AT the first meeting of the first session of the 15th Parliament on Dec 19, 2022, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim won a resounding vote of confidence from the members of the Dewan Rakyat.
Most citizens are hoping that with this vote and an anti-hopping law in place, the PM’s coalition government will vigorously combat the devastating economic crisis and also initiate some much-needed institutional reforms.
Reform of Parliament is one of them.
Role of Parliament: In legal and political theory, an elected and representative legislature is the central pillar of a democratic system. Fifty-seven out of the 183 Articles of the Federal Constitution confer on Parliament a myriad of functions:
> Article 43(2) – The confidence of a majority of the members of the Dewan Rakyat is central to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s choice of PM;
> Article 74 – Parliament is the highest (though not the supreme) lawmaker;
> Article 43(3) – In our “parliamentary government” system, Parliament keeps the political executive answerable, accountable and responsible to the people’s representatives;
> Articles 96-102 – Parliament provides authority for the raising and spending of money;
> Article 150(3) – Parliament controls the exercise of emergency powers;
> Article 44 – Dewan Rakyat represents 222 electoral constituencies;
> Article 45 – Dewan Negara represents the 13 States, the Federal Territories, distinguished persons and minorities;
> Article 113 – Dewan Rakyat approves electoral boundaries;
> Article 89 – Both Houses protect Malay reserves;
> Article 63 – Both Houses exercise parliamentary privilege; and
> Conventional – Individual MPs perform a “constituency function” by redressing the grievances of their constituents.
Regrettably, other than the constituency function, Parliament fails to live up to our expectations in other areas. This column will be confined to discussing possible reforms in relation to the legislative function only.
Policy papers: The government should issue policy papers on proposed Bills to enable citizens and interested parties to provide feedback and contribute to the discourse. Decisions in which people participate are decisions they are likely to respect.
Copies of Bills should not be embargoed and covered by the Official Secrets Act 1972 as at present. Draft copies of Bills must be supplied to all MPs at least two weeks before the first reading to enable them to study the provisions and seek independent advice.
Legislation committees: Bipartisan parliamentary committees to examine Bills before or after the second reading must be appointed as permitted by the Standing Orders of Parliament. These committees should sit even if the House is in adjournment. Regrettably, legislation committees are utilised only rarely.
In its scrutiny of Bills, a legislation committee is allowed to invite experts, relevant NGOs, stakeholders and members of the public to comment on the Bill, provide public feedback and propose reforms.
Budget office: Emulating the example of countries like Australia, a budget office should be set up in Parliament to give non-partisan, professional advice to MPs on the government’s complex and highly technical financial, budgetary and tax proposals.
Institute of parliamentary affairs: MPs need to be trained and sensitised to the wider role and function of Parliament, and must be familiarised with the Constitution and laws of the land besides being trained in the Standing Orders of each House. This would be in line with training institutes like the National Institute of Public Administration for civil servants and Judicial and Legal Training Institute for the Judiciary.
Citizen committees: Legislative intentions do not always translate into societal realities. Between form and function, theory and reality, content and consequence, a wide gap often develops. Parliament must not rest content after a law is enacted. The working of the law must be kept in review. For this purpose, the patriotism and expertise of citizens should be marshalled.
To review the post-enactment working of legislation, every new federal Bill must contain a provision authorising the minister concerned to appoint an expert committee to keep it in review and to report to the minister once a year.
Private MPs’ Bills: Private Members’ Bills and Private Senators’ Bills are allowed by Standing Orders and should be encouraged as these may involve participation by NGOs and reflect the democratic impulses of society.
On one afternoon a month, private MPs’ Bills must have priority. The Speaker’s Office should draw lots and those private MPs whose names appear on the top five slots should be given time and financial aid (as in some democracies) to submit their proposals.
Subsidiary legislation committees: Subsidiary legislation outnumbers parliamentary legislation by a ratio of 1:20, or more. Yet, it goes unscrutinised. A joint committee of both Houses on subsidiary legislation must be appointed to advise Parliament on whether to accept or annul a subsidiary law.
Parliament can also check subsidiary legislation by adopting “laying procedures”, subject to affirmative or negative resolution in the House.
Number of sittings: The Malaysian Parliament sits only about 80 days in one year on Mondays to Thursdays from 10am to 1pm, and 2.30pm to 5.30pm. There are no sittings on Fridays. The British Parliament sits approximately 180 days a year. An increase in the number of parliamentary sittings will allow more time to be spent on legislative business.Dewan Negara: 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. No law forbids concurrent sessions.
Legislative assistants: As in most democracies, including those in Asia, MPs must be supplied with research staff to assist them to perform their parliamentary work. This proposal has significant financial implications. In the short term, Parliament can work with universities to recruit volunteer students and staff to assist Parliament.
Law reform: The two Houses should set up a joint select committee on law reform.
Law reform commission: An independent law reform commission should be established and should report to the joint select committee on law reform to ensure that the elected representatives have a say in keeping the law responsive to the felt necessities of the times.
The functions of the law reform commission should be to systematically review the laws of Malaysia and to make independent recommendations for the purposes of improving, modernising and reforming the law. To facilitate the commission in carrying out its functions, it should have the power to initiate, receive and consider any proposal on law reform made or referred to it, conduct public hearings, seek comments from the public, and request information from any ministry relevant to any aspect of law reform.
Members of this commission may be appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on the advice of the PM after consulting the Chief Justice of Malaysia and Chairman of the Bar Council. Persons who may be appointed may include retired judges of the superior courts, advocates and solicitors of the High Courts, academic staff with 10 years of experience, and members of professional boards in various fields.
Most of the above recommendations require no amendment to the Constitution and no enactment of any law. Administrative practices, constitutional conventions and utilisation or amendment of existing Standing Orders will suffice to achieve most of them.
Lifting the embargo on Bills before the first reading may require an amendment to Standing Order 95A of the Dewan Rakyat. Supplying draft copies of Bills to MPs at least two weeks before the first reading may require amendments to Standing Orders 48 of the Dewan Rakyat and SO 47 of the Dewan Negara.
Setting up an institute of parliamentary affairs, a parliamentary budget office, and the hiring of legislative assistants will have financial implications. Setting up an independent law reform commission will require a new law reform commission Act.
The tasks at hand are indeed mammoth. But if democracy is to be allowed to take hold, corruption is to be controlled, and Parliament’s role as the “grand inquest of the nation” is to be restored, then our journey of a thousand miles must begin with a few small steps.
The author wishes all readers a Happy New Year and the blessings of peace, prosperity, health and happiness. The views expressed here are the author’s own.