REFLECTING ON THE LAW:BY SHAD SALEEM FARUQI
Despite the popular perception that Parliament is mostly a rubber stamp it has potential to re-emerge as the “grant inquest” of the nation.
SUNDAY STAR of April 8 carried a scintillating story about “Memorable MPs”. It began with the words “Bring back the glory days of parliamentarians.”
The thrust of the story is that in the early years of Merdeka, Parliament had some towering personalities, and our elected assembly had much greater institutional efficacy than it does today.
Perhaps distance is lending some enchantment to the view. Perhaps what the story really reflects is a yearning for change.
Today the popular perception is that despite occasional assertiveness by some backbenchers, Parliament is mostly a rubber stamp and an appendage of the executive. MPs have very little freedom to speak, act or vote according to their conscience or in furtherance of the trust reposed in them by their constituents.
Any reform of our legislative institution must take note of the following roles and functions of a Parliament in a democracy:
The Making of Laws
Parliament is the highest law-making authority in the country. The reality, however, is that the executive dominates the legislative process. An overwhelmingly large number of Bills introduced by the Government are passed without any amendment whatsoever and without any in-depth scrutiny.
Add to this is the fact that executive law making through Emergency Ordinances is an important phenomenon. Subsidiary legislation by the administration outnumbers parliamentary legislation by a ratio of 1:15.
To strengthen Parliament’s legislative role the following measures may be useful:
Controlling National Expenditure
The jurisdiction of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) should be expanded to cover all “Non-Financial Institutions” or “Off-Budget Agencies” like Petronas that are exempt from the PAC’s scrutiny.
The findings of the PAC should be given some teeth by sending them to the ACA and to the relevant government departments with a view to initiating surcharge proceedings against wasteful expenditure.
The order to public servants to appear before the PAC should be strictly enforced. Parliament must employ its privilege jurisdiction to compel attendance of witnesses and the production of information and documents.
Enforcing Executive Responsibility
To maximize the impact of Question Time, there should be live coverage of it in the media.
Some clear-cut criteria ought to be established for the placement of parliamentary questions on the daily agenda. Greater openness and transparency in this area will allay the suspicion that embarrassing questions are “killed” by placing them at the bottom of the list.
Ministerial replies to questions that could not be reached orally or to questions which were tabled for written replies should be sent expeditiously to the MPs who tabled the questions.
There should be a special 30-minute time slot once a week for the Prime Minister to answer questions.
Number of Sittings
There is a strong case for a drastic increase in the number of parliamentary sittings, which average about 70 days per year. This can be contrasted with the United Kingdom where Parliament convenes for 172 days a year on the average.
A strengthened system of inquisitorial parliamentary committees can generate non-partisan advice and information. Committees can expose abuses within the bureaucracy. They can play a significant part in refining and improving legislation.
In Malaysia, the committee system is in its initial stages of development and its potential lies largely untapped. It is time to consider the establishment of the following additional parliamentary committees:
Parliamentary Support Services
To assist MPs in their legislative and oversight functions, non-partisan legislative support structures ought to be established.
Many MPs use their parliamentary allowance to establish Service Centres in their constituencies to provide their constituents with a channel for airing grievances. An annual official grant should be made available to all MPs, irrespective of party affiliation, for this purpose.
The Senate should be an effective revision/delaying chamber to Dewan Rakyat Bills. It should be more willing, unlike in the past, to amend Dewan Rakyat Bills.
To restore Parliament’s institutional independence, the Parliamentary Service Act should be re-enacted to put Parliament in charge of its own staff and establishment. The administration of its Budget, the grant of leave to officers of the Houses, the organisation of the activities of the Houses and of the Secretariat, and the approval of claims must be in the hands of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the Dewan, and not in the hands of executive officials.
Perhaps with the above reforms Parliament can re-emerge as the “grand inquest” of the nation.
Dr Shad Faruqi is Professor of Law at UiTM.
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