The strange logic of one-day parliament sitting: We need more and not less parliamentary scrutiny — Khoo Ying Hooi

MAY 12 — Similar as many other Malaysians, I am deeply concerned that the present government had only scheduled for the one-day sitting of the parliament on 18 May. According to various news reports, there will be no motion and no debate during the sitting until the next sitting that is scheduled sometime in July 2020.

I feel compelled to write this as a citizen of Malaysia, out of frustration and anger. More importantly, I want my voice to be represented, as that is exactly what a parliament should be.

In the website of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), it has a useful reference page for us to understand how is the Covid-19 pandemic changing the way parliaments work around the world and which parliaments continue to sit. As provided in the IPU page, various countries around the world such as Albania, Angola, Belgium, Bhutan, Croatia, France, Georgia, Indonesia, Monaco, Mongolia, Norway, and Uruguay to Venezuela have taken different measures to continue to have their parliamentary sessions.

Many of the parliaments respond to the pandemic with innovative techniques to ensure their vital functions can continue, sometimes even voting remotely.

Here, various parties from opposition political parties to civil society groups have called for the government to extend its one-day sitting to at least a week with social distancing measures such as suitable seating arrangements and online platforms. For instance, the Malaysian Bar has specifically called on the government to come-up with laws in relation to Covid-19.

In the statement by G25, it has rightly pointed out that under the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO), large sectors of the public have already resumed work, and as such, so should the legislative body.

Some other groups such as Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran), Persatuan Promosi Hak Asasi Manusia (Proham), Bersih 2.0, Global Bersih (GB) too voice out their demands to the parliament to extend its sitting to at least a week.

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) on the other hand have criticised the decision to restrict media access for the one-day sitting only to state-owned media RTM and Bernama.

In responding to this, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Takiyuddin Hassan in a statement said that the decision of one-day sitting takes into account the government’s stand that mass gatherings were not conducive for the time being. I quote, “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.”

In a more recent development, Speaker Mohamad Ariff Mohd Yusof is reported that he has accepted an emergency motion to decide whether to extend the one-day parliamentary sitting on 18 May to eight days.

But as of now, we will only have one-day parliament sitting which is totally absurd and outrageous. We need a longer session of the parliamentary sitting for various reasons, this is especially so during a pandemic like this. Every day we have been receiving different updates from different ministries and sometimes it is contradictory and very often, there have been no sufficient guidelines available for the different sectors.

For instance, during the announcement of an extension of the CMCO 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 applies for Hari Gawai and Hari Kaamatan. However, the Health Ministry said that the 20 visitors per home rule is not an absolute number, and it must take into consideration the size of one’s home.

Also, while most business sectors are now allowed to operate under the CMCO, yet there remains some sectors such as entertainment, saloons and so on that have yet to receive green lights. Thus far, there have been no clear Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for some business sectors, which are still not allowed to operate under the CMCO, and the question of when they will be able to resume operations.

The other sector concerns on the childcare centres. As parents are gradually returning to work, this poses a challenge for many working parents as the schools have yet to open. Thus far, the Health Ministry has not made a decision on whether to allow childcare centres to open although they have received many requests.

These are all valid concerns by different sectors and they need an answer.

We all might have different opinions whether all business sectors should be allowed to open, when should the schools be reopen and many other issues depending on which position that we are at. But all these warrant close debates in the parliament, so that more comprehensive guidelines and SOPs can be drafted to ensure we have a smooth “exit strategy”. Decisions on the exit strategy must be made transparent and more importantly, this has to go through parliamentary scrutiny.

We have been calling doctors, nurses, police, military and so on as frontliners as they continue to go to work every day to ensure that vital functions are performed. What then stopping the parliament to opt for same measures?

The really simple logic is why are companies able to function with different online platforms; why are universities able to function by going on virtual learning with different platforms, similarly with schools and even some kindergartens. But why can’t our parliament go online with necessary social distancing just like many other parliaments around the world?

As rightly mentioned in the website of the parliament of Malaysia, “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 has shown to us how vital a parliament is, more so in a pandemic like this where it has literally impacts on everyone.

Parliament is a place to discuss matters of public interest. To put it in a simpler form, parliament 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 of its citizens.

Without debates, how possible can we have more comprehensive guidelines to represent the people? The current policies that we have are only one-sided without any constructive scrutiny. The parliament is the place where our voices are represented and debated. For this response to be both comprehensive and legitimate, the parliament must be ready to hear feedback about what’s working and what isn’t.

We need more and not less parliamentary scrutiny. One-day parliament sitting while most other business sectors are allowed to open put the parliament in a bad light. It is a strange logic. It is a sign of a missing parliamentary democracy and this should not happen.

*Khoo Ying Hooi is deputy head and senior lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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