On a quest for reasoned debate

DEWAN Rakyat Speaker Datuk Seri Azhar Azizan Harun says that Members of Parliament should stop making political speeches and concentrate on well-researched arguments so they won’t let down the millions of Malaysians who put them there.

At Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s request – and over the protests of the opposition, Pakatan Harapan – former Election Commission chief Azhar was sworn in to replace Tan Sri Mohd Ariff Md Yusof on July 13.

Two months into the job, in his first exclusive interview with The Star, Azhar says it has been a “steep learning curve” on the job for him.

Although he claims MPs may regard him as “with them or against them”, Azhar says he is now “sitting at eye-level” with the members of Malaysia’s House of Representatives from all sides by engaging them in every way possible.

> Why did you agree to accept the post when the request to change the Speaker was deemed by some to be controversial?I fulfil the requirement of being independent, and I thought I had proven myself as that at the Elec-tion Commission, so I thought there wouldn’t be any kind of problem.

Being a person who has friends in both ruling and opposition parties, I thought I could be some sort of a bridge, and I want to play that role.

I suppose it was naive of me to think I could do that, though – I never realised that in politics it is a zero sum game where “you are either with me or not”. If you are not, you are my enemy.

In retrospect, it was very naive of me!

> Though the Speaker is appointed and never elected, people still complained that you weren’t “voted in”. Can you explain this?I was not voted in. Yes, many complained that I was not voted in. True, I was not voted in, as there isn’t supposed to be any vote when there is only one nomination, and there isn’t supposed to be any debate. That is the standing order.

Even if there are many nominations, there is not supposed to be any debate.

One motion was to remove Tan Sri Ariff Md Yusof, the second motion was to appoint me.

> The motion to appoint you had to be voted on by the MPs and it passed by a razor-thin total of two votes. How do you feel about that?I do not feel that my appointment is less of an appointment because of that.

Frankly, I knew then that the government’s (Perikatan Nasional) majority was razor thin – the general thought was that the majority was 114 (from 222 seats). Deputy Speaker Datuk Mohd Rashid Hasnon, who was presiding, could not vote, that took another one out.

I expected a small majority, but that is how it works, it’s a numbers game.

> How did you react to the chaotic reception in the Dewan Rakyat on your first day as Speaker?That came as quite a shock. They (opposition MPs) are not my former friends, they are my friends. Everyone is a friend. I met everyone, including the opposition. To me, they are my friends – but I am not too sure how they regard me!

I did not expect the intensity of the opposition, or rather the ferocity. I expected opposition in the sense that Pakatan, which appointed Tan Sri Ariff, would oppose his removal. But I did not expect the intensity of the opposition to my appointment – we were friends and I still regard them as friends.

But then, by my second day itself, I felt accepted. On the first day, it was all the shouting and screaming of “barua” (lackey), etc. On the second day, the mood was more relaxed and they were ready to chill.

I must also say that I met all the party whips on both sides and they all renewed their commitment to not allowing racist, sexist or unparliamentary language. I find that very welcoming.

> Tell us about the job you signed up for. I act as a chair between the two sides in the House when they debate policies, laws affecting the nation, in the interest of the nation.

That was the job that I expected. To a certain extent that is the job I got but, of course, the mechanism and methodology of the debates and discourse, I would love to make them better.

> In the last two months, have you managed to be the Speaker that you want to be?It has a been a steep learning curve. I walked right into a huge war between two factions – it is unfortunate that it has become a war, it is not supposed to be.

I have had to learn fast, picking up nuances of objection and support and trying to get the feel on the ground about different issues and trying to manage these “warriors”.

> Were you or are you a member of any political party?As far as I know, I have never been a member of any political party.

> Since the PM proposed you for the job, do you think you are regarded as being supportive of Perikatan?I don’t blame the people for having such a perception, as it is only natural.

I have not changed but I think the side from which Party A is seeing me has changed. Before, party A was looking at me from the righ-hand side and Party B was looking at me from the left-hand side. Now, it is the other way round, they have changed sides. I have not (changed), I am in the middle.

I could be a sympathiser of Pakatan or Perikatan, but yet again, as the sworn-in Speaker, as was the case when I was Election Commission chairman, I cannot be a sympathiser of any side.

It is a job and a task entrusted to me and I have to carry out the task – I am always conscious of that.

People will always say, because you were appointed by A, you must be partial to A. But I proved that I was impartial with Pakatan as the Election Commission chair, as the then PM (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) criticised me over my take on the use of government assets (in an election).

> How do you get anything debated and passed in Parliament when there are so many factions?If you talk about democracy as a concept, our parliament is probably the most dynamic in the democratic world, as we have 109 MPs in the opposition and 113 in the government. The discourse is very robust, and the only party that would and should benefit from this robustness are the people.

There is so much that could be done when we have such dynamism. Of course it is difficult, a challenge for the government to get Bills passed because they have to be on their toes all the time – at any time a vote is called when you need to vote per person, the government would be overwhelmed if their members are not there.

If the MPs play their part well, the discourse would be top notch because of the strength of the opposition.

> Do you think that our MPs are up to the role that they have to play?They could be better. There are some MPs who are well-prepared, they’ve done their research well. Some, of course, are more prone towards making political speeches than anything else.

If a Bill is given much earlier, then of course they can be better prepared. However, one has to bear in mind that Bills are sometimes very delicate matters and require a long engagement and last minute fine tuning and those kinds of things – sometimes it is not possible to distribute the Bill much earlier, and that is also a constraint.

In the Dewan, we have 15 researchers who are being used by the MPs. I feel MPs should also have their own research teams.

> How do you stop the Dewan Rakyat from becoming a mill of laws rushed through without proper debate? On the last day of the last sitting, there were some complaints that we rushed through some of the Bills.

To me, I think there is enough time for debate if we stick to the issue. Unfortunately, many don’t. Many make political speeches during debates on issues. Because of that, proceedings tend to be hijacked by political issues, which have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

For example, during the debate on the drink-driving Bill, there were MPs who were trying to talk about the minister who visited Turkey and did not self-quarantine (Kuala Nerus MP Datuk Dr Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali), which had nothing to do with the drink- driving issue. It went on and on and because of that.

It became a bit rowdy and the proceedings were hijacked.

> Isn’t it your job to stop such rowdiness?When this happens, to a certain extent, it is my failure.

I need time to inculcate this sense of responsibility, to inculcate the political discourse that we should have.

> Is Malaysia a true parliamentary democracy?It depends how you define true parliamentary democracy. In the UK, you do not follow the party whip. Here, MPs have to follow the party whips. So it is arguable, on one hand, that that is not very democratic.

On the other hand, this is necessary because you have to follow party policy so you have a sense of collectivity among the MPs of the party. There are pros and cons about following party whips.

> Should MPs be allowed to break from the party line?Personally, I would like to see MPs be free to vote according to what they prefer.

But even in the UK, breaking away from the party Whip is still a big issue. Do we, at the “young” age of 63 years old, want that kind of dynamism? It is a question of readiness.

> Would MPs here vote according to their beliefs rather than following party lines?It is a question whether their party is willing to accept that. The MPs are quite capable of knowing what is right and what is wrong or of pursuing their own political stand on issues. But is the party that they represent willing to allow their MPs that kind of freedom?

> What are the issues you would give precedence to, after the usual government matters that take priority?

To my mind, after government matters, is basically constitutionalism – constitutional rights and fundamental liberties, these are issues close to my heart. When I thought of recreating select committees, this was the first on my list.

If I had the power, I would prioritise these issues. I have no power, though, as the standing order spells out the priority of motions and the Dewan’s agenda, and when it comes to government business, the government decides what business comes first.

As it is in written form, no avenue and no discretion is allowed.

> What is your perfect scenario for the Dewan?

If I could provoke a discourse that strikes at the heart of the matter under discussion, that is sufficient to show the world that the Dewan Rakyat can argue and debate issues without getting emotional – to me, that would be the kind of Dewan Rakyat we need.

It is in the nature of Malaysians not to go to extremes, I think we know our limits, but of course there will be those who test limits. So that is where my deputies and I will have to do our duty as the chair.

> How do you keep cool and not lose your temper?I surprise myself (laughing)! I am actually always conscious of the fact that people are looking at me. Actually, there are a lot of things happening behind the scenes in these kinds of situations.

I will probably call the MP in question. They may need prodding, I will continue doing that, to engage with the MPs.

> Are you comfortable with the protocols?I am not comfortable in a robe and I am not comfortable with the trappings of the seat.

I am also not good with too many people around me, but I do not feel trapped, as I love the job and I love the engagement I have with the MPs. I have not stopped engaging since day two, until today.

I enjoy talking with the MPs and getting a feel of the “air”. I am the first Speaker to go to the coffee lounge, and I do that because I like to sit down and get the general feel of the “air” on certain days, with certain MPs.

I thought I could do the same as I did during the Election Commission, when I could sit with both sides, but here, it is a bit different apparently because it is a political battlefield where you are either “with me or not with me”.

> How long do you think you will last as Speaker?I don’t know. If there is a new government, and they do not want me, all they need to do is WhatsApp me and say, “Azhar, we are a new government and we do not want you”. I give you my assurance that I will resign there and then.

I am not going to wait for a motion to be filed and a motion to be moved and for a war to erupt in the Dewan to replace me.

If I am not wanted, I will go. I would be pleased to return to my (law) practice again. That is what democracy is about – the will of the majority.

> Do you represent the will of the people when you sit up there?I suppose I have to represent the millions of people when I sit there because I preside over the House of Representatives, a house which is filled with members elected by a General Election. In that sense, I do like to think I represent Malaysians.

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