Towards a stronger Parliament

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 06 Jun 2004

In a two-part series, PROF DR SHAD SALEEM FARUQI argues that Malaysia needs parliamentary support structure to improve our legislature’s institutional efficacy. 

THERE is much hope that under Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s stewardship, Parliament’s institutional efficacy will be advanced. 

Any constructive proposal to enhance the power and prestige of our Parliament must begin with an appreciation of the constitutional functions of a legislature in a Westminster-style democracy.  

These functions are generally agreed to be the following: 

1. The making of laws 

2. Control of national expenditure and taxation 

3. Enforcement of executive answerability and accountability 

4. The redress of citizens’ grievances 

Making laws: Under the Federal Constitution, legislation is the function of Parliament. The executive has no inherent law-making powers of its own except during an emergency. Taxes cannot be raised and Bills cannot become laws without parliamentary authority.  

However, a wide gap exists between theory and practice. Instead of Parliament it is the executive that has pre-eminence in the legislative sphere. 

The Cabinet, though a part of the legislature and in office because of the confidence it enjoys of the lower House, nevertheless controls Parliament. 

Pre-parliamentary stages involving the Ministry concerned, the Cabinet and the drafting unit in the Attorney-General’s Chambers are of greater importance than parliamentary deliberations. 

Though Private Members’ Bills are a theoretical possibility, there is no record of a Private Member’s Bill ever completing the legislative process. 

The parliamentary stages that a Bill goes through allow MPs to have their say. But the government ultimately has its way. 

Nearly 90% of Bills introduced by the Government are passed without any amendment whatsoever. Since Merdeka, no Government Bill has ever been defeated. 

While this reflects an exceptional degree of cooperation between the executive and the legislature, it also indicates that the input of Parliament to national legislation is insignificant. Parliament legitimates. It does not legislate. 

Compared to the Dewan Rakyat, the predominantly appointed Dewan Negara is in an even weaker position to revise or delay government Bills. 

Parliamentary control over Emergency Ordinances is even more illusory. If there is an emergency proclamation in operation (and there has been one since 1964) and if the two Houses are not in session concurrently, the King, acting on advice, has power to promulgate laws on any matter within Parliament’s jurisdiction. 

Once promulgated, an Emergency Ordinance can continue till repealed by the King or annulled by Parliament. 

In practice, such annulments never take place.  

It is also not well known that more laws are framed by way of delegated legislation than by way of parliamentary enactments. 

For every statute enacted by Parliament, the Federal executive frames nearly 11 pieces of subsidiary legislation. 

Forty-six years into independence there is still no recognition of the need for Parliament to oversee delegated legislation through a Sessional Select Committee. 

Admittedly, the enormity of the task and the shortage of parliamentary time are constraining factors. 

But the phenomenal growth of subsidiary legislation reaffirms the belief that the centre of gravity of the legislative process has shifted from Parliament to Putrajaya. 

Controlling finance: In theory taxes cannot be raised and Bills, especially Money Bills, cannot become law without the authority of Parliament. Money for government programmes must be authorised by law. 

In reality, however, the sheer bulk of the accounts, the secrecy that surrounds modern-day budgets and the time limits on money bills make it inevitable that large items of public expenditure are approved by Parliament without any discussion whatsoever. 

Executive dominance of Parliament ensures that decisions on how much to raise and where to spend are basically determined by the government of the day. 

However, the Dewan Rakyat oversees matters of national expenditure through its Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on which the opposition is always represented. 

The PAC relies heavily on the Auditor-General’s annual admonishments of departments that fail to live up to financial prudence. 

Unfortunately, the PAC has no power to change any decision or to prosecute any one. 

Further, its jurisdiction is limited. It examines the accounts of federal ministries and departments and only certain statutory bodies whose accounts the Government places before the Committee. Non-Financial Public Enterprises (previously known as Off-Budget Agencies) are immune from the PAC’s scrutiny. 

Enforcing accountability: In our system of “responsible government”, the political executive is answerable, on a day-to-day basis, to the representatives of the people.  

The parliamentary devices for enforcing responsibility are the doctrine of collective and individual ministerial responsibility, the daily question-hour, debates and motions on the floor of the House and parliamentary committees. 

How successful these devices are to enable Parliament to become the “grand inquest of the nation” is a matter of debate. 

For example, question time has been described as a “powerful implement of democracy” as well as “a ritual exercise in evasion”. 

The effectiveness of parliamentary techniques to keep the government answerable, accountable and responsible depends on a large number of variable factors, some of which are not present in Malaysia. 

Among these factors are the existence of a strong and determined opposition, independent-minded backbenchers, parliamentary-support structures to assist MPs to perform their institutional functions and enlightened and independent media coverage of parliamentary proceedings. 

Constituency function: MPs are not only legislators; they are problem solvers, social workers and spokesmen for their constituencies. A large amount of their time is spent on particularised demands of their constituents. 

Whether MPs should be released from such demands and be allowed to concentrate on law-making and monitoring of national policies and programmes is a matter of opinion. 

What is certain is that the general public believes that the wakil rakyat are voted in to serve and must meet people’s needs and champion people’s causes. 

All in all, it can be said that the ideals of democracy will be greatly assisted if the institutional efficacy of representative legislatures can be enhanced to enable them to be responsive to the felt necessities of the times and to perform more effectively their function of overseeing the expanding powers of the executive. 

How best to strengthen Parliament is a matter of great national importance. 

Next: Reform of Parliament 

  • The writer is Professor of Law at Universiti Teknologi Mara 

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