Khoo Ying Hooi looks at why the recent one-day sitting defied logic and highlights Parliament’s critical role in providing ongoing checks and balances.
Like many other Malaysians, I was deeply concerned that the present government only scheduled a one-day sitting of Parliament on 18 May.
There were no motions and no debates during the sitting. That has to wait for the next sitting in July.
I feel compelled to write this as a citizen of Malaysia, out of frustration and anger. I want my voice to be represented, as that is exactly what a parliament should be for.
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The website of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) has a useful reference page for us to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way parliaments around the world work; it shows us which parliaments have continued to sit. Countries such as Albania, Angola, Belgium, Bhutan, Croatia, France, Georgia, Indonesia, Monaco, Mongolia, Norway, Uruguay and Venezuela have taken different measures to continue their parliamentary sessions.
Many of these parliaments responded to the pandemic with innovative techniques to ensure their vital functions could continue, sometimes even voting remotely.
Here in Malaysia, various parties from opposition political parties to civil society groups called on the government to extend the one-day sitting of Parliament to at least a week with social distancing measures such as suitable seating arrangements and online platforms. For instance, the Malaysian Bar specifically called on the government to come up with laws relating to Covid-19.
The G25 pointed out in a statement that, under the conditional movement control order, large sectors of the public had already resumed work, and so should the legislative body. Other groups such as Aliran, the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham), Bersih 2.0 and Global Bersih, also demanded that Parliament extend its sitting to at least a week.
The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm), for their part, criticised the decision to restrict media access for the one-day sitting to state-owned RTM and Bernama only.
Responding to this, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Takiyuddin Hassan said in a statement that the decision for a one-day sitting took into account the government’s stand that mass gatherings were not conducive for the time being: “This is to ensure all MPs are able to take part in the session within the scope of standard operating procedures set by the Health Ministry.”
House Speaker Mohamad Ariff Mohd Yusof was reported as saying he had accepted an emergency motion to decide whether to extend the one-day parliamentary sitting on 18 May to eight days.
But in the end, we had only a one-day Parliament sitting, which was absurd and outrageous. We need longer parliamentary sessions for various reasons, especially during a pandemic like this. Every day, we received different updates from different ministries: sometimes they were contradictory, and often, there were insufficient guidelines available for the various sectors.
For instance, during the announcement of an extension of the conditional movement control order to 9 June, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced that Hari Raya visits within the same state would be allowed with a maximum of 20 people in attendance at any one time; the same applied for Gawai and Hari Kaamatan. However, the Ministry of Health said the 20-visitors-per-home rule was not an absolute number; it had to take into consideration the size of the home.
Also, while most business sectors were allowed to operate under the conditional movement control order, some sectors such as entertainment outlets and hair salons did not receive the green light back then.
There were also no clear standard operating procedures for some business sectors that were not allowed to operate under the conditional movement control order, with no indication of when they could resume operations.
The other sector concerned childcare centres. As parents gradually returned to work, this posed a challenge for many working parents as schools had not yet opened. (Childcare centres were only allowed to reopen on 3 June.)
These were all valid concerns by different sectors, and they were crying out for answers.
We all might have had different opinions about whether all business sectors should have been allowed to open, when schools should reopen and many other issues. All these issues warranted debates in Parliament so that more comprehensive guidelines and operating procedures could be drafted to ensure we have a smooth “exit strategy”. Decisions on the exit strategy must be transparent, and the strategy has to go through parliamentary scrutiny.
We called doctors, nurses, police, military and so on as “frontliners” as they went to work every day to ensure that vital functions could be performed. What then was stopping Parliament from convening for a longer period?
Companies were able to function using different online platforms; universities were able to function using virtual learning on suitable platforms; so too schools and even some kindergartens. So why couldn’t our Parliament go online just like many other parliaments around the world?
The Parliament website tells us: “Parliament is the legislative authority for the Federation and it enacts laws to be enforced nationwide […] Parliament passes federal laws, makes amendments to existing federal laws, examines the government’s policies, approves the government’s expenditures and approves new taxes […] Parliament also serves as the forum to discuss matters of public interest.”
This shows us how vital Parliament is, more so in a pandemic like this which has affected everyone. Parliament is a place to discuss matters of public interest. It represents the interests of the people and ensures those interests are taken into account. In times of crisis like this, parliaments have a duty to ensure that all measures taken result in enhanced protection and support for the people.
Without debates, how can we possibly have more comprehensive guidelines to represent the people? The current policies we have are only one-sided without any constructive scrutiny.
Parliament is the place where our voices are represented and debated. For our response to the pandemic to be comprehensive and legitimate, Parliament must be ready to hear feedback on what’s working and what’s not.
We need more – not less – parliamentary scrutiny. Having a one-day Parliament sitting or delayed sittings while most other business sectors are allowed to open puts Parliament in a poor light. It is strange logic – a sign of a missing parliamentary democracy, and it should not be happening.