UMNO-cracy is stifling the healthy growth of democracy and parliamentary practices and traditions

Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, at the University of Malaya Public Admisntration Club forum on ‘Parliamentary Democracy’ held at Faculty of Economics and Administration, University of Malaya on Friday, 15.11.1985 at 9 p.m.

UMNO-cracy is stifling the healthy growth of democracy and parliamentary practices and traditions

Early this year, the Government belatedly and very formalistically, celebrated the Silver Jubilee of the Malaysian Parliament. There was no attempt to assess and evaluate the record of the last 25 years’ of parliamentary than to celebrate.

There are people, especially those in power, whose concept and proof of Parliamentary Democracy in Malaysia is the imposing Parliament House, the regular holding of general elections and the existence of Members of Parliament. To them, thse are evidence enough of the functioning of parliamentary democracy in Malaysia.

In July this year, during the debate on my motion on parliamentary democracy in Malaysia, the Gerakan MP for Tanjong, Dr. Koh Tsu Koon, argued that the fact that in every general elections, there is a high voter turn-out of over 70% shows that there is a successful parliamentary democracy. By Dr. Koh’s reasoning, Soviet Union must be the most democratic country in the world for they can get 99% or even 100% turn out in their elections!

These are people who are solely concerned about the external trappings and the form but not the substance and meaning of parliamentary democracy. In the July Parliamentary debate, for instance, the Gerakan Deputy Agriculture Minister, Dr. Goh Cheng Teik, welcome the Opposition to make hard-hitting criticisms in Parliament, if the drains are clogged, if the garbage are not collected, or if the power supply breaks down, but he does not want the Opposition to raise big issues, which would be emotional or what he said ‘exploited’. By this, Dr. Goh means Parliament is not a place for the major national issues, like human rights, poverty, injustice, corruption like the $2.5 billion BMF scandal, racial polarisation, national disunity, etc to be raised.

History of parliamentary democracy is a history of progressive emasculation democratic rights and parliamentary rights and parliamentary sovereignty

Parliamentary democracy means nothing if it does not mean the democratic right of the people to decide Malaysia’s national destiny and the right of Parliament as the apex of the political system to be the final repository of the people’s trust and power.

Unfortunately in the last 28 years since Merdeka, parliamentary democracy in Malaysia had suffered the double-pincer attack where the democratic rights of the people had been relentlessly curtailed, while Parliament’s role as the highest legislative and deliberative chamber in the country progressively usurped!

One will not be far wrong for saying that the history of parliamentary democracy in Malaysia is the history of the progressive emasculation of the democratic rights of the people and the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

Parliamentary democracy cannot operate in a vacuum, with only an imposing Parliament House and regular general elections. Human rights is a pre-condition to democracy, and the trampling of human rights is also trampling of democracy in Malaysia.

I deplore Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir’s talk about ‘progressive repression’, ‘anarchy’ and ‘death of democracy’ when he should be talking of ‘progressive democratisation’ and ‘greater freedom and political maturity’ in the country.

I would urge the Prime Minister not to allow the worries of certain Barisan Nasional leaders about the ability of the Barisan Nasional to maintain its fourth-fifth or even two-thirds majority to press panic buttons to prepare for a new period of repression. This may be good for the Barisan Nasional, but certainly a disaster for Malaysia.

Before the 1982 general elections, there was also an attempt to impose greater repression, as in the move to deregister ALIRAN and to amend the Societies Act. Surely the Barisan Nasional is not so unsure of its political power base that every time before a general elections, it must resort or threaten a whole paraphernalia of repressive and undemocratic measures – to the extent of talking about the ‘death of democracy’?

The fundamental rights of freedom of speech, expression, assemble, association enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution have been so qualified and limited that they are no more fundamental rights, but have become fundamental wrongs!

Parliamentary democracy comes under attack when the people do not have the fundamental right to free press, expression and information to enable them to make intelligent choices from competing policy alternatives, viewpoints, political parties and candidates.

If through the government control over the press, radio and television and other forms of mass media, the people are presented virtually with only one voice or one view, and a whole paraphernalia of repressive laws are used to shut out alternative views, whether by the ban on public rallies, or the use of University and University Colleges Act, the Trade Unions Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act,/etc to prevent the free expression of dissent by the political opposition, trade union and peasant leaders, university academicians and students, then the parliamentary democracy that we have in Malaysia is far from a genuine article.

As a result, the freedom to vote of the Internal Security Act, a Malaysian had been deprived of much of its meaning and substance, not only because of unfair electoral weightage and delineation of constituencies, but most important of all, because of the deprivation of the voter the right to information and opinion to enable him to freely and intelligently exercise his vote.

Parliament a Rubber Stamp of Executive

Paralled with the relentless erosion of the fundamental liberties of the people is the progressive degradation of Parliament’s role to a mere rubber stamp of the Executive without a mind or a will of its own.

In his speech at the Eight Malaysia Law Conference yesterday, the Prime Minister said that ‘If a democracy is to survive, the limits of the freedom granted must be observed judiciously. The division and the balance of power between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary must be observed.’

The person most guilty of upsetting the ‘division and balance of power between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary’ is none other than the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, himself.

Over the years, the Executive (or to be more correct, the Prime Minister) had repeatedly usurped the powers of the legislature and judiciary.

The 1983 Constitutional Crisis is the best example, for not only was Parliament required to adopt the Constitutional amendments affecting the likely implications and repercussions, Cabinet Ministers were as much in the dark as ordinary Barisan Nasional MPs.

The Barisan Ministers have now become so addicted to usurping the powers and role of Parliament that they seemed to have turned the principle of parliamentary sovereignty upside down, believing that it is no more Parliament which is supreme and sovereign, but the Ministers; that it is no more the Executive answerable to Parliament, but the reverse!

This explained why when I asked in the current meeting of Parliament the latest estimates for the total costs of the Lumut Naval Base, which had already faced $720 million cost overruns from the original $480 million to $1.2 billion, and whether nuclear missile facilities are being installed at the Base, the Ministry of Defense refused to answer on the ground that it involved government secrecy.

The government comes to Parliament for approval for allocations to Ministry of Defence, but when MPs asked for information about the expenditure, we are told that it is ‘secret’- including the total costs of the Lumut Naval Base!

If Parliament has a mind and a will of its own, and understands the meaning of the principle of sovereignty of Parliament, then Parliament should not vote a single cent for the Ministry of Defence’s budget for next year, and let them crawl to Parliament to beg for the money!

But then, this is expecting MPs who know their rights, powers and responsibilities, as well as their historic role to promote and defend parliamentary democracy in Malaysia.

If this is the case, then we will not have the spectacle on Wednesday, when the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Mohamed Khalil Ya’akob, stood up to interrupt me from talking about Petronas during the Committee stage on the Prime Minister’s Department, on the ground that there is no vote provided for Petronas.

Datuk Khalil forgot that he is paid his Ministerial salary to partly look after Petronas, and if Petronas cannot be discussed in Parliament because there is no direct vote to Petronas, then he must be prepared to suffer a salary cut to the Ministerial pay.

The sad thing about the episode is that Barisan backbenchers jumped up to support the Minister in his attempt to stop me from talking about Petronas affairs, when they should be defending parliament’s right to hold Petronas to public account!

I must say that the height of irresponsibility by the parliamentary majority took place last month when Government MPs voted in rejection of the Fifth Parliamentary Accounts Committee Report because I had moved a motion to adopt it. What must cap it all is that the Chairman of Fifth PAC, Datuk Lee Boon Peng, now a mere backbencher in the sixth Parliament, also voted to reject his own PAC Report. This must be the only instance of parliamentary ‘filicide’ – ‘killing of son or daughter’ – in Commonwealth Parliamentary history.

Parliament has abdicated its responsibility as the custodian of parliamentary democracy

Parliament, as presently constituted, as abdicated from its responsibility as the custodian of parliamentary democracy, to protect fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, to check the abuses of governmental power as in the illegitimate exercise of emergency powers (to the extent that Malaysians are today living under four Proclamations of Emergency) and preserve the delicate division and balance of power between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.

The Malaysian Parliament also seems to suffer from an impotence-wish, for it keeps amending its Standing Orders not to enlarge the area of responsibility of MPs as in the establishment of Parliamentary Specialist Committees to take a more effective part in policy-making, but in chopping away the rights, freedoms and even privileges of MPs from freely speaking up in Parliament the aspirations and grievances of the people.

A new assault at parliamentary democracy by UMNO-cracy?

I would like to state tonight that the healthy growth of democracy and parliamentary practices and traditions are being stifled by spreading UMNO-cracy – the belief in the inalienable and sovereign right of UMNO to rule rather than the people.

UMNO-cracy has led to the loss by MCA of two key Cabinet posts in the 1970s, namely the post of Finance Minister and Industry and Trade Minister.

UMNO-carcy has developed to a stage where the National UMNO National Vice President, Ghaffar Baba, has virtually taken over the running of MCA and become its Acting President displacing Datuk Dr Neo Yee Pan. We read in today’s press for instance, that the Ghaffar Baba MCA Ad Hoc Committee had even taken the decision of rejecting the MCA Headquarters’ suggestion for a MCA Presidential Address to be included in the agenda for the MCA’s Nov.24 General Assembly.

It was UMNO-cracy which caused the creation of the artificial emergency in Kelantan in 1977 resulting in the toppling of the PAS Government.

It is again UMNO-cracy which must bear responsibility for the Sabah political and constitutional crisis, which I will come to later, because of its importance to parliamentary democracy in Malaysia.

UMNO-cracy at its ugliest form was seen yesterday’s in the speech of the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, at the Malaysian Law Conference yesterday, where his veiled threat of ‘death of democracy’ cannot go unchallenged.

Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir attacked what he called ‘newly-formed pressure groups’ for challenging authorities and arrogating to themselves ‘powers that are not legitimately theirs’, and he claimed that these pressure groups are capable of ‘quite considerabel’ ‘dusruptive capacity’.

Who are these ‘newly-formed pressure groups’ which according to the Prime Minister, are such terrifying organizations which seem to be capable of bring the entire government machinery to its knees, leading to civil disorder and breakdown of national law and order.

I search the entire national landscape and sould not find any such groups to fit the Prime Minister’s description. Well I can see Dr. Chandra Muzaffar and Aliran; Jomo K. Sundram and INSAN, Gurmit singh and Selangor Graduates Society; Mohd. Idris and CAP.

The warning by the Information Minister, Datuk Rais Yatim after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting that the government has decided to take a ‘serious view’ of consumer movements running down the administration is a very clear indication. I do not know whether I should also sight Param Cumaraswamy and the Bar Council, or our former Prime Ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn.

But I cannot by any stretch of imagination envisage these people, even collectively, capable of what the Prime Minister said of ‘quite considerable’ ‘disruptive capacity’.

They don’t really fit the Prime Minister’s Bill, but apart from them, I am at a complete loss as to who else Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir could be referring to.

What is even more shocking is that Dr. Mahathir went on in his speech to paint a scenario which he said must lead to the ‘death of democracy’:

“The reaction of the legitimate authorities to the disruptive challenge to their authority is either to become progressively repressive or to retreat from their responsibility. The latter will result in anarchy which in turn will attract forces keen on a seizure of power. Once this happens the usurper will discard democracy and resort to repression in order to stay in power. Either way disruptive challenges to authority in a democracy will lead to repression and the death of democracy.”

Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir’s message seems to be: Accept repression now, or later you have to accept repression in any event by a Usurper of Power!

I reject Dr. Mahathir’s scenario or prescription because his premise that there is very grave disruptive challenge to authority is without basis and pure figment of imagination. There are mounting challenges to the Barisan Nasional, I concede, but these challenges are made within the confines of the law and the parameters of the Constitution and Parliamentary democracy.

The Barisan Nasional, and UMNO in particular, may have good reason to believe that in the next general elections, it is unlikely to repeat the landslide victory they scored in the 1982 general elections. And the Opposition will be trying its utmost to deny the Barisan Nasional its traditional two-thirds majority which had enabled it to amend the Constitution at will.

But this challenge to the Barisan Nasional and UMNO is at most a challenge to UMNO-cracy, and not democracy, least of all the system of parliamentary democracy in Malaysia. If anything, it is to fulfil and to give meaning and substance to our system of parliamentary democracy.

UMNO-cracy cannot be equated with democracy, just as the ups and downs of a leader or a party cannot be equated with that of the nation.

I concede that I am very disturbed by Dr. Mahathir’s speech, for to me, it seem to be a fore-warning of a new wave of repression against democratic freedoms and fundamental rights in the run-up to the coming general elections.

In the same speech, Dr. Mahathir said that if democracy is to survive, it must be understood that freedom is not licence. He said: ‘Minorities too do not have unlimited rights’. He should have added: ‘Majorities also do not have unlimited rights. The biggest threat to democracy in Malaysia comes not from the minorities, but from the majority.