(Part 2) of Paper presented by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Tanjong, Lim Kit Siang, at the ALIRAN Conference on “Reflections on the Malaysian Constitution – 30 years after Independence” on “The Role of Parliament” held at Federal Hotel, Kuala Lumpur on 15-16, August 1987.
Opposition does not oppose for the sake of Opposition but is the conscience of Parliament and guardian of government accountability
Although Parliament is the highest law-making body in the country, it is only so in a most formal sense. If we picture the legislative process as involving four overlapping functions:
We will find that Parliament is not involved in Stage 1 or 4, very formally in Stage 2 and only involved in Stage 3. Hence, it may be more correct to say that Parliament does not legislate, but merely legitimizes what the Executive has decided should be legislated.
This is most unsatisfactory, and gives Parliament the character of a ‘rubber-stamp’ of the Executive, especially as important bills are invariably given to MPs a few days before they are presented in Parliament for passage, even if it had taken the government five or six years to formulate.
The legislative process must be opened up, and the formulation and deliberation stages must involve the widest public participation. This was the point DAP MPs put to the Education Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, when we met him, and we expressed our concern at the secrecy surrounding the government’s year-long revision of the Education Act 1961.
I asked the Education Minister whether MPs are going to be dumped with a bulky Bill on governments to the Education Act two days before they are required to debate and enact it into law. Anwar said he was a ‘democrat’ and would do not such thing. He said that he would be asking for a Cabinet decision on the ‘guidelines’ for the revision to the Education Act, 1961, and he would make a public announcement on the ‘guidelines’ after the Cabinet decision, and members of public would be welcome to give their views and representations on the revision.
The whole process of legislation should be opened up and democratized, so that MPs will rarely have to experience a situation where they go to Parliament not knowing what are the Bills that would be tabled for the meeting, and have no way whatever to prepare for them by consulting the interested organizations or persons concerned.
The democratization can take place by the government observing the following three steps for every legislation:
1. Green Paper. Once the government intends to introduce any legislative proposal, it should announce its broad intentions in a Green paper, which will serve as a discussion paper for the nation where public views, representations and memorandum could be sent to the Ministry concerned. This public input must be taken into consideration by the Ministry in deciding whether to abandon the legislative proposal, or to put the legislative proposal into concrete form of a Bill;
2. White Paper. The government should issue a White Paper on the Bill after it had been approved by Cabinet, to allow public time to study and discuss it before its presentation in Parliament;
3. Parliamentary Enactment. The Minister in charge of the Bill must be in command of the legislative proposals he is introducing, and he prepared to amend the Bill to take into account public views and the parliamentary debate. Unfortunately, most Ministers are not familiar with the Bills they are taking through Parliament in the various stages, and they therefore dare not change a word or comma, even if they agree with criticisms of the Bill.
Parliament is the highest political forum in the land, and yet there are Speakers, Ministers and MPs who claim that Parliament should not be turned into a political forum.
Parliament must be the vortex of political controversy of the country, or it would have failed in its role as the highest political forum.
The Malaysian Parliament has developed the art of ignoring political realities and controversies, and the two recent examples were the Constitutional Crisis of 1983 and the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance Scandal. When both incidents blew up into national proportions, the government could still maintain in Parliament that they didn’t exist!
Over the years, the Standing Orders have been amended to make it more difficult to make Parliament a meaningful political forum, where parliamentary discussion is open, free, representative and comprehensive. Time has been used as a main weapon by the Government to deny the Opposition the opportunity to fully use Parliament to conduct a national inquest into the affairs of the nation.
Recently, there has been a tendency for the Speaker or Deputy Speaker to make arbitrary and perverse decisions, which for all intents and purposes are unchallengeable and without appeal.
For instance, in last October’s Parliament, MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Guan Eng, submitted questions asking for racial breakdown of the police officers, superscale government officers, and student intake into the various universities and faculties. They were rejected by the Speaker on the ground of infringement of Standing Order 23(2), which empowers him to disallow questions which “is calculated to promote feelings of ill-will or hostility between the different communities.”
This is most amazing, for Ministers can real off racial breakdown of statistics in the House as well as outside, but when the Opposition MPs ask for racial breakdown for various information, it becomes a matter which is “calculated to promote feelings of ill-will or hostility between the different communities.”
In all three functions of control of government finance, legislative and deliberation, wide-ranging parliamentary reforms are needed to make Parliament more effective and dynamic.
ROLE OF OPPOSITION
In this connection, I wish to refer to certain misconception that the role of the Opposition is to oppose for opposition’s sake. The public credibility and support, but must create for itself a special role, acting as the conscience of Parliament and the guardian of government accountability.
This is not an easy role when the Opposition does not have concrete powers or independent sources of information, and faces a whole battery of repressive laws like the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act.
Parliamentary short-comings and ineffectiveness is the result of the political decision of the government, which is not prepared to respect the doctrine of separation of powers among the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary as provided for in the Merdeka Constitution.
Other contributory factors include the non-observance of the twin principle of collective Ministerial responsibility and individual Ministerial responsibility or his department.
The considerable powers given to the Ministers rest on the premise that they effectively control the bureaucracy in their department and could stand up in Parliament to account for their responsibilities. From the way Ministers answer questions or evade the question time, we can know whether a Minister is a master or a servant of his department. Any student who makes a study of Ministers who have evaded question time most, will find that the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 Ministers are from the MCA!
In the last 30 years, no major parliamentary reforms had taken place in Malaysia, with our Parliamentary institution at a stand-still while other legislatures had experimented with innovations to make them more effective and meaningful like having Parliamentary Select Committee on Specialised Subjects, like Education, Defence, Economy, Housing, etc. If Parliament is to regain the functions, powers and responsibilities as envisaged in the Merdeka Constitution of 1957, there must first be a greater political awakening among the Malaysian people which is translated into political pressure for wide-ranging parliamentary reforms.