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A debatable Dewan Rakyat sitting

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The recent announcement about the opening of the so-called special Dewan Rakyat sitting on 26 July has caused quite a stir among lawmakers and concerned Malaysians.

Parliament will convene for the first time since it was suspended in January this year with the proclamation of a state of emergency across the entire federation. In short, the meeting is long overdue and eagerly anticipated by many people.

But the announcement of the sitting also aroused public interest as well as surprise because the MPs were initially told by the government that the short five-day meeting was purely so that they could be briefed by selected ministers.

This predictably annoyed the MPs, particularly those in the opposition, who have been raring to debate matters of national import, such as the various ordinances passed during the emergency and the national recovery plan in the wake of the raging pandemic. Indeed, all the emergency ordinances need to be validated in Parliament.

To be sure, the Agong had decreed on 16 June that the MPs should debate the proclamation of emergency and emergency ordinances – preferably before the emergency ends on 1 August.

We would assume that to avoid debating matters of public concern would be a dereliction of duty by the lawmakers as well as a violation of the vital principle of checks and balances expected in a parliamentary democracy.

As if such a scenario isn’t enough to raise the temperature, de facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan later appeared to have changed his position. He assured that MPs would be given the opportunity to debate and give their views. He added that Prime Minister Mahiaddin Yasin had agreed to allow debates in the forthcoming meeting.

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However, some politicians were not convinced by the sudden U-turn of the executive, especially when the notice sent out to MPs did not indicate an opportunity for discussion. Pasir Gudang MP Hassan Abdul Karim, for instance, cautioned that the notice did not mention “debate” – compared to the agenda for the session beginning 6 September that does indicate “debate”. He said the word “table” in the notice literally meant that documents would be placed on the MPs’ tables. That’s literalism par excellence.

At the moment, lawmakers have not been asked to submit questions as is the regular procedure for a regular Dewan Rakyat sitting. And at the same time, they are still quibbling over how many of them should physically attend the session in the Dewan Rakyat. The contentious limit proposed is 80.

Some MPs contend that the limit to the number of attendees should be tabled in Parliament so that the lawmakers themselves can vote on it – rather than it be unilaterally decided by the Speaker.

A coalition of civil society groups, called Seed Community for a Professional Parliament, rightly argued that there is no justification for such a limit as all the lawmakers have been vaccinated and will be strictly subjected to the usual standard operating procedure during a physical session.

For ordinary Malaysians who have lived through many parliamentary sessions in their lifetime, the announcement about the 26 July meeting can also be confusing, as they are not familiar with the notion of MPs being disallowed from participating and debating in the august chamber.

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Furthermore, it seems like a strange idea to the common people who are used to witnessing noisy Dewan Rakyat proceedings, where robust debates or exchanges take place. The only time some lawmakers are ordered to close their trap is when they throw up verbal diarrhoea of a racist and sexist nature.

Besides, lawmakers are paid to talk on behalf of their constituents. And they surely have a lot to talk about, considering the pandemic has resulted in thousands of people losing their businesses, jobs and incomes, as well as facing domestic violence, divorce, delinquent loans and rents, interrupted education and mental health issues.

Concerned Malaysians hope the meeting tomorrow would be worth the long wait. – The Malaysian Insight

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