In the late afternoon of 21 September, Parliament was delayed owing to a lack of quorum, largely because attendance on the government side left much to be desired.
There were reported to be only five or six government MPs in the House, while the backbenchers, ministers and their deputies were absent.
At least 26 MPs must be present in the Dewan Rakyat before a sitting can start.
The absenteeism among MPs, irrespective of their party affiliations, is disturbing, as elected representatives are expected to partake in debates that involve the concerns and interests of their respective constituents. It is especially egregious when the MPs are absent without valid justification, such as ill-health or their official duties have called them elsewhere.
Dereliction of duty in any profession is inexcusable, as it suggests irresponsibility on the part of the individual who has been entrusted to perform certain obligatory and important functions.
And recently, almost all cabinet ministers and deputy ministers were missing from the Dewan Rakyat after lunch, leaving the attending MPs to address empty chairs on the government side. It was tantamount to being stonewalled.
We are talking of 32 ministers and 38 deputies in the present government, some of whom could have been in the session to provide much-needed answers to the questions that MPs were raising.
Worse, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was debating critical issues pertaining to the health and economic crises, but no cabinet members saw it fit to be present. At the very least, their deputies should have been present to uphold the dignity of the august chamber.
To be fair, absenteeism also happened in previous administrations. For instance, then-opposition leader Ismail Sabri Yaakob criticised a lack of quorum in Parliament caused by absent MPs in late October 2019 when Pakatan Harapan was in power.
Later in the week, parliamentary proceedings to debate Budget 2020 were temporarily suspended due to a lack of quorum, as though MPs regarded the meeting as insignificant.
Of course, absenteeism is not peculiar to Malaysia. Countries such as India, Ghana and Australia have grappled in their own way with this perennial problem.
We are not saying here that this is a normal practice to the extent that we ought to take it in our stride – for absenteeism affects the vital process of making laws and holding the executive to account for its actions.
To think that MPs are handsomely paid by taxpayers to represent them in Parliament – and yet play hooky.
MPs should be mindful that much time was squandered when parliamentary proceedings were suspended, postponed or cut short under the Mahiaddin Yasin administration. Many pandemic-related issues were thus left unaddressed.
Delaying proceedings in the current session will only mean wasting more precious time.
To buck the disturbing trend, then-Dewan Rakyat Speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof said that MPs who skipped sittings would be deprived of their RM500 daily attendance allowance because there were no laws to cut MPs’ monthly salary as a penalty for absenteeism.
But, as we can see, that has not been an effective deterrent to the MPs. Perhaps Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun should think of ways to inspire the MPs to discharge their duties thoughtfully.
At a time when the nation is confronted with a number of challenges following the pandemic, it is crucial that parliamentarians seriously tackle the people’s urgent concerns and interests.
Let the Dewan Rakyat be known as a well-attended place for robust and dignified debates and not as a less-than-august chamber visited from time to time by truancy. – The Malaysian Insight