EVERY year, there will be a time when the attendance (or non-attendance, rather) of MPs during parliamentary debates will be brought up by NGOs, activists, and members of civil society.

Their frustration is understandable since many political parties were calling for the resumption of parliament when the National Emergency was announced earlier this year.

Shouldn’t the same political parties also take note of the attendance of the MPs representing these parties and their respective constituencies?

If the working person must “clock in” to work every day and be seen at the office (at least during pre-pandemic times), shouldn’t MPs also “clock in” to work at parliament and attend parliamentary proceedings?

I think that parliament as an institution and individual MPs (myself included) and the political parties they represent have done a poor job in communicating to the larger public the relevance and importance of parliament as an institution as well as the importance of parliamentary proceedings and the passing of legislation in the Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara.

This lack of public communication has resulted in an extremely low level of awareness among voters of the role and responsibilities of an MP in and outside parliament.

There needs to be further reforms to the parliamentary proceedings to increase the effectiveness of individual MPs in parliament. In addition, parliamentary proceedings must be shown to bring about positive effects to voters.

Finally, the public must be made aware of how parliament can impact the lives of voters in Malaysia, for good and for bad, and in doing so, make people see the relevance of parliament and parliamentary proceedings more clearly.

Former MP and Deputy Defence Minister, Liew Chin Tong, has probably spoken and written about the need for parliamentary reforms more than any other MP in the last 10 years (with the exception of perhaps Lim Kit Siang).

The introduction of the 2nd Chamber for the Dewan Negara to facilitate the answering of specific questions by a Minister or Deputy Minister in order to shift some of the debate on local constituency matters from the main hall to this chamber was his idea and initiative.

It would be even better if additional questions and a more substantive debate on constituency related matters could be brought up in the 2nd chamber. But the intention is that individual MPs would be able to follow up informally with the Deputy Minister or Minister in attendance after the formal session in the 2nd chamber so that possible resolutions to these local constituency matters can be found.

Many other parliamentary reforms were introduced during the brief period of 22 months that Pakatan Harapan (PH) was in government including making an opposition MP the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and introducing more parliamentary special select committees to allow more backbenchers to act as a check and balance and provide input points in a formal setting to the government.

Many of these reforms can be found in the excellent edited volume entitled “Law, Principles and Practice in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) of Malaysia” by the former speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof together with the former Dewan Rakyat secretary Roosme Hamzah and Emeritus Professor Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi.

There is one small parliamentary reform which I can take a little bit of credit for. Prior to the 14th general elections (GE14), all of the parliamentary replies to oral and written questions asked by MPs were not available online. They were compiled in a physical booklet and distributed to all MPs.

I would share these physical copies with Khairil Yusof of Sinar Project and his team would upload these replies to their website. After GE14, these replies are now available on the parliamentary website.

Former deputy speaker, Nga Kor Ming, also played a key role in pushing for this change in parliamentary process and now, journalists and interested members of the public can have access to these parliamentary answers.

In addition to the formal reforms that were introduce in parliament during PH’s time in power, there was also a newfound spirit of discussion and participation where NGOs and members of civil society which were shunned by the previous government such as BERSIH were now invited to organize forums and discussion sessions with MPs and other stakeholders in the august halls of parliament.

Sadly, a combination of the pandemic, the change in government post Sheraton move and the change in the speaker and a deputy speaker brought these parliamentary reforms to a halt.

In a sudden twist of events, the fall of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government has given a new lease of life to discussions on parliamentary reform as a result of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by between the Keluarga Malaysia government and Pakatan Harapan on the 13th of September 2021 in parliament.

According to the MOU, half of the parliamentary special select committees will be chaired by MPs from the opposition. An additional parliamentary special select committees on Foreign Affairs was announced yesterday on the 11th of October making it a total of ten parliamentary special select committees.

The composition of all parliamentary special select committee was amended to have 5 from the government side and 4 from the opposition bench (from 5 from the government and 2 from the opposition prior to this).

At the time of writing, it has not been announced which parliamentary special select committees would be chaired by MPs from the opposition bench.

There has also been an informal discussion surrounding the need for a 3rd deputy speaker from the ranks of the opposition. This will need cross-partisanship support as it will require a constitutional amendment.

I believe that this move is necessary as part of the process of parliamentary reform and also to share the workload especially if the number of days and hours for the house to sit is increased, which is a point which Chin Tong has advocated for in the past. Chin Tong has also advocated for the proceedings of the individual parliamentary special select committees to be broadcast “live” so that interested stakeholders can observe the content that is being presented to the committee and the questions that are being asked by individual committee members.

Currently, most of the time allocated in parliament is for MPs to give their speeches either during the year end budget debate or when debating the Yang DiPertuan Agung’s speech.

Most MPs would read a prepared script. For example, 4 days would be allocated for the MPs to debate the King’s speech and only 2 days would be allocated for the Ministers to answer questions raised by the MPs with about 45 minutes allocated to each Minister.

Former Deputy Speaker, Nga Kor Ming, has also proposed a number of much needed reforms to parliament including introducing a Parliament Services Act to increase the independence of the staff in parliament; adding two more parliamentary special select committees – one to monitor their implementation of each year’s Budget and another to discuss proposed government bills before they are tabled in parliament; “live” proceedings of an expanded 2nd chamber were local constituency issues can be debated, just to name a few.

To the proposals by Chin Tong and Kor Ming, I will add the following:

Increase the allocated time for the tabling and debating of legislation.
Allow MPs to record their parliamentary speeches and give more time for Ministers to answer the questions raised by MPs during their debates.
Increasing the staffing of parliament to assist with the secretariat of individual special select committees, the running of an expanded 2nd chamber, and the preparation of additional reports and public documents.
All of the proceedings of the parliamentary special select committees should be recorded as part of the official Hansard and shown “live” to the public
Allow the establishment of Joint Committees of both houses on special issues such as the one established to discuss Prison Reforms
Compulsory Briefings by the Minister / Deputy Minister to the media and to the MPs on any new laws / amendments which are tabled (including on the record Q&A sessions for the media during these briefings)
Allow a hybrid system of online and physical parliamentary proceedings can take place (especially in light of the endemic nature of the COVID19 pandemic)
Encourage and facilitate more public, NGO and academic discussion on the role of parliament and parliamentarians
Invite MPs to conduct tours for the school children who visit parliament as part of a public outreach initiative
Strengthen the social media outreach capacity of the Malaysian Parliament

*Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant Political Education Director for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the 12th of October 2021

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.