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ATimes: Malaysia's parliament: House of ill repute
By Anil Netto

27/12/2001 2:53 am Thu

Asia Times
23rd December 2001


Malaysia's parliament: House of ill repute

By Anil Netto

PENANG - A David vs Goliath clash flared in Malaysia's parliament on its last day of sitting for the year. Only this time, "David" lost.

Novice opposition politician Fong Po Kuan, Malaysia's youngest parliamentarian at 28, had publicly taken to task the 77-year-old parliamentary Speaker, Mohamed Zahir Ismail, a veteran who had presided over the House for five terms spanning 19 years, after he had rejected her motion to discuss an examinations scandal.

In a press statement on December 4, she accused Zahir of misusing his discretionary powers when he rejected her motion to discuss a simmering grades-tampering fiasco in the qualifying examinations for law graduates who want to enter public practice. Her remarks rebounded on her when she felt the full wrath of the House on December 11. Fong, a member of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), was suspended from parliament for six months without pay after she refused to apologize to the House for "contempt".

"Such a statement brings the dignity of the House into disrepute," said a peeved Zahir, adding that it amounted to contempt against the House. He said the House is the highest law-making body in the country and has a standing equivalent to that of a court of law, and thus its procedures should not be breached.

Fong's suspension was approved by a vote of 83-28 by her fellow members of parliament. Eight MPs, included Fong herself, took part in the debate on the motion by the Prime Minister's Department. Interruptions, verbal brawls and jokes punctuated the fiery cut-and-thrust of the four-hour debate.

The total number of votes cast was itself telling, as not all the MPs voted. There are 193 parliamentarians in all and on many occasions in the past, parliament has had difficulty mustering a quorum of even 26 members. The parliamentary cafeteria is where many MPs often congregate and the bell is usually rung to send them scurrying back into the House whenever a quorum is needed.

Fong's ouster from the House - though she still retains her status as MP - has thrust the role of parliament on to center-stage in a week when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in power for 20 years, marked his 76th birthday. Critics point out that during Mahathir's tenure, power has increasingly been centralized in the hands of the executive - more specifically, the prime minister - while other democratic institutions have grown correspondingly weaker.

One such institution is parliament, which is widely perceived as a rubber-stamp for government-sponsored bills. Opposition parliamentarians have often complained of inadequate time to study and debate bills. They say they lack opportunities for getting their motions debated and for questioning the prime minister and his ministers, many of whom are often absent.

In Fong's case, opposition politicians said she should have been referred to a Committee of Privileges for a quasi-judicial inquiry and finding, as is the established parliamentary convention in other Commonwealth parliaments for such cases. Instead, a "brute majority", as one opposition politician referred to it, in parliament was used to suspend her.

They noted that Zahir himself had waived the seven-day notice required for the motion of suspension on the grounds that public interest required that the motion should be debated as soon as possible.

"Zahir has overlooked the fact that however elevated the position of Speaker, it does not confer on him the right, power or prerogative to be the prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner all in one," said an upset DAP chairman, Lim Kit Siang. He said the proposal to punish Fong by withdrawing her MP's allowance for six months was unprecedented and unconstitutional.

Similar episodes in the past may have contributed to an apparent decline in parliament's standing among the public. One particular official decision was laden with symbolism: Malaysian coins once proudly featured an embossed image of the Parliament Building in Kuala Lumpur, but it has been substituted with other traditional images.

Parliamentary proceedings are rarely broadcast over the media. The annual budget day is one of the rare occasions when viewers can catch a glimpse of MPs in parliament, and even then the focus is on the finance minister (now Mahathir) delivering his speech rather than any substantive debate.

In recent weeks, male parliamentarians, especially those from the ruling coalition, have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. One MP recently uttered the F-word in parliament for the first time, triggering an uproar. Others have allegedly directed remarks laden with innuendoes at female opposition MPs.

To get a motion debated, opposition MPs face an uphill task in overcoming a triple hurdle. The motion has to be urgent, specific and of public importance. Cynics joke that almost any matter can be rejected on the grounds that it does not satisfy one of the three requirements. If it is of public importance, it may not be urgent; and if it is both urgent and of public importance, it may still be rejected on the grounds that it is not specific.

What makes Fong's suspension galling to many was that her offense was merely that she had criticized the Speaker's decision using the media. Critics have asked: what makes a Speaker so special that his decisions cannot be questioned in public? They argue that even court decisions or statements by ministers or even the prime minister are regularly subjected to criticism.

Fong herself is unrepentant. "The House's decision will not lower my morale," she said. "Instead, I will continue to voice out the people's concern." Parliament, she concluded, had failed to function effectively.