SEPT 12 — You may not believe it. Ordinary persons can make good parliamentary Speakers and Deputy Speakers. So, read on.
The office of the parliamentary Speaker is ancient and centuries old. It goes back to the origins of the British Parliament and was central to the battle for supremacy between Parliament and the monarchy.
For that reason alone, the office of the Speaker is a chequered one. History records a number of Speakers who died violent deaths by way of execution or murder while others were imprisoned, impeached or expelled from office.
That explains why historically the office has not been an envied one. Who would want to be elected the representative of a body of lawmakers who would assert supremacy over the monarch?
Philip Laundy recorded an occasion in 1629 when the House of Commons expressed its wish not to comply with a royal command to adjourn. It was a dangerous vocation.
There was therefore a “genuine reluctance with which early Speakers accepted the office” – if at all. (see Philip Laundy, The Office of Speaker in the Parliaments of the Commonwealth (London: Quiller, 1984)
But perhaps not Speaker William Lenthall. In 1642, King Charles I, accompanied by an armed escort, stormed into the House, sat in the Speaker’s chair and demanded the surrender of five parliamentary leaders on a charge of treason.
Before the King, Lenthall customarily fell on his knees. But his words to the King have been recorded for perpetuity and have since defined the Speaker’s role vis a viz Parliament and the monarch. Those famous words were:
“May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.”
Lenthall’s words heralded the end of the monarch’s influence over the office. But they also marked the beginning of the government’s authority over it.
The office of parliamentary Speaker was no longer unenvied. There was no longer the “genuine reluctance” to accept it.
It became an appointment “much coveted by members of the party in power and used to advance its policies.” (see “The Speaker and Other Presiding Officers of the House.")
Speakers who were elected often held government posts. They routinely participated in debate and set the agenda of parliamentary sittings by determining when and which Bills should be considered.
It was Speaker Arthur Onslow (House of Commons Speaker from 1735 to 1754) who ebbed the tide. Known for his integrity, Onslow “loosened the ties to government and established the standards of independence and impartiality which have come to be associated with the office of Speaker.”
A century later, the principle of Speakers abstaining from all political activity became established. According to this principle, the Speaker renounces all party affiliation and when seeking re-election to the House, runs as a Speaker.
This principle, unfortunately, has not taken root in Malaysia. But to be fair, neither has it in Canada and Australia. In these two jurisdictions, although the Speaker eschews partisan political activity, he or she does not make a complete break.
So, it is no surprise that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob has reportedly named Umno secretary-general Datuk Seri Ahmad Maslan as the sole candidate for the Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker post.
But the modern Speaker and Deputy Speakers have got to be politically impartial. They are expected to avoid taking a political stance or favouring particular interests over others.
And therefore, they should resign from their party or parties on appointment while still serving their constituencies as MPs.
As such, will Ahmad Maslan or DAP's Teluk Intan MP Nga Kor Ming – the other nominee for the vacant Deputy Speaker post – resign from their party posts if elected as the new Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker?
And now that Dewan Rakyat President Tan Sri Rais Yatim has expressed his opinion that nominees to be the Speaker or Deputy Speaker should not include those with unresolved criminal charges or scandals, will there be “genuine reluctance” on the part of Ahmad Maslan to not accept the nomination?
According to Rais, “the candidates for the Speaker or Deputy Speaker roles should not be from those facing court charges. This is so Malaysia will have a good name and the balance of the rule of law will be secured.”
“That is why I said the individual’s organisation must also reject it because he is among the group who is currently facing a case in court, therefore the opportunity has to be given to someone else who is free from any charges in court,” Rais said.
Impartiality and integrity are therefore two hallmarks of a good Speaker and Deputy Speakers. These are not rare qualities in highly qualified persons, but rather common qualities in ordinary persons.
As Laundy wrote:
“The office of Speaker does not demand rare qualities. It demands common qualities in a rare degree A good Speaker is not necessarily an extraordinary person, therefore; he is an ordinary person, but an ordinary person of the highest caliber.”
Let’s elect such ordinary persons as our Speaker and Deputy Speakers.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.