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Parliament in Disarray PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 09 April 2010 13:47

By Zaid Ibrahim

First published in

In many of the better business books, descriptions on the most preferred quality and characteristics of a company’s CEO, tend to always stress on the importance of honesty and integrity.

While the nature of nations and businesses are vastly different, being different entities with different processes and aims, structurally they do have the similar needs for good management, efficient performance, quality output and progress. Seen in this light, certainly the nation, and all of its processes, must acquire ‘CEOs’ with the highest honesty and integrity.


Does this fact however hold true for Malaysia?


Looking at recent trends, I am inclined to believe, maybe not so. Whilst companies may need a CEO with all the finest attributes, it does not however look very necessary in Malaysia for a person to have such attributes, if one would like to become Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat or the Chairman of the Elections Commission, for example. In fact I am tempted to argue that it may not even be desirable for you to have such qualities if you wish to head such organisations in this country.


Before I elaborate, let me first confess of my excitement when Pak Lah first announced Integrity as the cornerstone of his administration a few years back. I thought this is what the country sorely needs. However unfortunately, after much fanfare and millions of Ringgit gone astray, all we have today is the Institute of Integrity and very little else. Maybe, ‘Integrity in Governance’ is not included within APCO’s Terms of Reference, perhaps that’s why….


I remember that in the good old days, JKR officers would even record the amount visitors spent on them for coffee and curry puffs at the office canteen. In the good old days, judges were prepared for the sack but remained steadfast and true to their principles and convictions. A certain Central Bank Governor opted to resign rather than suffer the humiliation of having to take orders from politicians. Well friends, those days are long gone and it looks like as if persons of integrity may never hold the reign at any of our state institutions again.


Today if you like to remain in the helm you would have to play politics and do as what the political masters tell you to do, no complications please – integrity seems to be the hardest word.

Which explains why the Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speakers have conducted themselves in such fashion last week? The Speakers have lost control of the Dewan. Its absolute mayhem every day. The shouting matches and the wasting of hours of precious debating time is due to their lack of understanding of the role of Parliament and their own position and authority to regulate the proceedings in the House firmly and fairly. Their handling of the issues pertaining to Standing Order 36 (12) violations by MPs is shameful.


Yes members of the Dewan must not make misleading and deliberately untruthful statements. That’s the essence of Order 36. Whilst Erskine May correctly states that the rule is applicable to all members of Parliament, in terms of actual parliamentary practice based on proceedings in England and Canada and Australia, the rule not to “misled the House” is meant to ensure compliance by Ministers in Government to tell the truth and not lie to Parliament.


This is what is known as Ministerial responsibility to Parliament, and the Rule “not to misled” is to ensure Ministers not to lie in Parliament. We can glean this principle by looking into the cases of John Profumo, John Biffen and the Westland Affair. If we read the British or Canadian Hansard, the reported cases involving the offence of “misleading the House” will always refer to Ministers who have lied or misled the House on the facts under their charge. Due to this demand for strict integrity in discharging one’s ministerial responsibility and accountability to the Parliament, British and Canadian Ministers must exhibit the highest sincerity and honesty while furnishing their replies to Parliamentary queries.


To translate this context within our legislative process then, as an example – should the Defence Minister state that the contract for the maintenance of our submarines amounted to RM270 million, and if other Parliamentarians can indeed prove that this figure is wrong, then the Minister concerned should rightly be referred to the Committee for action. Similarly, when at some point the Deputy Minister of Defence states that the commissions for the purchase of some submarines was in the region of RM450 million while on another occasion the Minister himself maintains that no such commissions were paid, it suggests to us that someone is possibly lying. These then are some of the prime examples where the radar of the Speakers of the Dewan should bleep loudly. Such inconsistencies in data are what that they should be interested in.


The central aspect of the Westminster system is the ability of Parliament to acquire accurate information about Government and about Ministers giving truthful and complete answers to Parliament. This is what Order 36 is meant to address. Not to punish any statements by Opposition leaders and members of Parliament for statements BN do not agree with or embarrassing to them. Not to punish different interpretations of the same facts or to punish political viewpoints.


The Speaker must first rule whether the impugned statement is misleading on the face of it. Only then should he ask for a vote whether to refer or not to refer to the Privileges Committee. He must, on the facts or statements before him, decide independently and fairly whether a member has violated the rule before he takes a vote. So for instance, if he is satisfied with the explanation from YB Mahfuz that his statement APCO equals UMNO is merely an opinion then he should rule accordingly and stop the fracas.


The Speaker cannot punish a member for giving an opinion. If he thinks there is some serious factual errors and made deliberately to misled the House, he must give his reasons after getting the explanation from the Member. He could ask YB Mahfuz to correct them and apologise, and that would be the end of the matter. Or if he believes there is prima facie basis for the complaints then he can bring the matter to a vote. He cannot let the majority decide whether a wrong has been committed by an Opposition member because they majority will always say yes.


They always want to refer the Opposition Member to the Privileges Committee even if no wrong has been done. They always want to suspend an Opposition Member (better still if an Opposition Member joins them). If the Speaker is not willing to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Chair, then Parliament will become a dog house where yelling is the order of the day. There will be no time for debate on policies in Parliament. At this rate one wonders why should anyone be interested to be a Member of Parliament.


So Anwar Ibrahim now has to be referred to the Committee of Privileges and would probably be suspended for saying that there is similarity in the concept of One Malaysia and One Israel; and for suggesting the possibility that APCO may be responsible for these ideas? What crime or violation has he done? It is an opinion of an Opposition Leader. He gave his reasons to support his arguments and they were good, reasonable reasons.


Parliament must not and cannot afford to stifle its member and punish them too, just because they have embarrassed the government. Any member is given sufficient latitude to speak on any subject without fear of civil actions by the authorities. That is what Parliamentary Privileges mean. British politicians over the ages gave their life to secure independence of Parliament from the Monarch and other ecclesiastical powers. Unfortunately our own Parliament willingly stifles its own Yang Berhormat.


If Anwar had given any factual errors, the Chair could just resolve the matter fairly by asking him to correct them. What were the findings of the Deputy Speaker when he made the decision to refer Anwar to the Committee? Was it in his findings that an error was deliberately committed by Anwar to mislead the House? There was no ruling on the facts, only an assertion that the Speaker has the power to do so. But the facts seem to stay with Anwar. We can differ and disagree perhaps only on the conclusions.


The reason the Speaker has chosen to refer Anwar to the Committee was apparently because Nazri had said so. And Nazri said so because the Cabinet said so. In any other civilized country, Nazri and the entire Cabinet would be cited for contempt of Parliament! Parliament has to make its own decision, and not dictated by the Cabinet. This is the meaning of separation of powers and the independence of Parliament. This is what the Standing Orders are for, this is what the Privileges given to Yang Berhormat are for.


A Parliament with integrity cannot be seen to be shamelessly directed by the Executive, and the Cabinet Ministers. If this is the case, the Deputy Speaker then might as well dispense with the facade of the independence of the Parliament that they had spoken about and defended so vigorously back when they were backbenchers.


But you certainly cannot exercise independence and integrity if you build your career by depending on instructions with vested interests or unquestioningly taking orders, from parties with an agenda of their own, at the expense of the rakyat. How lofty positions can change us all.


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Last Updated on Saturday, 10 April 2010 00:58

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