The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) calls for strong and effective checks and balances mechanisms to protect the public interest even as we begin a new chapter under the leadership of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his mixed coalition government.
Bersih notes with some concerns the Anwar’s remark that he is not considering the role of the finance minister “at the moment”. He should not for a moment consider it as it would totally remove any semblance of checks and balances in the inner sanctum of his own cabinet. Have we not learned from the follies of Najib Razak?
On the other hand, Bersih welcomes the statement by the leader of the Perikatan Nasional coalition, Mahiaddin Yasin that they are rejecting Anwar’s offer to be part of his unity government and that “PN will play a role as an authoritative opposition to bring the voice of the people to Parliament and ensure the integrity and corruption-free governance of the government is in line with caring, clean and stable (PN) principles”.
Bersih calls on Anwar’s government to enable the formation of a shadow cabinet for the opposition with commensurate salaries, resources and information access for its shadow ministers. Every ministry will be scrutinised by only a shadow minister who would be paid half the ministerial salary and provided policy staff but no other perks.
To further strengthen scrutiny, for each ministry, there should also be a parliamentary select committee, filled by both government and opposition backbenchers, with its own policy staff.
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The passing of the parliamentary services act as promised in the PH manifesto should also be expedited so that the resources for these additional committees and shadow cabinet can come direct from Parliament instead of the Ministry of Finance.
The standing orders in the House of Representatives have to be amended to reduce government control of the agenda and time, improving opportunities for private members’ business, empowering special select committees to act more independently and enhance the management of confidence votes.
Apart from parliamentary reforms, we need key institutions such as the judiciary, the Election Commission and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to be independent and free from the influence of the Executive. A key appointments commission to shortlist candidates for the relevant special select committee to further scrutinise the process would ensure that only independent and qualified candidates are shortlisted for the PM to recommend to the Agong for appointment.
The attorney general, who should remain as an appointee of the government, should not hold the role of public prosecutor, a reform promised by both Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional. An immediate transfer of prosecution powers to the solicitor general (the apolitical No 2 in the Attorney General’s Chambers) as a temporary measure and a provisional moratorium on the prosecution of opposition politicians on non-violence-related cases before the completion of the reform of the Attorney General’s Chambers is necessary to avoid the perception of selective prosecution or immunity.
Other important institutions outside of government structures that play an important role to hold the government of the day accountable are the media and civil society organisations.
A free press is integral to a vibrant democracy as they shine a light on corruption, failures and shortcomings of the government, and they should be unshackled from restrictive laws so that they can report without fear or favour.
Under the new administration, the role of civil society should be acknowledged by allowing organisations that are deemed ‘political’, when they are actually working to advance human and political rights, to be duly registered under a reformed Registrar of Societies that is not influenced by the executive.
This would enable these NGOs to gain access to funding and apply for tax-exempt status from the Ministry of Finance. The government should also consider setting up an independent civil society commission to regulate NGOs and fund those who fulfil certain criteria so that they can do their work without constant concerns about sustainability and harassment from the authorities. – Bersih