Enhancing Parliament’s role

HIGH up on my wish list for the Government’s agenda after the 12th General Elections is that the Prime Minister should address the need to strengthen Parliament and the Judiciary.

Reform of Parliament: How our premier representative institution can be reformed to serve the community better and to help improve accountability in government is one of the foremost challenges of constitutional law.

A number of suggestions, some provocative, have galloped around the outskirts of the legal system for some time and deserve consideration.

Bills: To lighten the legislative load of the Dewan Rakyat and to enable greater scrutiny of legislative proposals, some politically non-controversial, non-money Bills should originate in the Dewan Negara.

This will require both Houses to sit concurrently.

If members of Parliament are expected to scrutinise, criticise and revise legislative proposals, they must be supplied with draft copies of Bills at least two weeks before the beginning of the session.

If citizens are expected to give their

input, the existing culture of secrecy surrounding Bills should be replaced with more openness.

Select Committees: To save on parliamentary time, important Bills should be committed to Select Committees of the Houses as is the practice in the United Kingdom. Members of the public can be heard during the committee stage.

A search of Malaysian parliamentary records indicates that in 50 years, fewer than 10 legislative proposals were committed to Select Committees. Among them were the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Bill 1984 and the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Bill 2007.

More opportunities for citizen participation in Select Committees (for scrutinising Bills) and Special Select Committees (for investigating other matters) would be a desirable practice.

Private Bills: Greater recourse to the procedures for Private Bills and Private Member’s Bills ought to be made to enable citizens’ groups and private MPs to initiate legislation.

Support structures: To assist MPs in their legislative and oversight functions, each MP should be assigned research staff and legislative assistants.

The Houses of Parliament should have their own legal counsel.

In the manner of the National Institute of Public Administration and the Judicial and Legal Training Institute, a Parliamentary Institute should be established to train MPs in the law and procedure of Parliament and to hone their abilities to research and analyse legislative proposals.

Inquisitorial Committees: A system of well-integrated and well serviced investigatory committees as in the US and the Philippines holds the only key to enabling Parliament to become an effective countervailing force to the executive.

An increase in the number of sessional select committees from the present five to one for each government department as in the UK will also enable backbenchers to play a more meaningful role in Parliament.

In addition to Departmental Committees, Parliament should set up a Joint Committee on Human Rights to scrutinise Suhakam reports. Joint Committees on Public Complaints and on Corruption should also be considered.

The jurisdiction of the Public Accounts Committee of the Dewan Rakyat should be expanded to cover all Non-Financial Public Enterprises, all statutory bodies and their subsidiaries.

The findings of the PAC should be given some teeth.

Question time: The one-and-a-half hour question time for our 222 MPs compares favourably with the daily question hour for 650 MPs in the British House of Commons.       

However, some clear-cut criteria ought to be established for the placement of parliamentary questions on the Daily Order Paper.

It is generally the case that out of about 30 questions tabled for reply, only 12 to 15 can be reached before question time runs out. Questions placed at the lower end of the agenda have no chance of being answered orally.

To maximise the impact of question time, there should be live coverage of it in the media.

Parliamentary sittings: There is a strong case for a drastic increase in the number of parliamentary sittings in one year. In 1981 the Dewan Rakyat sat for 78 days.

In 1993 it sat for 66 days. The Dewan Negara sat for a mere 26 days in 1993.

This can be contrasted with the United Kingdom where during the years 1959 to 1984, Parliament convened for 172 days per year on the average.

Constituency work: One of the most significant aspects of an MP’s parliamentary life is that he acts as a one-person grievance-remedial instrument for his constituents.

In view of the importance of constituency work some aid and assistance ought to be given to MPs to facilitate this function.

Many MPs use their parliamentary allowance to establish ‘Service Centres’ in their constituencies. No official grant is available for this purpose.

The present practice is to allocate a RM400,000 “development grant” to each BN MP for use in his/her electoral district. Opposition MPs are denied this sum.

It is respectfully submitted that the selective allocation of this grant on the basis of political affiliation poses problems for Article 8’s promise of equality before the law to the MPs and to the voters not favoured with the grant.

The hope is that with these reforms, Parliament’s institutional capacity to oversee the making of laws and to perform the role of “grand inquest of the nation” will be enhanced.

Judiciary: The reputation of our superior court judges is at its lowest point. No lesser a person than our courageous Chief Justice, Datuk Abdul Hamid Mohamad, has recognised this tragedy and has pleaded passionately with his brethren to “resurrect the honour of the judiciary”.

The Federal Government, after its righteous decision to appoint the Royal Commission, must follow through with prosecution of those lawyers, judges, corporate figures and politicians who have defiled this sanctum sanctorum of our constitutional edifice.

The system of judicial appointments must be reviewed to ensure that only those with integrity, fairness, proper temperament and firm knowledge of the law reach the hallowed halls of the judiciary.

There is no dearth of such luminaries. Only that they are often passed over for appointment or leadership positions.

Jurisdictional conflicts between civil and syariah courts are posing many painful dilemmas.

Some civil judges decline to hear family law cases in which one party is a Muslim, the other a non-Muslim.

Many a non-Muslim applicant has found that she has rights under the law but no remedy unless she submits to the jurisdiction of the syariah courts. The Constitution did not envisage this situation.

Parliament and the Attorney-General’s Office must, therefore, step in to reconcile the conflicting interests in this area.

One must bear in mind that the issue is not merely of Muslim or non-Muslim rights but whether our judicial institution exists to serve everyone fairly and equally.

Dr Shad Faruqi is Professor of Law at UiTM

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