Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malaysia Has No Parliament

Written by johnleemk on 11:42:24 pm Dec 17, 2007.
Categories: ,

If there is one thing virtually everyone can agree on when it comes to Malaysian democracy, it is that Parliament is important. Our Members of Parliament are the only elected representation we have at the federal level. We do not elect our Prime Minister or our King, but we do elect our MPs.

In Britain, the country we derived much of our governmental system from, Parliament is even more important — the term "Parliamentary sovereignty" uniquely applies to Britain because instead of a written constitution, the supreme institution there is Parliament. British Parliamentarians fiercely defend their independence, and have even been willing to lay down their lives to defend their right to deliberate independently. Heck, they waged an entire civil war on the issue.

British MPs obviously have a heritage of taking themselves and their roles very seriously, and this has been passed on to many other Parliamentary democracies. Regardless of whether you are in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, you will find that MPs pull no punches in making the government sweat during question time, and that MPs vote independently on a variety of important issues, regardless of which party they hail from.

Indeed, dissent is something highly thought of in these other democracies. The first (and until recently, only) speech ever to receive a standing ovation in Britain's House of Commons was the resignation speech of Robin Cook, a minister in Tony Blair's government, where he outlined his opposition to the Iraq War and called on MPs to join him in voting against the decision to go to war.

Cook was among 135 MPs from the ruling party, Labour, to vote against the decision to wage war. Remarkably, the vote on the critical motion was won 396 to 217 — a very substantial amount of dissent, considering that the official line of both Labour and the largest opposition party, the Conservatives, was supportive of the war.

Contrast that Parliamentary independence with the kind we have in Malaysia. Here, some — most notably former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — have made noises about Parliamentary supremacy (apparently ignorant of the unconstitutionality of this tenet), but if anything, our country is outstanding in how effectively we have rendered Parliament useless.

Parliament has always been little more than a convenient tool of the government, something handy to invoke when you need a good excuse for something undemocratic or otherwise apparently undesirable. Former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail defended the implementation of the abhorrent Internal Security Act by pointing out that Parliament would check abuses of executive power. Good call, Doc, except that thanks to your party, Parliament has never had any meaningful ability to check misconduct on the part of the government.

As a matter of fact, when was the last time we had a real, relevant debate in Parliament about the state of the country? Every time I open a newspaper or load up an alternative news website, all I have to read is some nonsensical remark about how the Parliament building is like an old woman, or how non-Muslims who reject the notion that we are an Islamic country should be exiled.

History books don't have many nice things to say about Parliament in the days of yore either. One salient feature, according to one historian, was how so many MPs were concerned about fording streams so their female constituents would not have to hike up their skirts to cross the river, instead of discussing issues of national concern or taking the government to task for its behaviour.

A typical Parliamentary democracy has whips for its political parties — people who see to it that MPs vote in accordance with the party line. However, the whip is only ever called out in extraordinary circumstances, when the very survival of the government of the day depends on the outcome of a vote. The Iraq War was a defining feature of the Blair administration, but did Blair call out the whip? He did not.

Meanwhile, let's see how the Malaysian government handled an issue like the separation of Singapore. What did Tunku Abdul Rahman do when one influential MP — Syed Jaafar Albar — threatened to vote against the motion which would effect separation? He virtually forced the man out of the positions of power he held. That is the kind of attitude our government has taken to even the tiniest mote of dissent amongst Parliamentarians. Would it have hurt to debate the issue? Of course not — at the most, it would have delayed separation, but if separation was truly inevitable, it would have occurred eventually. But even a bit of debate was simply intolerable to the government.

That remains the case today. Mahathir personally threatened all Barisan Nasional legislators after two state assemblymen from Penang refused to vote against a motion proposed by the opposition. The message was simple: the whip is always in effect, no matter what. Always support the government, no matter what. This attitude was of course only maintaining the fine tradition set by Mahathir's predecessors, and is one which has been continued in the Abdullah Badawi administration.

It is thus extremely ironic to think that it was none other than Mahathir who pointedly observed in The Malay Dilemma that:

In the main, Parliamentary sittings were regarded as a pleasant formality which afforded members opportunities to be heard and quoted, but which would have absolutely no effect on the course of the Government. ... The sittings were a concession to a superfluous democratic practice. Its main value lay in the opportunity to flaunt Government strength.
What a perfect summary of the government's approach to Parliament — its value is timeless, its applicability permanent, unaffected by the passage of time. It is rivaled in terms of succinctness, however, by the present Prime Minister's statement that MPs have "no leeway or freedom to do as they like".

The latest instance of the government's chilling approach to dissent, of course, has been the case of S. K. Devamany, the Member of Parliament for Cameron Highlands. Devamany made an about-face of sorts on his remarks about the recent Hindu Rights Action Force rally in Kuala Lumpur, demanding during Question Time to know why more has not been done to aid the marginalised Indian community:

The government's response, naturally, was to hold Devamany accountable for daring to voice the concerns of the people he works for. He did not even vote against the government; he simply asked a pointed question during Question Time (where the government's view of Parliament is perhaps eloquently summarised by the fact that a Deputy Minister is usually sent to answer questions, in the place of the Ministers or Prime Minister).

Now, how are we a proper representative democracy if our representatives are not free "to do as they like"? What authority does the Prime Minister have to regulate or restrict Parliament or Parliamentarians? Not one whit! The only things governing MPs should be the laws they pass, and the Constitution they swear to uphold — not unelected officials like the Prime Minister or the King.

If Parliament is not going to act independently of the executive, what is the point of having a Parliament separate from the government? We may as well have no Parliament at all, and that is precisely what we have, seeing as how the MPs we elect are impotent, and the quality of oration in the greatest chamber of the land atrocious.

As long as our MPs refuse to stand for the people who elected them, Malaysians should know better than to support candidates whose ultimate allegiance is to their party instead of their country, their Constitution, or their people. Malaysians deserve a Parliament which will take the government to task for not doing its job properly, and which actually does a proper job of overseeing the government. We deserve a Parliament full of vibrant debate about the right course for the country to take, not full of insults and pointless bickering.

A party with a policy of sacking and suspending elected representatives who speak up for the people they represent is a party which has no business in the government. If we truly want to set our government in its place, if we want to check the abuses of power which mark our country, we must vote out the party which has ruined and destroyed our Parliament — Barisan Nasional.

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