Hybrid Parliament the right move during the pandemic, say experts

PETALING JAYA: A hybrid Parliament where in-person and virtual meetings are combined could be the right formula for lawmakers to safely reconvene and deliberate important matters amid the Covid-19 pandemic, say experts.

With Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (law and parliamentary affairs) Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan announcing on Friday (June 3) that the government was studying the possibility of implementing a hybrid Parliament, experts say that this could be executed with minimal challenges.

Political analyst and Universiti Sains Malaysia political sociology lecturer Prof Dr Sivamurugan Pandian said many countries have successfully organised such high-level meetings virtually including Denmark, Germany, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Argentina, Angola, Canada, Bhutan and more.

“In Malaysia, we have seen Cabinet meetings held online, including the meeting between the Prime Minister and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

“Strict measures were taken by these countries including to observe information pertaining to the Official Secrets Act, ” he said.

He anticipated that Internet access for rural MPs might be a problem but added that if that were to happen, they could use offices at the Parliament or the nearest venue with reliable Internet access.

“Good Internet connection is needed in order to avoid absenteeism among MPs, ” he said.

Sivamurugan said that Malaysia could go ahead with the hybrid Parliament method as the Dewan Rakyat Speaker and his deputies as well as Takiyuddin have met and basically agreed on it.

Any investment made to establish the infrastructure for the hybrid system would also be an investment for future Parliament sessions, he said, adding that a good system is needed as well as the best practice to allow the Speaker to control and communicate with all MPs.

“They must be able to foresee what can happen and prepare with a solution rather than face it and have a solution later.

“Our Parliament can become a model for others in the region if successfully implemented, ” he said.

International Islamic University Malaysia legal adviser Prof Dr Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmood said the ordinary tabling of bills and debates could easily be done virtually as, during past sittings, these are already televised for public view.

Therefore, the issue of confidentiality or online data breach during the normal proceedings does not arise, said Prof Nik Ahmad Kamal, adding that voting, however, should be done manually and that it has previously been proven to be possible even amid the pandemic.

“Last year, three MPs who were under house surveillance orders or quarantine showed up at Dewan Rakyat wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) to cast their vote for the Supply Bill.

“If the hybrid system is implemented, then voting must be done manually.

“Otherwise, they can find a way to organise online voting but it has already been shown in the past that it is possible to have strict standard operating procedures (SOP) in place to allow for manual voting by all MPs, even those under quarantine.

“Many ways can be done, ” he said, adding that however, for Parliamentary Select Committee meetings, in which the information discussed is confidential, they would need a foolproof system if they were to meet online.

For virtual Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara meetings, Nik Ahmad Kamal did not anticipate that the government would have to fork out a large budget to purchase specialised sophisticated software, as there are currently many established systems that are foolproof.

“There are government departments that use their own systems and the Parliament can look into these as a possibility, as the government has already invested in foolproof systems, ” he said.

Nik Ahmad Kamal added that there is a lot of pressure for the government to reconvene Parliament as people want to get answers from the administration as well as ensure that check-and-balance will be done.

“Perhaps the hybrid Parliament can be a venue where the government of the day can make their point and explain all of their policies clearly, ” he said.

Election watchdog Bersih 2.0 chairperson Thomas Fann said that a study on the hybrid Parliament system should have been done since early last year, when the pandemic started but added that it was still better to be late than never.

Fann said that Malaysia could emulate other countries that have improvised how their Parliaments continued the business of lawmaking even at the height of the pandemic.

“In particular we can learn from the British parliament where they began hybrid sitting back in April 2020 by observing social distancing of at least two metres in the chamber and the rest connecting via Zoom from their homes.

“Bersih 2.0 believes that if there is political will on the part of the government, we have the technical capabilities to conduct hybrid sittings and the legal obstacles can be overcome through amendments to existing laws and Standing Orders.

“We hope that the proposed study would be expedited so that Parliament can reconvene as soon as possible even before Aug 1 when as promised, the Emergency is lifted, ” he said.

Calls for Parliament to reconvene were made by various groups, including the Seed Community or a Professional Parliament, a network of individuals active in civil society organisations as well as Deputy Speaker Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said.

She had expressed her frustration in an open letter on Thursday at the lack of response from the government for answers outside of Parliament.

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