The Case for an Independent Speaker of the House

As Malaysians express their disgust and amusement at the current saga involving the Speaker (the Speaker) of the Dewan Rakyat (the House). I could not help noticing a few peculiarities highlighted in the media. I will not delve into the Honourable Gentleman’s lack of a commode or furnishings in his office.

The time has come for Malaysians to question the role of Parliament in the governance of this country, and the manner in which it is administered. While we are fixated at toilets and political intrigue, we need to have a deeper understanding on the actual role Parliament plays in representing our interests.

I am curious as to why did the Speaker have to hand over a letter of resignation to the Prime Minister (PM), and what capacity does the PM have to accept/reject it? Article 57(2) clearly states that the Speaker may resign at any time, and he that he should hand his resignation letter to the Clerk of the House – Is the PM in addition to being the Finance Minister also the Clerk of the House?

If anything this whole episode further highlights the amount of power one man has over the governance of this country, without any institutional check or balances. The former PM can rant, and rave all he wants, but all he has is influence and what the incumbent has is solid power and all the trappings of incumbency.

Which makes me wonder about the doctrine of separation of powers here in Malaysia.

There are three branches of government – the Executive (PM and the Cabinet), the Legislature (Parliament – Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara) and the Judiciary (the Courts). Each branch is distinct and theoretically carries out its role independent of the other, so as to not vest the entire power of government upon a single entity or an individual.

As Malaysia follows the Westminster Parliamentary model, there is a fusion between the Executive and the Legislature. The PM and his Cabinet are members of the Legislature, and the PM holds his post by virtue of commanding the confidence of the majority of MPs in the House. Therefore his legitimacy as PM rests upon his control of the House.

Now, one would point out that there is hardly any legitimacy if one becomes PM with just 47% of the electorate backing him. From a moral point of view yes, but as far as the Federal Constitution is concerned the popular vote does not count. He whose party seat count reaches to 112 seats first, becomes the Prime Minister.

By convention and by way of party politics the PM is the leader of the ruling party and is assumed to hold the confidence of his party colleagues. In Malaysia the PM has unquestionable control over the day-to-day running of the country, the Legislature and the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong acts upon the PM’s advice. The PM is the most powerful man in the land.

The PM’s dominion also extends to the Speaker, who because of the ruling party’s simple majority in the House, is also an MP from the ruling party. The Speaker just needs a simple majority in the House to be elected, and the ruling party is always able to bulldoze one of their own to the post without any meaningful resistance from the opposition.

With a simple majority and the party affiliation of the Speaker, the Executive has an almost exclusive control of the House’s legislative agenda and effectively shuts out opposition bills and leaves their motions at the mercy and whims of a partisan Speaker.

While in the past 2 general elections, the opposition have denied the ruling party its customary 2/3 majority in the House, this new-found strength only helps prevent unilateral constitutional amendments by the ruling party. As far as legislating laws and holding the Executive to account, they are effectively still toothless.

The Leader of the Opposition can huff and puff all she wants, but she will never be able to bring the House down in the current scheme of things. The Prime Minister will never show up in the House to answer questions in his person, and instead sends his ministers in his stead or gives written replies – which makes it impossible and downright impossible for backbench MP’s to put forward supplementary questions.

The late Tony Benn argued in his essay The Case for a Constitutional Premiership that a strong PM results in a strong government, but the PM’s strength must be balanced to prevent institutional breakdowns. This is arguably one of the key arguments for greater separation of powers, the powers of the PM must be balanced for the good of the nation. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

As far as our Westminster system goes, separation of powers is limited, especially so when the Executive and Legislature are fused and Legislature is utterly dominated by the Executive. The House in this regard has a vital role to play in checking the excesses of the Executive by asserting its independence.

The starting point to Parliamentary reform is the position of Speaker itself. I feel that the way forward is by having a non-partisan Speaker who is elected by a 2/3 majority in the House. The idea is that both parties will be forced to make compromises and agree on a suitable candidate who will represent the best interests of the House and the people it represents.

Ideally he is not oppressive of the opposition and not anarchistic towards the Executive in a way that makes it impossible to govern the country. The Speaker should be someone who is above party politics and political point scoring. He must be an impartial overseer of the democratic process, and be able to bring both sides to task if need be.

An independent Speaker will be seen as a fair arbiter, and more importantly he will facilitate the legislative process is a demoratic manner above party considerations. That is among others ensuring that the opposition too are allowed to put forward their legislative agenda and have it debated at the least.

He will be able to function free from the Executive, bring the Executive to task over their excesses and if need be haul up errant ministers (and the PM himself) to answer pertinent questions from backbenchers. After all the Cabinet is accountable to the House, and this needs to be enforced as per Article 43(3), which states that PM and his Cabinet are collectively responsible to the House.

While we are at it, I strongly feel that the PM ought to make himself available in the House every week to field questions from his fellow MPs. Much like what David Cameron does in the House of Commons every Wednesday. Prime Minister’s Questions is in spite of its tribalism and jockishness, the political event of the week and successive British Prime Minister’s have admitted to being terrified of the experience.

Remove the partisanship from a Speaker, and make his selection a more inclusive process which crosses party lines, the quality of candidates chosen will be much better. The quality of debates will improve, backbenchers will have a greater voice and be able to check the Executive.

The opposition will have a more meaningful role in the House and will be forced to buck up on their end. They might even have to stop evading the contentious issue of a Shadow Cabinet and actually come up with one, and Shadow Ministers be given the opportunities to challenge their counterparts in government.

The previously repealed Parliamantery Services Act needs to be reintroduced, and the administration of Parliament itself needs explicitly separated from the Executive and civil service. The Speaker’s position has to be protected from the whims of the Executive, so that he is able to administer his role in elevating the stature of the House.

Parliament needs its own bureaucracy to function funded by a consolidated fund, like how the Judiciary is funded, and the Clerk of the House its Chief Executive – not the Minister in Charge of Parliamentary Affairs.

The cornerstone of a Parliamentary democracy is the ability of the House to reflect the prevailing sentiment of the day and act upon it. This is reflected via the diverse constituencies MPs represent and the different issues, which hold varying degrees of importance to each of the 222 constituencies. Parliament will only truly be representative of the people if the opposition too are given a chance to shape the legislative agenda and hold the Executive to account.

What I am proposing is a means to facilitate a fairer legislative process and a way to rein in the rampant powers of the Executive to make it accountable. Especially so when issues like 1MDB crop up, the PM will not be able to keep an elegant silence for long if he is made to face the House.

Overhauling the way a Speaker is elected, redefining his role and giving him the space to function, we will be giving our Parliament a shot at the credibility it is so lacking now. Of course it is an ideal, a vision in which our current Executive in its current form will never embrace.

What I hope is that, a future government who is sincere about Parliamentary reform will make the necessary changes to produce a truly democratic Parliament. Where an honest Executive is able to do its job and held accountable, and where the opposition are able to put forward their ideas and hold the Executive to account.

Parliament will always be an arena of hard politics, and the way business is done will change very slowly. The whips will stay to make sure their MPs toe the leadership line, and MPs will continue saying the silliest things. Maturity is a continuously evolving process and it will take many years and cycles to reach.

Political maturity is ultimately a reflection of society itself, as society evolves so will its politics. Change will not come overnight, but installing the right mechanisms in place will help hasten it. The power of the Executive must be curtailed, and the solution is in the House.

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