Elected reps can do better than this

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  • Saturday, 09 Nov 2019

IT IS not uncommon to witness heated exchanges between government and opposition members in the Sarawak Legislative Assembly during question time or debate sessions.

The politicking has intensified since Pakatan Harapan took over Putrajaya last year but remains the opposition in Sarawak, which holds state elections separately from parliamentary polls, leading to both sides taking pot shots at each other over the respective policies, promises and conduct of the federal and state governments.

It's no different in the current sitting which began on Monday (Nov 4), but a shouting match during the budget debate on Thursday (Nov 7) resulted in an extraordinary intervention by the Speaker to stop a lawmaker's speech halfway through.

DAP's Kota Sentosa assemblyman Chong Chieng Jen was about 12 minutes into his allotted 20 minutes when his description of the budget as "hot air" and similar to 1MDB sparked a furious reaction from ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) members.

Many of them could be heard shouting that the federal government had broken its promises to Sarawak and Chong himself had lied because he did not fulfil Pakatan's manifesto pledges of giving Sarawak 20% oil royalty and 50% of all taxes collected in the state.

This prompted Speaker Datuk Amar Mohamad Asfia Awang Nassar to cite Standing Order 52(11), which provides that the Speaker may disallow a motion or amendment or to terminate a debate if he is of the opinion that it threatens to breach standing orders.

Taken by surprise, Chong queried,"Mr Speaker, just because they shouted, they are rowdy, you are going to penalise me?"

Asfia replied,"Because you made outrageous statements that provoked them to react, this standing order gives me the power to disallow the continuation of the debate. It cannot go on because continuation of the debate gives rise to breaches of the standing orders."

This ruling should in no way be taken to mean that assemblymen can in future create a row in order to stop another member from continuing to speak, especially on matters they disagree with.

What got lost in all this ruckus is that Chong was raising valid concerns about the state budget, in particular the alternative financing model for allocations above the proposed 2020 development expenditure.

Citing three key strategic initiatives in the budget, he said RM13.357bil was allocated for accelerating development in rural areas, RM3.742bil for water and electricity supply projects and RM400mil for digital economy initiatives. This adds up to more than double the RM6.597bil allocated for development expenditure.

"Where is the additional RM10bil coming from? Am I not right to say this is a hot air budget when there are no actual funds provided for the promises stated in this House?"

He also said he was worried by the alternative financing model of raising the additional funds from the Development Bank of Sarawak as this would incur debts for the state government.

"To me, this is off-budget accounting or off-balance sheet financing, where the government guarantees payment of loans without the amount of debt appearing in the state balance sheet.

"This is the same modus operandi as 1MDB. I urge the state government and Chief Minister to come clean on this," he said.

Of course, you can argue that Chong doesn't help himself by repeatedly calling the budget "hot air" and insinuating that the state government was emulating the previous Barisan Nasional administration in incurring debts while fearing the loss of power in the next state election.

Nevertheless, the large sums and alternative financing model proposed in the state budget deserve more scrutiny in the interest of transparency and accountability. How this new model works should be explained clearly and in sufficient detail to allay concerns about whether it would really incur debts for the state.

Elected representatives would serve the people better by scrutinising these matters and asking for the necessary details, instead of engaging in political wrangling and rows.

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