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MGG: A storm in the parliamentary teacup
By M.G.G. Pillai

4/11/2001 1:25 am Sun

Perhaps the most expensive and irrelevant body in what passes for Malaysian democracy is its parliament. The prime minister and his cabinet ignore it with abandon, the opposition, until the last general election, too weak to bring it back Malaysia's founding father had prepared it for. It is, to not put a fine point to it, a sinecure: Six years as an MP and a pension for life of half your monthly allowances (currently just under RM5,000), and a healthy gratuity of about RM54,000 for every six years served. There are other perks. For this, an MP is required to be present to tell the world Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy. It is, in the view of the Malaysian cabinet, an inconvenient constitutional requirement that must be humoured, but otherwise ignored.

Issues of any significance are conveniently sidelined. The world can be on fire, but the Malaysian parliament would do nothing. The government does not consult it on matters that should it should: The new administrative capital of Putra Jaya is built by one of its off budget agencies, Petronas, and therefore out of its purview. Billions or ringgit for development are announced without reference to Parliament. Requiests for information are cavalierly ignored. The opposition parties try to make it a debating chamber but with a Speaker unprepared to take his role seriously, the effort is stillborn. Afghanistan is not discussed in Parliament: it does not interfere in other country's problem; the government would take care of it, and MPs have no business in what is not theirs. The House must exist as a rubber stamp for the government, not as a sounding board of the Malaysian people.

The MPs therefore ignore their elected task, using it to collect their pensions and allowances. Attendances are rare, except when the Prime Minister makes his rare scheduled appearances. Cabinet ministers do not usually answer questions directed at them. They are busy doing what could be delegated and delegate what they should not in the House. The MPs sign in to collect their allowances and sign out, their day's work done. The New Straits Times, a few years ago, began to count the MPs in the House at three specified times a day when it sits. It shows that MPs generally look upon their role as sinecures.

Last week, this table became an issue. The former chairman of the National Front backbenchers' club, Dato' Ruhanie Ahmad, accused the NST of being an opposition backer. This is like calling Osama bin Laden a strong backer of the United States. The NST, noted for its deaden coverage of issues, in which anything of interest is rigorously scrubbed out, took issue, and for two days defended itself in the fawning way it is noted for when it takes issue with National Front MPs.

Dato' Ruhani's allegation that it is an opposition organ hit it hard. It roared like a wounded mouse, it explained what its bounden duty is, how it covers parliamentary issues so well that it allocates one page, ONE PAGE! a day for it. It covers the irrelevant issues of the day, ignores what should be, usually depending on Bernama to set the tone, even with a phalanx of reporters in the parliamentary gallery. And assiduously cover the press conferences outside.

But the reporters would not explain the issues, or talk of the political mood of the place. I find I do not have to be in the House to find out what I want to know. Like many journalists, I go there to meet people I often cannot, and get an understanding of the political and other issues of the day. Often their explanations are more accurate than the pontificating statements inside.

So, why did Dato' Ruhani make the fuss? The government has just declared Malaysia to be an Islamic state, but would not discuss it in Parliament. It is not necessary, says the MCA president, Dato' Seri Ling Liong Sik, since the government has already announced it. The non-Malays and the non-Muslims worry about their fate when important issues like this are studiously kept out of parliamentary discussion. PAS had tried without fail, well before the Prime Minister's capricious decision to declare Malaysia as an Islamic state.

This divide Malays and non-Malays, Muslims and non-Muslims, UMNO Malays and PAS Malays, political Malays and cultural Malays. On 17 October, an UMNO MP from Sabah uttered an obscene four-letter word in the House. The Speaker ignored the uproar and took no action. UMNO did not punish the MP as it should have. It now is an issue in the bondooks: UMNO cannot respond to allegations that in its Islam, four-letter obscene words are perfectly respectable. UMNO runs hither and thither.

The MPs in rural constituencies cannot answer the unanswerable. Dato' Ruhani is one. He believes, like most journalist-turned-politicians, the messenger should be killed for the bad tidings. The messenger is distraught and goes to great lengths to explain why he cannot be guilty and offers as incontrovertible evidence that he sleeps on his job, and therefore unfair to criticise him. And so another manufactured crisis ends. The aim of the exercise is create a crisis that would sell newspapers, not to add the problem. Dato' Ruhani and the NST deserve each other.

M.G.G. Pillai