Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Role, Rights and Responsiblities of the Opposition

The Hon. Fong Kui Lun MP
Federal Member for Bukit Bintang,

Speech In 53rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, 2007, New Delhi


1.Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy modified from the Westminster system. Peninsula Malaysia got its independence in 1957 while Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak formed Malaysia with its Peninsula counterpart in 1963.

2.The position of the head of state, Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King), is rotated amongst the nine (9) hereditary Malay state rulers on a five-year basis.

3.Theoretically, commanding the support of the House of Representatives is a prerequisite for the majority leader to be appointed as Prime Minister.

4.There are thirteen (13) states in the federation. Each state is headed by either a hereditary ruler or an appointed governor and governed by a state government formed by the majority party in the state assembly. State Assemblies are unicameral bodies.

5.There are three Federal Territories, namely national capital Kuala Lumpur, seat of federal administration Putrajaya and Labuan Island.

6.Ethnicity defines the body politic. Almost everything is seen through ethnic or, more commonly in Malaysia, racial lines. The Malays and other indigenous population forms about 65 percent of the population while the Chinese make up 25 percent and Indians 8 percent.

7.Religion is an increasingly important factor in politics. The popularity of the opposition Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) in the rural Malay-dominated heartlands is forcing the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to adopt a more religious approach towards politics.

8.The ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front), is premised on ethno-elite bargaining, often referred to as “consociationalism” by academics. There are fourteen (14) parties in the coalition. Most parties in the coalition are ethnic-based parties presumably championing the causes of their respective constituencies.

9.Instead of Parliament, the Cabinet is the supposed platform for (ethnic) representation, which adversely affects Parliament’s representative function.

10.While federalism is an integral part of the system, the central government is extremely asymmetric. In terms of financial outlay, the expenditure of the Federal Government is averagely 150-200 times that of a state government’s outlay.

11.Election is often perceived as free (of violence) but unfair. Rural seats weigh more than urban constituencies, often on a ratio of one to three, rendering the “one person, one vote” principle practically inexistent. Gerrymandering is also widespread. Opposition rarely has access to the mainstream media, be it print or electronic. The line between the state and the ruling party is very thin, resulting in excessive use of public resources for the government’s election campaign.

12.The government may resort to emergency rule if it chooses to do so. Many laws are perceived by the international community as draconian, including the Internal Security Act (ISA) which provides for detention without trial. The state also controls the publication of newspapers and other media through licensing laws and ownership through parties friendly to the government.


13.The Federal Constitution stipulates that the Parliament is officially composed of the King, the Senate (Dewan Negara), and the House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat).

14.The King’s previous power to reject Bills, as well as other discretionary powers, has largely been subjugated through two rounds of Constitutional Crises in the 1980s and 1990s. For a Bill passed by the two Houses, Royal Assent is no longer needed to make it effective after thirty (30) days.

15.The Dewan Negara or Senate was conceived to be an elected state house entrusted to protect the interests of the states, along the lines of the Australian system, which in turn is modeled after that of the United States. However, hopes of an eventual direct senate election are a lost cause.

16.Even the role of the State House has diminished. The original Constitution provides that two Senators be indirectly elected from each State Assembly in the country, i.e. twenty-six (26) while an additional sixteen (16) to be appointed by the King at the advice of the Prime Minister. Now the King appoints forty-four (44) members.

17.The Dewan Rakyat or House of Representatives consists of two hundred and nineteen (219) members, which will be increased to two hundred and twenty-two (222) in the next general election as a result of seat re-delineation.

18.The Westminster model that Malaysia takes after dictates that a Prime Minister must be a Member of House of Representatives who commands majority support in the House. Key leaders from the ruling coalition are also Members of the Administration, which include Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries.

19.As such, the supposed demarcation between the Executive and the Legislature is non-existent. Currently, the Administration has a total of ninety-one (91) Members, namely thirty-two (32) Ministers, thirty-nine (39) Deputy Ministers and twenty (20) Parliamentary Secretaries. In terms of its ratio to the population and to the number of Parliamentarians, the Malaysian Administration is one of the largest in the world.

20.As the Executive took away forty-five (45) percent of the ruling coalition’s MPs, the backbench is devoid of talent and promise. Backbenchers are typically political have-beens, younger MPs or those who are lacking in ministerial quality. It is hard to expect this “leftover” group to perform well as backbenchers whose job it is to hold the government accountable.

21.The Opposition won nine (9) percent of seats in the 2004 general election though winning thirty-six (36) percent of national votes. There are currently three Opposition parties, namely, the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS; six seats), Democratic Action Party (DAP; 12 seats) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party; one seat). Even if there is no discrimination, such a small and fractious Opposition is hard-pressed to check on a strong Executive.

22.The large Executive (in which Members have to abide by collective decision), an ineffective Backbench and a tiny Opposition mean that Parliament cannot meaningfully represent the electorate.


23.In the face of the very strong Executive and a bloated bureaucracy that employs nearly 20 percent of the local workforce directly or indirectly, the amateurish Parliament is hardly a match.

24.While the Malaysian Parliament has always been faced with a strong Executive, the asymmetric relation is increasingly tilted in the favour of the Executive. The ratio of Parliament staff to the Prime Minister’s Department staff is around 1:100. The ratio was 1:10 in 1960s.

25.Parliament’s financial allocation, when compared to that of the Prime Minister’s Department, is roughly the same. The Parliamentary Service is no longer an independent entity after the repeal of the Parliamentary Service Act 1963 in 1993. In terms of staffing, it is essentially an extension of Public Service.

26.The Parliamentary Research Service was only formed in 2005 with 10 staff – too small a number to provide alternative source of advice and information to MPs.

27.The party whip, a Westminster’s term denoting the rule placed on individual MPs to vote as a block in accordance with a party’s stance, is ‘blanket’ in the Malaysian Parliament. While in most Westminster systems, the whip has to be followed when it is expressly ‘shown’, in Malaysia, no ruling party member can vote in support of any motion by the Opposition, whether procedural or substantive.

28.Parliamentary procedures are at best controlled and at worst biased. Opposition Members often argue that they are not treated equally inside and outside the Chamber in execution of their roles.

29.The other weakness of the Malaysian Parliament is that it does not have a functioning Committee system. The only Committee that scrutinizes the Executive is the Public Accounts Committee, which is, however, not chaired by an Opposition Parliamentarian, as practiced in other Commonwealth democracies.

30.Parliamentarians are paid a monthly stipend but there is no allocation for them to employ assistants or set up an office. MPs from the ruling coalition are entitled to an administrative pork-barrel fund of RM 2 million per annum which is denied to Opposition MPs.

31.There is no telecast of Parliamentary business, resulting in a populace that knows little about Parliament and public affairs.

Role, Rights and Responsibilities of the Opposition

32.Khoo Boo Teik, a Malaysian political scientist, suggests that “‘Malaysian parliamentary democracy’ as a political system has always been double-edged: the system offers prospects for popular participation in political activity and public life – as democracy promises – but it limits the scope and the depth of popular participation primarily to contain those conflicts which may disrupt the capitalist system or threaten the state itself.”1

33.The Opposition is not given adequate resources to perform many roles expected of it. The Leader of Opposition is a position with a small amount stipend but not given ministerial status and resources. MPs have very little support from a rather weak Parliamentary Library. MPs are also not provided with funded research assistants or constituency workers, which is very different from other Westminster democracies.

34.Opposition MPs in a full-fledged Westminster democracy would have at least three major roles, namely, holding the Executive to account, serving as leaders of the alternative government, and contribute to legislative processes.2

Holding the Executive accountable

35.Question Time is the main avenue for the Opposition and Backbenchers to hold the government accountable. However, Question Time’s effectiveness is hampered by the fact that questions must be submitted a month ahead of a particular Sitting, which often mean an issue would only be dealt with two or three months after its occurrence. An MP is only allowed to ask 10 Oral Questions and 5 Written Questions per Sitting. (There are three Sittings per annum and Parliament sits for altogether about 70 days per annum).

36.Apart from Question Time, Opposition MPs use whatever slot of time available to them during a Sitting day to highlight issues pertaining governance. An Emergency Motion is one of the more often used parliamentary instruments to request for the House to debate a certain issue or incident. However, they were mostly turned down by the Speaker without a debate.

37.Although media access is very much curtained, Opposition MPs still highlight issues outside the chamber to hold the government accountable through public scrutiny.

38.Also, through the annual Budgetary processes, Opposition MPs and Backbenchers are given access to Government’s Budget for the next financial year and Accounts for the previous year. It’s an important opportunity to examine Government’s priorities.

39.Further, parliamentarians are entitled to immunity for what they say inside the Chamber, barring a few major issues concerning the Rulers and Malay rights. This is an important mechanism that allows MPs to raise issues of national interest or that of their constituents.

Alternative Government

40.It is far fetch for the Malaysian Opposition to act as alternative government in the foreseeable future as it is crippled by an unfair electoral system which gives very little room for the Opposition to gain seats, even if it manage to win around 30 to 40 percent of votes. Without free and fair elections, the Opposition is deprived of an opportunity to present an alternative.
Nonetheless, the Opposition still attempt to present alternative policies from time to time.

Legislative Function

41.Despite the challenges and obstacles faced by the Malaysian Opposition in the Parliament, it can still play an important role in the legislative processes. While the Opposition could not win the numerical game in the House, it has at times persuaded the Government to change track in its legislative programme.

42.But bills are too often “parachuted,” as in being tabled a day or two before debate, resulting in the lack of time for MPs to study thoroughly and consult their constituents. Another hurdle is that there is no departmental or policy committee in the House to scrutinize bill. Some seemingly unimportant bills were often passed within minutes.

43.In short, the Opposition in Malaysia is not given adequate resources, media space, and fundamental liberties of assembly and access to information, to perform its roles as an alternative government, or in holding the government accountable, or being effective in the legislative processes. Nonetheless, in the interest of the people, the Opposition struggles on to ensure that the last semblance of democracy in Malaysia is kept and protected.

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