Malaysia: Parliament Under Abdullah


LIEW Chin Tong

In his maiden speech upon becoming Prime Minister in October 2003, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told the Malaysian Parliament that 'we must respect the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. This is important to maintain the checks and balances needed to prevent abuses of power.'

The statement was refreshing, as power has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Executive, particularly the Prime Minister, during the twenty-two year reign of the former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Eighteen months since Abdullah took over the leadership and a year after the commencement of the new parliamentary term, some minor changes have been detected but there is no sight of any attempt to structurally reverse the trend of executive dominance.

Unlike many functioning legislatures elsewhere, the Malaysian parliament does not have a committee system to examine the government's proposed legislation or to deal with policy matters.

In the past year, for the first time in two decades, two select committees were established to examine proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code and to study issues concerning national unity and the national service program. This is in accordance with Abdullah's promise of wanting 'to see more select committees set up for bills relating to matters and issues of high public interest.'

The year also saw the formation of three informal caucuses consisting members of parliament from both sides of the political divide, dealing with promoting democracy in Myanmar, the Tak Bai incident in Southern Thailand, and human rights issues in Malaysia.

In fact, the Malaysian Parliamentary Caucus on Myanmar, headed by a backbencher from the ruling party UMNO, gained an unprecedented international profile. The group organized a conference on the subject in November 2003 for parliamentarians from ASEAN countries and later evolved into the Asean Inter-Parliamentarian Caucus on Democracy in Burma.

Interestingly, the leader of the parliamentary opposition - usually ignored by the previous administrations - played a key role in the formation of these formal and informal groupings in the Parliament.

Another positive development is that government backbenchers, led by maverick former minister Datuk Shahrir Samad, have become more critical of the Executive.

However, structurally, the position of the parliament vis-à-vis the executive has not changed. As an example, the Parliament received only RM54 million in the 2005 Budget, which is only a tiny fragment compared to the Prime Minister's Department budget of RM1.922 billion. In other words, Parliament's allocation is only 1/35 of the funding for the PM's Department.

Administratively, the parliament is not entirely independent. Last year, the parliament decided to employ twelve researchers to assist parliamentarians - an encouraging step towards enabling better quality debate. But it had to apply to the Public Service Department (PSD), which is under the purview of the Prime Minister. Months later, the PSD approved the allocation for ten of the twelve requested.

A recent public debate on a ten per cent pay hike for members of parliament (and holders of federal government offices) revealed a dire need for reforms in the parliamentary system. The public were not impressed by the pay rise amidst economic slowdown and inflation. Yet many agreed that the formal income of the MPs is inadequate. MPs from both sides of the divide called for provision of government-funded political staffers, researchers and constituency offices - something legislators in many other countries take for granted.

Without proper institutional and financial support for the legislators, it is not surprising that the minister in charge of parliamentary affairs would lament that 'compared to other parliaments in countries of equal development as Malaysia, our quality of debate is still relatively low.'

While the two select committees mentioned earlier are functioning well, the call to form a third one to examine bills governing the privatization of water management has been rejected twice by the cabinet. The Prime Minister also shot down a private member's motion on the Myanmar issue.

The parliament has gained some vitality since Abdullah Badawi took over the reigns, but there is no sign of major structural parliamentary reforms.

WATCHPOINT: The story of the parliament reflects the general picture of Malaysia under Abdullah. The promises and expectations of reforms were extremely high. But substantive changes are far less apparent.


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