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A lay person’s view: Was it or was it not a sitting?

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For Parliament to function, the MPs must attend and tackle the issues at hand, Sarajun Hoda Abdul Hassan writes.

The 18 May Parliament sitting: was it a sitting in law – does it by convention fulfil the test – or was it not? 

Parliament without it performing its entire function is just a building. A moment’s sitting by our MPs – is that called a parliamentary sitting? Did our Parliament give up its obligations to the people and serve only the interest of the executive? These are the questions ringing in the minds of many Malaysians.

This question is pivotal for the effective functioning of democracy in Malaysia. Many experts on constitution, law and regency have shared their thoughts. But are they making sense to the simple minds of the majority? Groups everywhere are abuzz talking about it.
Does only the opening speech by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong alone constitute a parliamentary sitting? Because if it is not, Parliament will by now stand dissolved, and we should go for the next general election. 

To answer this, some people are already knocking on the doors of the judiciary. Will the courts hurriedly hear this alarming case? Because anything can happen between now – when we have ‘a possibly dissolved Parliament’ – and the time the courts disposes this matter.

What does our Constitution say? Article 60 says: “The Yang di-Pertuan Agong may address either house of Parliament or both houses jointly.” 

Note the word “may” – not shall, which would have made it compulsory. So the opening of the Parliament by the Agong does not seem to be mandatory.

Hence the question in people’s minds is if the opening address of the Agong is not compulsory, how does having it constitute a legitimate sitting to satisfy the fatal requirement of 60 days between two sittings? Does the assembly of MPs, sitting on their chairs, even momentarily make up a “sitting”? Or does Parliament now stand dissolved?

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Constitutional experts say a sitting means Parliament must conduct its business. The Parliament website defines the insitutition as a legislative body for the federal government that passes and amends federal laws, scrutinises government policies, and approves government budgets and proposals for new taxes. 

So, did Parliament perform such business on 18 May? Clearly, no. Did Parliament function as a Parliament on that day? No, not at all.

The Covid-19 excuse given by the government makes no sense. Commercial activities are now allowed. But not Parliament? Parliaments in other countries gave gone ahead, adapting to the new realities resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. They have gone virtual. Why not Malaysia? Are we so backward in harnessing the benefits of the cyber-world? Or do we have an unworthy multimedia and communications minister with no advice to give to the cabinet?

People are asking, if parliaments around the world can sit and conduct their business virtually, why can’t Parliament in Malaysia? Are the technological tools required for a virtual sitting of parliament not available to us? What nonsense. Are Malaysians that stupid?

At a time of such great adversity and distress, public anxiety is running high. We cannot imagine a better time when the people need their parliamentarians more to help them ease their pain and suffering. Never have we ever been so distressed.

It is the duty of MPs to take to Parliament the people’s cries. And it is the government’s ultimate business to hear and provide for the people. Yes, the massive health support and movement control order restrictions have been commendable. But what about people’s daily lives, the economy, jobs, businesses? Was even the “bantuan prihatin” (caring assistance) provided when it was most needed?

The only way the government can provide support for the people is by coming up with measures to ease people’s suffering and jump-start commercial activities. 

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This is only possible if MPs debate these measures in Parliament, where all MPs from both sides of the divide can raise their concerns, debated these measures and vote on them. Why do we need a parliament and parliamentarians if this basic element is ignored?

To our simple minds, the government must function. Whether the government is legitimate is another matter. For the government to function, Parliament must function, right? For Parliament to function, the MPs must attend and address and debate the issues at hand. If the government does not present the supply bill, the people will have to bear grave consequences as it will not be legally provided.

Unprecedented times calls for unprecedented measures. But this government has failed even in performing its basic function of legally providing for the people.

The May 18 sitting did not even consider legitimising the emergency pandemic bill for RM260bn. How do we know where the money came from and where it is going? How do we know it is wisely spent? Did it really go to the needy?

Or was it like a RM35 relief basket for RM100 spent, more money filling the pockets of cronies than the needy?

After all, the kleptocrats are back in government – and heading government-linked companies. Theft and plundering flashes through our minds.

Without passing a supply bill through Parliament at its first opportunity, the whole RM260bn spending becomes unlawful. For failing to conduct this serious business, can the Parliament sitting on 18 May really be considered a sitting?

We know the Perikatan Nasional government is trying to avoid a no-confidence motion against the prime minister, who is leading a treacherous cabinet that was not voted to power. We also know the government is not presenting a confidence motion to legitimise its rule either.  

We know that the PN government fears that if its supply bill is voted down, along with the possibilities above, the government must resign. 

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Hence, to overcome these risks, the government prefers to continue functioning irregularly.

This pandemic has created a ‘new normal’. More and more businesses are now being conducted in the ‘cloud’ than physically down here on earth. The new world has expanded into unlimited virtual space.  

But we are still hopelessly grounded – because the new set of ministers woefully does not have the proficiency, proclivity and the will to harness, in good faith, this limitless resource.

There is really no excuse. Representations and scrutiny by our parliamentarians cannot wait in this unique time. Our MPs need to keep their promises to their constituents and honour their obligations.

The business of Parliament must continue to lend legitimacy to everything that the PN government does. It cannot continue irregularly in this absurd manner.

Our democracy seems ‘dead’. Ignore it at our own peril.

“The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any Government and to protect its free expression should be our first object.” – Thomas Jefferson.

But this is not happening.

The country might as well go for a fresh general election so that the people can elect a legitimate government and start all over again. Yes, it is a difficult time, but the difficulty is borne by the people, not the government, which already seems to have its hands in every jar we have. The most pitiful is Tabung Haji, where money reserved for pilgrimage is also not spared.

The lay person’s verdict is clear. The 18 May sitting failed to qualify as a sitting that fulfils constitutional requirements. Neither did it qualify by the measure of any codified conventions, practices and precedents in any part of the world that practises the Westminster system of governance.

Sarajun Hoda Abdul Hassan, a long-time Aliran member, served previously in Bersih 2.0 and the National Water Services Commission. By profession, he is a cargo handling specialist

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