DATUK Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis was winding up the Supply Bill 2004 on Thursday when news of the death of Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tun Dr Mohamed Zahir Ismail reached the House.
It was the last day of the meeting, which began on Sept 1, and the Science, Technology and Innovation Minister was busy replying to queries relating to the Budget when he was signalled to wrap up his speech.
“I apologise for not being able to finish my reply but there is an important announcement about someone who is very close to us,” said Dr Jamaluddin.
Minutes earlier, the secretary of the House approached Deputy Speaker Datuk Lim Si Cheng, who was chairing the proceedings.
Then, Lim's fellow Deputy Speaker Dr Yusof Yacob took over the Chair and made the announcement to a hushed House.
His voice breaking, Dr Yusof asked all the MPs to stand and observe a minute of silence as a mark of respect to the late Speaker. The Muslims recited the Al-Fatihah.
The MPs walked out of the House in a sombre mood and gathered at the lobby. Several of them were teary-eyed as they talked about the late Speaker.
Many expressed grief over his passing, describing him as a fair and hard worker who never failed to bring order and dignity to the Dewan.
Zahir, who held court as Speaker for 22 years, was known to be articulate and knowledgeable – a gentleman with quiet dignity.
He was the one parliamentarians and even reporters turned to for help in and outside the House to decipher the intricate points of the Standing Orders.
His vast experience came in handy, thanks also to the fact that he served as a judge before taking over the Chair.
Zahir was always quick to tell MPs if their speeches swayed from the topic at hand.
Strict about the length of time MPs took to speak on issues, Zahir was known to cut off long-winded Yang Berhormats with “Cukuplah, YB” (That's enough, YB).
And when is a question not a question? When Zahir said so.
Several years ago, an MP who attempted to deliver a “long-winded prologue” to the Education Ministry during question time found this out when he was cut short several times by Zahir.
Datuk Mohamad Aziz (BN – Sri Gading) was expressing his fears that many teachers had ignored the ministry's ruling on political participation.
After a while, Zahir asked: “Soalan?” (Question?)
“No, I'm worried,” said Mohamad before he was again interrupted by Zahir, who remarked: “That's not a question, YB.”
“I hope...” continued Mohamad, prompting Zahir to interject: “That is also not a question.”
An exasperated Mohamad then asked: “How effective is the ministry in enforcing the ruling?''
“Now, that's a question,” Zahir said.
Zahir was also a strict “disciplinarian” of the House.
In October 2001, an MP was made to say sorry twice for using profanity during a sitting in the midst of a tirade of insults between opposing sides.
Datuk Bung Moktar Radin (BN – Kinabatangan) had to apologise again for using a four-letter word after Zahir said he did not hear the apology the first time.
Even the normally mild-mannered Husam Musa, then the PAS Kubang Kerian MP, was told off by Zahir in March 2001 when he kept throwing questions at then Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin regarding the share purchase of Malaysia Airlines by the Government.
At one point, Zahir told Husam: “If you refuse to sit down, I will have to ask you to get out.”
His stand when dealing in “difficult” situations in the House was clear as in an interview with The Star later, he remarked: “Everyone has the right to voice his ideas within the confines of the Standing Orders.”
He said each MP was there on his own merit and right, adding, however, that “the Parliament is not a place for you to convert others to your opinion.''
Despite his sternness, Zahir was also famous for his quick wit and sense of humour.
In 1997, then Deputy Entrepreneur Development Minister Idris Jusoh was winding up the Supplementary Supply Bill on points related to his ministry.
Not long after he began, a PAS MP shot up from his seat, apparently to seek clarification.
Idris, obviously irritated by the interruption which came so early, remarked: “Belum apa apa lagi, dah bangun” (I haven't even started and you're up already).
The unintended sexual innuendo made several MPs smirk, but when a chuckling Zahir said: “orang muda” (he's a young man), the Dewan rang with hoots of laughter.
Zahir often teased veteran DAP MP Dr Tan Seng Giaw, who is famous for his long and informative speeches.
The Kepong MP was at it when Zahir suddenly reminded him: “Your 10 minutes is up.”
A shocked Dr Tan looked up at the Chair and said: “But that was just the prologue” – to which Zahir, grinning, replied: “Then, we'll just hear a few lines of your epilogue now.”
Zahir's death was described as the end of an institution. This is hardly surprising as he was easily the most prominent Speaker and had proven to be a most able one.
His absence will be deeply felt by all.