Time to make Parliament paramount again

I am looking forward to July 16, for that is when the first meeting of the first session of the 14th Parliament is scheduled to begin.

The first order of the day would be the swearing in of the speaker. Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said on July 8 that a shortlist of candidates for the position had been submitted to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad for a decision.

One of those mentioned as being on the list is former minister Rais Yatim who says he is up to the challenge. Certainly Rais is qualified: He knows how government works, having served under Dr Mahathir during his first stint as prime minister and under Najib Razak as sociocultural adviser to the government; and he has a doctorate in law.

I have nothing against Rais, but I think his selection will not gel with the move towards a New Malaysia.

He is too much associated with the old order, too steeped in Umno culture. It is better that the speaker be someone younger and without any baggage.

Also, he is seen as being close to Dr Mahathir. He recently joined PPBM which is headed by Dr Mahathir. If Dr Mahathir selects Rais, people may be tempted to see it as an attempt to consolidate his power over Parliament.

In the New Malaysia, citizens want a speaker who is neutral and who bases decisions on the justness of the matter, not on party affiliation. They don’t want someone who kowtows to the prime minister.

I am sure there are many young MPs who are capable of handling the demanding task. There are also capable non-politicians, including former judges, who could be appointed speaker. Perhaps a woman could be made speaker, as we have some capable women in our midst.

Having someone new and neutral will indicate that the PH government is serious about fulfilling its election pledge to “restore the powers and freedom of Parliament as the voice of the people to balance Executive powers”.

The fact is, nobody takes Parliament seriously. Many see it as a mere “rubber stamp” of the government. To most Malaysians it is interesting only because of some of the funny, angry or ridiculous statements and exchanges between MPs emerging from Parliament.

During the BN’s rule, people saw that the government simply used its brute majority to push through its agenda and that it just went through the rigmarole of a parliamentary debate for show. They also knew that the real platforms where policies were debated and decided were the Umno general assemblies and the Umno Supreme Council.

This did not happen just during the premiership of Najib, mind you. It was the same during Dr Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, when he led Umno.

So, the first task of the PH government is to take Parliament seriously so that the people will do the same. Parliament should be paramount again.

The direction the nation should take, policies, and major initiatives should be vigorously debated in, and decided by, Parliament, and not by Dr Mahathir or the PH Presidential Council or even the Cabinet.

One way of restoring “the powers and freedom of Parliament as the voice of the people” is to ensure that bills are not rushed through as was done by the previous government.

MPs should be given bills and reports weeks in advance to enable them to properly study these and to get feedback from their constituents and interest groups so that they can debate intelligently, guided by the wishes of the voters, on the matter.

PH lawmakers, when they were in opposition, had often criticised the Barisan Nasional government of rushing through bills in Parliament and not giving enough time for serious debate.

I am sure PH lawmakers remember the frustration when the BN government bulldozed through, for instance, the Election Commission’s redelineation report, which favoured the BN.

Parti Warisan Sabah leader Shafie Apdal lamented: “Today we are tabling the report, and today we are passing it too.”

Now that it is in power, I hope the PH government – specifically the speaker – will ensure that ample time is given to MPs to study bills and reports so that the quality of debate improves.

And if it involves laws or policies with far-reaching consequences – such as the National Security Council Bill 2015 which was passed with hardly any debate to speak of – the people should have a direct say.

Such proposed laws and policies must be taken to the people, and town hall sessions held, before being tabled in Parliament. That would signify this is indeed a New Malaysia.

PH lawmakers will also recall that the questions of more than 30 of them regarding 1Malaysia Development Bhd were tossed out by the BN-appointed speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia last year.

Now that it is in power, I hope the PH government – specifically the speaker – will ensure that questions unfavourable to the ruling party are not rejected.

If the 1MDB issue had been debated from the time DAP MP Tony Pua raised it in 2014, and if it had been addressed even a little, perhaps the situation might not have become as bad as it has, and perhaps the BN might still be in power.

This is a sobering thought. PH would be foolish not to learn from it.

PH MPs would also remember that when they wanted to debate the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s report into Bank Negara Malaysia’s forex losses on Nov 30 last year, Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker Ismail Mohamad Said said it could not be debated because it was not on the parliamentary Order Paper.

They would be aware that even if opposition motions found their way onto the Order Paper, almost invariably, these were placed so low down that there was no time to debate them.

Now that it is in power, I hope the PH government – specifically the speaker – will not resort to such tactics to prevent the opposition from debating any issue. If they do, it will be the Old Malaysia again.

I would love to see the speaker allowing ample time for MPs to raise questions during Question Time, and all questions answered properly. PH ministers must not emulate some of the former BN ministers who gave evasive or one paragraph answers.

PH ministers – including the prime minister – must be present in Parliament to answer questions, not just pop in once in a while as was the fashion previously.

People will be watching the PH ministers to see if they are guilty of the very conduct they abhorred and lambasted in BN ministers.

I would also love to see PH MPs freely criticising the government without fear of disciplinary action.

And yes, I think live telecasts of parliamentary sittings would be welcomed by Malaysians. It would certainly be educational and also help citizens keep an eye on the performance of ministers and MPs.

A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT.

The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.