Serve and parley, please


  • #Abidinideas
  • Friday, 08 May 2020

Unwillingness of several state governments to follow the Federal Government’s decision to open up the economic and social sectors perhaps reflects a new political reality.

TENNIS players cheered the Prime Minister’s announcement that, with the conditional movement control order (MCO) from May 4, their beloved sport would be allowed, alongside the opening of most economic sectors and loosening of travel restrictions. But as I aced a serve in Kuala Lumpur, tennis friends in Seremban stayed home because the Negri Sembilan government has continued certain restrictions.

At the heart of such discrepancies is the ongoing tension between medical health and economic health. Even epidemiologists and economists who take a balanced view disagree on thresholds, defined by the basic reproduction number or impact on GDP.

Inevitably, policymakers will be swayed by the emotive demands of the electorate, too. Since the beginning of the MCO, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) has been contributing to the debate and hosting views through our webinars.

Indeed, a majority of states decided to modify or amend the new federal order, to reflect their localised assessments of the situation.

Predictably, pundits have lined up to support or oppose these decisions according to where they sit on the aforementioned scale, while lawyers pore through statute and precedent.

As explained by Ideas Fellow Tricia Yeoh, the legal questions involve the Federal Constitution itself: specifically whether Article 81 (requiring state executive compliance with federal law) trumps the Concurrent List of the Ninth Schedule (under which public health, sanitation and prevention of infectious diseases is a joint responsibility of both federal and state legislatures).

And while the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 was supposed to ensure a uniform approach towards infectious diseases, the Local Government Act 1976 empowers local councils (which fall under the purview of state governments) to preserve public health, prevent the outbreak and spread of diseases, regulate and enforce quarantine and disinfection.

That state governments are no longer willing to simply obey and execute the will of the federal executive reflects a new political reality in which decentralised decision-making is increasingly seen to be desirable regardless of political affiliation (the states in question are led by both Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional).

The resolution of these questions pertaining to the Federal Constitution, Acts of Parliament and state powers thus requires sound political leadership, sensitive to the spirit of the federal structure of our country.

One key area to debate these issues is Parliament, but despite the fact that the federal government feels that people can eat in restaurants and go to offices (albeit with social distancing) on a daily basis, the Dewan Rakyat is to sit for only one day, curtailing the ability of the people’s representatives to hold the government to account and to scrutinise the decisions that have already been taken throughout the MCO.

Against this, consider that some other legislative assemblies around the world are sitting for a longer period with social distancing measures in place.

Furthermore, with other organisations and companies holding large meetings online, there is no technological excuse for Parliament not to do the same (perhaps start with online meetings of select committees, if not the entire chamber).

With many international experts praising Malaysia’s fight against Covid-19 and the national pride which that elicits, it is indeed an opportunity for the government to defend its record transparently.

“The executive authority must answer to the elected legislature, ” said the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman at the first ever sitting of the Malayan Parliament in 1959 while urging MPs “always to remember that you are the representatives of all the people without exception, and that what you do here shall be done for the benefit of all the people.”

These words ring true especially during a pandemic when the lives of people have been disrupted beyond what could have been imagined.

A century ago, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic swept through Negri Sembilan, killing over 5,000 people, who were a significant part of the state’s workforce.

The Ruler then was Tuanku Muhammad (father of the first Agong) who, throughout the 1920s, closely followed debates about decentralisation within the Federated Malay States, calling for greater financial decision-making at the state level. Perhaps he understood that in good and bad times, more effective decisions could be made by leaders closer to the people being governed.

Both of these enlightened monarchs played tennis, and would have been aware of the Tennis Court Oath of revolutionary France, when members the Third Estate declared themselves to be the National Assembly in a tennis court near their usual chamber (which had been locked), and insisted upon the formation of a constitution.

With my usual tennis courts in KL and Seremban neighbouring the respective legislative bodies, I hope the executive will enable legislators to play their constitutional baseline.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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