deny information to Members of Parliament, but even to use the various laws, like the Official Security Act, to frighten and intimidate Members of Parliament from securing their own sources of information.

As a result, the Official Secret Act, for instance, is being used not to protect the national security of the country, but as a cower-up for the corruption, inefficiencies and incompetence of government actions.

I still remember that in 1973, when I forced into the public the scandalous case of mass deaths in the Malacca General Hospital from blood poisoning because of the breakdown of the hospital autoclave (sterilization plant) machine, a reign of terror descended on the hospital staff to find out how I came to know about the deaths. The authorities were concerned, not about the truth of my disclosures, but how I came to know about it!

This has typified the government attitude in other instances. Last year, I spoke in Parliament as to how the Royal Malaysia Navy was going to pay $166 million for four fast-strike crafts when the original price was only $106 million. As a result, the police are now conducting an investigation as to how I came to know these facts, rather into the merits or demerits of such a payment or purchase.

The present obsession with secrecy is not conductive to a democratic and open society, but will pave the way for even greater abuse and misuse of powers. It would do well for everyone, especially those in authority, to bear in mind that “to criticize one’s country is to do it service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing.”

Formation of parliamentary specialist committees to allow members of parliament to specialise and command greater knowledge and information about government policies and actions

One innovation in Malaysia to enable Members of Parliament to possess greater knowledge and information about government policies and actions so that they can knowledgeably discuss and legislate on them will be to form specialist committees, like House Committee on Education, House Committee on Defence. This will enhance the accountability of Ministers to Parliament, and be an added incentive to Ministers to master their subjects for there is a greater likelihood of their being exposed as ignoramus in their own fields of Ministerial responsibility.

Need for greater public involvement in preparation of legislation

There is a tendency for legislation to come to Parliament without adequate discussion and public participation. Except in the most unusual and extraordinary circumstances, before a Bill is presented to Parliament for first reading, it should have been made public in draft form for public discussion and consultation. Unfortunately, there had been cases where Bills are tabled in Parliament even before being presented to the Cabinet, and Ministers would claim that they knew nothing about it.

This is a deplorable practice; for it runs contrary to the principle of a participatory democracy.

Proposal for the establishment of a Institute of Public Affairs where concerned Malaysians of all political affiliations or no affiliations can make their contribution on public issues

There is a need for greater participation in the decision-making process in the country on matters affecting the nation. In this connection, I think the time has come for the establishment of an Institute of Public Affairs whose role is to be a non-partisan forum for the ventilation and discussion of issues of national concern – to serve as a forum where opinions can be shaped and articulated about the many matters of national interest which are presently ignored.

The members of The Royal Military College Old Putera Association, with its motto of ‘Berkhidmat Memimpin’, may be able to play a leadership role in the establishment of such an Institute.