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Circumscribe the powers of the prime minister

December 23, 2016

The priority of the opposition is not naming its choice for PM, but returning to the Westminster model where the PM is but the first among equals in the Cabinet.

COMMENT

malaysiaBy TK Chua

I refer to the current uncertainties over the choice of premiership should the opposition coalition win the next general election.

Some believe the choice should be announced now to avoid ambiguity and future conflicts, in addition to providing extra oomph for the electorate.

On the other hand, some are of the view that the choice is not a major concern right now. Naming the prime minister may create divisions and conflicts among the various opposition parties. What the opposition coalition needs, they say, is a clear agenda for the people.

The views from both camps above are valid. However, I would prefer that the opposition looks at the position of the prime minister in true Westminster tradition rather than the way it is currently practised in the country.

Many are apprehensive about who should become the prime minister of Malaysia because, over time past and present prime ministers have accumulated enormous power to themselves. It would appear that the prime minister is everything nowadays; other institutions of government do not seem to matter much.

We are in this predicament because we have allowed power to consolidate and concentrate in the hand of one single individual — through omission, neglect or apathy.

I think what the opposition must do now is to begin work to circumscribe the power of the prime minister. He is only “the first among equals” in the Cabinet. The nation’s financial comptroller, i.e. the Finance Minister (in UK, the Chancellor of Exchequer) must be separate and distinct from the premiership.

The Cabinet should rightly be the policy and decision making body. The prime minister has no right to make unilateral decisions.

It is common nowadays for the prime minister and other Cabinet ministers to announce programmes and projects that involve additional budgetary allocations at the spur of the moment without deliberation or study.

I think the opposition must try to stop this practice by making sure that future supplementary allocations are not the blank cheques for their preferred prime minister.

Right now, there are programmes already in the budget which are denied funding (due to so called budget cuts) while new programmes requiring additional funding are routinely announced whenever the prime minister and other ministers make visits to their respective constituencies.

This is wrong and untenable. The opposition must ensure that their future prime minister and Cabinet ministers do not behave the same.

To me, it does not really matter if the prime ministerial candidate is announced now or later. The most important thing for the opposition is to allow the Westminster model to work again. The prime minister is not a president, much less a dictator or an emperor.

It is more effective to restrict the power of the prime minister to within the Westminster tradition rather than trying to select a “right” candidate for prime minister. When power is shared and moderated by checks and balances, the probability of abuse is less. When the power of prime minister is bound, the damage inflicted would be less even if a wrong candidate is chosen. My two cents worth.

T K Chua is an FMT reader

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