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Standing committees to stand up for democracy

5 month ago, 06-Dec-2018

THE creation of six new parliamentary standing committees is cause for celebration. There already were five committees in the Dewan Rakyat, including the Public Accounts Committee that could play a role in reviewing the governments spending decisions and provide another layer of scrutiny beyond the reports of the Auditor General but ultimately its efforts were thwarted when it came to investigations over 1MDB. The remaining four the Standing Orders Committee, House Committee, Committee of Privileges, and Selection Committee while fulfilling important roles, are not oriented towards examining areas of public policy.

By contrast, the names of five of the six new committees imply powerful legislative and policy examination roles. These are the Consideration of Bills Committee, Budget Committee, Rights and Gender Equality Committee, Defence and Home Affairs Committee, and Federal-State Relations Committee. The other one, on Major Public Appointments, suggests that individuals proposed for important national institutions will be further scrutinised than at present. In addition to these new committees, a Caucus on Reform and Governance has been established.

The introduction of policy-based committees has been a recommendation no, demand of many civil society groups for some time. Back in 2012, in one of Ideas early policy papers, I advocated their establishment, drawing not only on evidence of best practice from around the world, but also my experience working for a British MP.

Indeed, I was surprised at how much time my boss a first-time MP spent on his duties as a member of the Pensions Select Committee, which was a far cry from the popular imagination of a politician delivering impassioned oratory from the green benches. Showmanship and adversarial contests across party lines is irrelevant, as most proceedings occur behind closed doors, with the exception of sessions in which ministers or other stakeholders are grilled (and having sat in many of them, it is amazing how backbenchers can strike fear into their own party leaders through robust questioning).

Rather, select committees are where cooperation across party lines enables detailed consideration of legislation. This results in bills actually being improved since new ideas are spurred by discussion, but also, by removing the incentive to score political points, a loyalty to the institution of parliament itself is cultivated.

In Malaysia, where an expectation of loyalty to party leaders is so pervasive, this is a profoundly important step. While our politicians claim to banter socially with each other outside the chamber, there is still an air of intrigue or artificiality about such exchanges. Standing committees, however, will summon the faculties of our elected representatives in a more structured manner, hopefully improving maturity in our politics. Thus, the MPs who have been appointed to these committees have a huge responsibility in ensuring their success.

There have been suggestions that members of civil society should also be included in these committees, but that is inappropriate: by definition, these are sub-committees of the House; and once you open membership to outsiders then that might open the floodgates of patronage and jostling for recognition. Rather, the involvement of civil society should be through dialogue with these committees, buttressed by a thirsty media.

An alternative proposal might be to introduce select committees in the Dewan Negara as well, or have joint committees of both houses for certain topics of constitutional importance. And beyond formal committees, perhaps MPs and senators could be allowed to set up their own groups: in the UK these are called All Party Parliamentary Groups, and cover issues as diverse as extraordinary rendition, bullying in schools or ties with particular countries the APPG for Malaysia, for instance, comprises members from both chambers and various parties who take an interest in bilateral issues.

Still, the establishment of these six new committees is a great start, and further strengthens my view that Parliament or specifically, the Dewan Rakyat under the leadership of Datuk Ariff Yusof is leading the way when it comes to institutional reform.

It has been suggested that the committees should mirror government ministries, but I feel the Legislature should assert its independence in deciding how to organise its committees, rather than simply copy the Executives view of how policy should be divided.

In this regard, the creation of the Federal-State Relations Committee is a pleasant surprise. After the 2008 election, I wrote that Parliament and the Federation may be the most important winners.

Perhaps I was a decade too early, but I hope that this committee will heed the federal logic of our nation, the proven benefits of local decision-making, the demands from Sabah and Sarawak to respect the Malaysia Agreement, and the recent call by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan for policy autonomy and fiscal decentralisation.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.


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