Parliamentary reforms to make Parliamentary control of Executive more effective and meaningful necessary 23 years after Merdeka

(Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Petaling, Lim Kit Siang, in the Dewan Rakyat on Tuesday, 17th June 1980 when introducing the motion proposing the formation of a Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Reforms)

Parliamentary reforms to make Parliamentary control of Executive more effective and meaningful necessary 23 years after Merdeka

I move:

“That this House resolves to set up a Parliamentary Committee, under the Chairmanship of Mr. Speaker, to be known as the Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary Reforms, to make recommendations to the House on reforms to parliamentary procedures and practices to make the Dewan Rakyat a more effective legislative and deliberative chamber and to give substance to the important principle of parliamentary control of the Executive.”

I first gave notice to table this motion for parliamentary reforms at the budget session last year, but the motion lapsed as no time was provided for its debate. In fact, for some years now, I had inside and outside the House spoken of the need for parliamentary reforms to upgrade the effectiveness of the Dewan as a legislative and deliberative chamber.

I was glad when last week the Malaysia Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association organized a three-day seminar on parliamentary procedures and practices, where MPs had the opportunity to listen to an exposition of the modernization of parliamentary procedures in the House of Commons by the Clerk of Committees at the House of Commons, Mr. David Pring.

This motion is not the result of Mr. Pring’s exposition, but as I said, was tabled as early as last year. Nor am I suggesting that we should imitate all the reforms to parliamentary procedures and practices in the House of Commons, although our Standing Orders was partly drafted by Mr. Pring and based on the Westminster model.

We should not be slavishly imitative of House of Commons practices, but we should not be unthinkingly outmoded either in our parliamentary practices and procedures.

We must bear in mind that our Standing Orders, for instance, was based on the parliamentary practices and procedures of the House of Commons of the fifties, just before the start of two decades of active, vigorous and continuous parliamentary reforms in Westminster.

Parliaments in other Commonwealth countries have also taken a vigorous role in parliamentary reforms, so as to make their legislatures more effective and more in keeping with changing times and needs.

In Malaysia, however, although there had been several amendments to the Standing Orders, these were designed more to restrict opportunities for effective control of the Executive, and there were no overall, comprehensive review of the parliamentary procedures and practices in Malaysia after 23 years of operation.

Parliament must be a living, dynamic institution capable of adapting itself to the needs of changing times and popular demands, and this is why I am making this proposal contained in my motion.

Before I proceed further, I want to make one clarification and one plea. The clarification is that I am moving this motion, not because I am from the DAP, but from the standpoint as a malaysian Parliamentarian. In this Chamber, with MPs coming from different political parties, we are bound to have differences of views based on party beliefs. But we also share one common quality, that we are all Members of Parliament and should have a common concern that there is effective parliamentary control over the Executive regardless of party affiliation.

There is a need, on matters affecting the interests rights and powers of Parliament vis-a-vis the Executive, that MPs whether from the ruling party or opposition could find a common united stand to jealously safeguard parliamentary rights and privileges from any Executive encroachments.

My plea therefore is that on this motion before the House, that we discuss and approach it benefit of our party affiliation, but strictly from the viewpoint of parliamentarians concerned at preserving and enlarging parliament’s role as the bedrock of our system of government.

We talk of our system of government as a parliamentary government, where the Executive is controlled by Parliament. In actual fact, it is the Executive which controls Parliament through the exercise of majority power. This is a problem which is not peculiar to Malaysia, but to all parliamentary forms of government, and it is urgent and imperative therefore for Parliamentaries to review and examine anew their true role in the system of government, so that the effectiveness of Parliament in the Eighties could be assessed.

Although the functions of Parliament are usually described as legislative, control of finance, and deliberative, its principal function in all these spheres is not to act as a governing body, but as a critical forum, ‘the sounding board of the nation’.

For instance, although Parliament is said to be a law-making body, our Parliament is not a law-making body except in the most formal sense. If we picture the legislative process as involving four interlocking and overlapping functions: 1. Inspiration; 2. Deliberation and Formulation; 3. legitimation; 4. Application; we will find that Parliament is not involved in Stage 1 or a, very formally in Stage 2 and only involved in Stage 3. Hence, it may be more correct to ay that Parliament does not legislate, but merely legitimizes what the Executive has decided should be legislated.

A timely article on Malaysian Parliamentarians in last weekend’s Sunday Mail reported that most MPs appear to be ill-equipped to follow intelligently much of the proceedings, especially when it comes to the debate on new laws or amendments.

The Sunday Mail report continued: “MPs maintain they do not get adequate briefings. The reply is that many back-benchers don’t read the bills given to them and therefore are incapable of following the pre-council briefings.

“The wakil rakyats maintain they don’t have the time or resources to comprehend the implications of the various bills.

“Because most of the back-benchers maintain a docile profile there seems to be some justification in the cynic’s label that the Dewan is nothing more than a rubber-stamping body.”

The limited capacity of Parliament to examine and scrutinize government legislation, finances and policies is aggravated by the poor grasp and understanding of parliamentary procedures and practices.

For instance, yesterday, when my colleague, the MP for Menglembu, Sdr. P. Patto, moved a $1O cut during the committee stage of the supplementary estimates for the Lembaga Beras Negara, to express censure for the unsatisfactory way the IPN was carrying out its padi subsidy scheme, a backbencher criticised Sdr. P. Patto for proposing a cut, when he should be asking for a raise.

This Hon’ble Member clearly does not know that proposal to cut $1O for a particular provision does not mean literally a desire to cut $1O, but merely a parliamentary devise to highlight a problem affecting the particular vote. Parliamentary procedures do not permit an amendment to increase votes, and if any MP wants to highlight that the money provided is too meagre, then it would be by way of a proposal to reduce the allocations by a nominal sum.

Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, 19th Edition, page 713 for instance spoke of the “well-known rule of supply that no amendment is in order except a simple reduction of the amount demanded; and the practice became established of moving a ‘token’ reduction as a ‘peg’ on which to hang an argument for the increase or extension of a service.”

Parliament in Malaysia has never exercised any legislative initiative, and this is an area which parliamentary reforms should give serious consideration to rectify, to restore to Parliament its law-making powers rather than just law-legitimating powers.

One of the most unsatisfactory features the parliamentary process of legislation is the inadequate time given to MPs study and debate bills, reinforcing the view that the Executive regards Parliament as a mere rubber stamp. This is a matter which should not concern merely the Opposition, but all Parliamentarians, for this undermines public respect for parliamentary institutions.

The same problems are presented when we consider Parliaments important function to control government finances. In fact, it may be questioned whether Parliament in fact possesses this control.

Once presented, every estimate would be approved as a matter of course; so much so that it could be claimed that it is the Treasury, rather than Parliament, which decided the Estimates; and as Parliament voted what the Executive demanded, Parliament is governed by officials.

One persistent problem is the lack of sufficient supply days, whether for the main Budget debate or the supplementary estimates, for adequate examination of the various government departmental expenditures.

For instance, Parliament has just spent two days on Friday and yesterday to deal with 18 Ministries’ supplementary estimates for 1979 and 1980 totalling over $1,000 million. As a result, there could only be the most cursory discussion of estimates for a few minutes by each Member involving items of expenditure running into tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite these limited opportunities for an adequate debate and scrutiny of government finances, the Executive continued surreptitiously to unilaterally alter practices which reduce even further parliamentary time for scrutiny of government finances.

Until very recently, supplementary estimates, whether for supply or development, for each year are taken separately, but this time, the 1979 and 198O supplementary supply and development estimates are treated as one omnibus item, effectively reducing debate time by half if the 1979 and the 198O estimates had been debated separately as was the practice in the past.

It is with the objective of restoring the imbalance in the relationship between Parliament and Executive, to reassert Parliamentary’s control over the Executive, that in various countries, specialized Select Committees overseeing various government departments and Ministries had been formed. I understand the latest innovation in the House of Commons is the establishment of a Specialised Committee for almost every Ministry.

This means that is not only an expansion of parliamentary time to scrutailze government finances and policies, but enable Parliament to exercise more meaningful control over the Executive,

The Committee system is new and foreign to Malaysia, and had been regarded by some government leaders as American system. In fact, it has become a feature of most Commonwealth Parliamentary institutions. I am not suggesting that we in Malaysia should introduce overnight a full-fledged Committee System, where there is a Parliamentary Committee to overseer each Ministry. We should however experiment with this system, and for a start, establish Parliamentary Committee for selected Ministries, like Agriculture, Education, Defence, Transport.

Such a Committee system will make a great difference in the effectiveness of each individual Member’s work in Parliament, as members would gain real knowledge of certain subjects and become truly effective in those spheres.

There is also a need to review and assess the performance of existing Standing Committees, like the Public Accounts Committee, which operating most unsatisfactorily in controlling public expenditures. The PAC is at present dealing with the accounts for 1975, and its proceedings have the air of exercise in past history which has no relationship or relevance with present-day problems. Nobody in Malaysia has over been interested with the PAC reports, and unless there is a review of -this area of parliamentary control of government expenditures, it may be wondered whether the whole PAC is not a entire waste of parliamentary time and public funds.

Parliament should seriously consider reforms to the PAC operations which will enable the PAC to deal with finances of very recent year so as to maintain relevance and topicality. Furthermore, Parliament should consider having an Expenditure Committee, whose terms of reference would be to look at all future government spendings, not only for the annual departmental estimates, but also look at all government spending and the five year projections as set out in the Five-Year Development Plans, to examine the methods by which the government plans and control spending.

These reforms will make the Parliament become more effective watchdog: over public expenditures than at present.

The third function of Parliament, as the national forum, is not often understood or appreciated. During my years in the House, I have often heard by many Ministers and MPs said that the House should not be turned into a political forum. The fact is Parliament is the highest political forum in the land.

There is a need for a greater appreciation that Parliamentary business does not mean merely government business, but includes Opposition business and all other private member business.

In the past, before the meetings of Parliament, Parliamentary spokesmen would announce the pending business being the bills to be tabled, and the number of questions, but such announcements emanating from the Parliamentary Office never mention Opposition business, whether motions or private member’s bills.

The right of the Opposition to initiate parliamentary business must be accorded due recognition, by procedural provisions for instance, that every Friday sitting, there should be at least two hours reserved for non-government business; and that during the long budget meeting and the debate on the royal address, at least two days should be set aside for Opposition business.

Here, I wish to stress that there is no incompatibility between a strong government and a strong opposition. There is no necessary contradiction between having a strong Executive and an efficient and effective Parliament.

The more powers the Government commands to do things affecting all aspects of people’s lives, the greater the need for effective parliamentary scrutiny and criticism of these activities.

What all Members of Parliament seek should be an alert and effective Parliament, which would be a help and not a hindrance to good government.

At present, there are billion-dollar spending government creatures, like Petronas, Pernas, MARA, Bank Rakyat, which are not subject to any form of effective parliamentary control. One cause for the recent Bank Rakyat scandal where some $150 million were squandered away could be traced to the weak system of parliamentary control.

I have not sought to list out an exhaustive catalogue of specific proposals for parliamentary reform, but to draw attention to areas where after 23 years of operation, weaknesses had been highlighted, and a deep look with a view to parliamentary reform should be instituted.

The Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary reforms should study the experiences and examples of other parliamentary institution for guidance for our Parliament.

We should not confine ourselves to the House of Commons because we have a lot to learn from other Commonwealth Parliaments. The Indian Parliament, Lok Sabha, for instance, has pioneered several new procedural concepts.

For instance, the Lok Sabha has a notable procedural innovation in the form of ‘calling attention notice’. It enables a Member to draw the attention of the Government to sudden developments of urgent public importance and to elicit their stand thereon, and requiring the Government to come out with a statement straightaway, or ask for time to make it.

With this handy device, Members do not have to resort to an adjournment motion of definite urgent public importance, which involves a certain measure of censure.

There is also the innovation in the Lok Sabha Rules for a Member who wishes to bring to the notice of the House any matter which is not a point of order to do so after giving due notice and with the consent of the Speaker. Using this provision, Members are usually allowed on the last day of the Session to raise various miscellaneous Batters they had no opportunity to bring to the notice of the House through other means.

There are many other areas and specific procedures, like question time, adjournment motions, time for debates, etc., facilities for information and research for MPs which could be discussed, and reviewed, but I do not propose to go into them one by one.

Having sketched the major areas requiring parliamentary reform, I hope that Members will at least support the proposal that 23 years after Merdeka, a new deep look at this question is called for. It is not necessary that they should agree with everything or every proposal I made, nor does it mean that the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Reforms should be tied down to the matters I referred to.