Parliamentary Standing Orders

(Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary- General and MP for Petaling, Lim Kit Siang, in the Dewan Rakyat on the motion to amend the Standing Orders of Dewan Rakyat on Friday, Oct. 30, 1981)

DAP calls for a comprehensive review of the Parliamentary standing orders and procedures to give greater vitality and meaning to parliamentary democracy.

The proposed amendments to the Standing Orders, as moved by the Prime Minister, are part of the ad hoc and piecemeal tinkering with the Standing Orders ever since Merdeka, sometimes to correct technical mistakes and at other times, to restrict the opportunities for the Opposition to play a full part in initiating parliamentary business.

The time has come for a comprehensive review of the Parliamentary Standing Orders and procedures to give greater vitality and meaning to parliamentary democracy.

This is why the DAP had suggested, and I reiterate our proposal today, that there should be an all-party Speaker’s Conference to study and review parliamentary standing orders and procedures to keep abreast with changing times and needs to make Parliament a contemporary institution, and not, as is the case with certain aspects of Parliamentary life, an outmoded institution.

This could be seen from Standing Order 24(2) which is being amended today.

Standing Order 24(2) provides that if an oral question is not asked during question time, “the Minister to whom the question is addressed shall send copies of the answer to the Setiausaha, who shall cause that answer to be printed in the Official Report.”

The purpose of question in Parliament is to elicit information from the Government, and there is clearly a time factor for the questions conderned to be answered if such answers are to be of use to the Member asking it, or to Parliament and the public as a whole.

At present, an oral question which is not asked during the daily question hour whether under Standing Order 24(2), or S.O.22(3) or S.O.25(5), are in effect killed for all practical purposes, although the Standing Orders provide for the publication in the Official Report.

This is because the Official Hansard is not printed until some three years later, which means that a MP whose oral question does not get answered during the question hour would have to wait for three years to get the answer in the Hansard, by which time he or she may no more be a Member of Parliament.

The latest official Hansard printed the Government Printers is the historic one for 15th December 1978- and this is not the full official Hansard, for there are six or seven Hansards before 15th December 1978 which had not yet been printed!

If Parliament is to be the apex the political system, in the country, then its official reports should be easily available to the MPs and the public within a sport period of time, in any event, not later than two months. It is a crying shame showing the lowly place Parliament rates in the eyes of the Executive that its Hansards take three years to get printed.

I understand that one reason for the delay for the printing of the Hansard, apart from the Government Printers’ inefficiency, is the delay on he Ministers concerned to send their answers to Parliament.

Thus, we have just received the Written Answer to parliamentary questioned asked in last year’s Budget meeting from October to December 1980. As MPs had to submit their questions not less than 14 working days before the commencement of each meeting, MPs are entitled to receive their written answer I the Parliamentary meeting itself.

But what is happening now is that MPs have not received their written Questions submitted during the March, June and the current Parliamentary meetings.

What is reason for the various Ministries taking such an inordinately long time to come up with answers to Parliamentary questions?

What I cannot understand is why answers to oral questions are being withheld from Parliament and MPs. Answers for questions marked down for oral answer are all prepared for the day they had been set down, and even if the question was not answered orally during the Question Hour, the Minister or his Deputy had the answer with him.

All he need to do is to send his answer to Parliament, with a copy extended to the MP who asked the question. However, I understand that there have been cases where Ministries withheld answer already prepared for question hour for as long as several months.

A good example is my question to the Prime Minister on the first day of the current meeting, “To ask the Prime Minister to state the allowances and the other perks a Minister is entitled to when he or she is overseas on leave; whether such entitlements extend to the family of the Minister; and the total amount of public money involved in meeting the vacation overseas of all Ministers and their families for 1980 and for first nine months of 1981”.

This question was put down as the last question on the first day, and was not reached. Am I going to take three years before I could get this answer from the Prime Minister, who, on 12th October, had already the answer?

In this connection, there has been certain unhappiness at the way questions were placed for each day. I would suggest that this matter should be discussed, and all MPs given clear understanding as to the criteria used for the numbering or oral questions a day, so that there would be no suspicion that certain questions which would be embarrassing to the government were deliberately put well down the list, so that they would not come up for answering, and be lost on the limbo of the Government Printers for the next three years!

Also related to the importance of making Parliament a contemporary institution is the long delay of the Public Accounts Committee in presenting its report. The Auditor0General is already late in submitting its Annual Report on the Federal Accounts- the last one being for the year 1977, which is three years behind time. But the Public Accounts Committee is even later, as it had not yet submitted its report for 1975, 1976 and 1977 Federal Accounts. Unless the Prime Minster gives his personal attention, is it likely that the PAC may not be able to table its 1975, 1976 and 1977 Reports before the dissolution of the present Parliament!

As the Public Accounts Committee is appointed for the life of each Parliament, if the PAC fails to table its 1975, 1976 and 1977 Reports before dissolution of Parliament, then all its work, examination and recommendations for these years would lapse, and the new PAC for the next Parliament would have to go back over the Auditor-General’s Report for 1975, 1976 and 1977 all over again- as I do not think that PAC for the next Parliament would be acting responsibility in just adopting the lapsed recommendations for the present PAC!

Call for extension of time for budget debates

The Prime Minister has proposed that for Fridays, the Dewan Rakyat should meet from 3 p.m. to 7p.m. as compared to the 2.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. for the other days.

Parliamentary meeting hours per day, should, in fact, be lengthened to allow for more time for MPs to take part in debates, especially the Budget debate.

Since 1963, there had been an increase of Parliamentary membership from 104 MPs to the present 145MPs. In the early 1960s, the total Federal budget expenditure per year did not even reach $1 billion, but this year alone, the Government is asking for a Federal Budget for 1982 amounting to $31.95 billion!

Both in terms of membership and subject-matters, there is a grave need for more Parliamentary time for MPs to take part in debate, as every year, there are many complaints, especially from my party colleagues, that they did not get enough time for debate, especially during the major Parliamentary debates on the Budget and the Royal Address.

Call for the provision of Opposition Business Days in Parliament

The Opposition in Parliament is an integral part of Parliament, and Opposition business must be regard and accepted as much part of Parliamentary business as Governemnt business.

In this regard, I note that before each Parliamentary meeting, Parliament officials who announce to the press the Parliamentary business which it had been given notice, always disregard Opposition business, like Opposition motions. I hope that Parliament officials will take note of this and rectify accordingly.

For instance, I have given for the current Parliamentary meeting notices for three motions, one on the declaration publicly of assets by Ministers, Deputy Ministers and MPs; second one on the Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor-General’s Report, and thirdly, to condemn the extremist and chauvinist speeches and demands of UMNO Youth Leader, Haji Suhaimi Kamarrudin, whose actions gravely undermine national unity. There must be parliamentary procedural conventions which permit the Opposition to initiate parliamentary business during what should be termed as Opposition Business Days.