Parliamentary reforms must start with Speaker and Deputy Speakers — Hafiz Hassan

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OCTOBER 6 -- It’s reform time.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob again called on Malaysians to unite as a family, setting aside religious, racial and political differences to undertake reforms as publicly disclosed in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Transformation and Political Stability signed by the federal government and Pakatan Harapan (PH) on September 13.

“Politicking should be stopped, because the opposition can also provide views as check and balance, and at the same time, we will follow what is good, and thus, we can together develop the country,” the prime minister said.

The MoU has six agendas, which include parliamentary reforms. This should start with the office of Speaker and Deputy Speaker.

Who should be elected to these offices?

More than two centuries ago, in 1818, an anonymous writer wrote of the Speaker of the House of Commons (UK) as follow:

The Speaker of the House of Commons should have a large acquaintance with the whole frame of our government — and be thoroughly conversant with the forms and precedents of Parliament. 

His knowledge, in fact, ought to be so deep and various as to require, in order that it may be rightly balanced and safely directed, — a mind of an higher cast than even our higher gowns [1] men and highest benchmen, — a penetration that can assist him in difficult investigations, — and a ready self-possession that can put on, almost insensibly, the armour of prudence on instantaneous emergencies, — and a temper not to be hurt in “the strife of little tongues,” — a temper more bland than facile, but rather easily pliant than obstinately firm, — with enough of the respectable quality of firmness to make its exertions regarded, and its sacrifices valued. [Blackwood’s Magazine, 111 (1818), 146 cited in Albert A. Austen, “The Impartiality of the Speaker of the House of Commons” (1960)]

Fifty years later, another anonymous writer said that the Speaker should have businesslike habits, knowledge of parliamentary usage, easy elocution, command of temper, strict impartiality, firmness and suavity, a quick eye and a sonorous voice, and “a respectable amount of bone, flesh, and sinew, symmetrically developed so as to form a commanding presence.”

According to Austen, the chief difference between the two above is the requirement of strict impartiality. Since then, writers have given it “a place of central importance” that by the turn of the century Irish author and journalist Michael MacDonagh was able to write:

“Above all, Mr Speaker must be scrupulously fair, absolutely just in rulings which affect any of the political actions of the Assembly, for the most precious attribute of the Chair of the House of Commons is impartiality.”

MacDonagh wrote for British daily The Times for more than 30 years as a member of the daily’s parliamentary and reporting staff. His work, The Speaker of the House of Commons (London, 1914) is considered a most valuable account of the history of the office of the Speaker.

The point is this: more than a century ago impartiality was already the quality that is required of a Speaker above all other qualities. And as has been said in an earlier piece, impartiality is one of the hallmarks of a good Speaker and Deputy Speakers. 

Austen called it “the touchstone of the Speaker’s success in Parliament”. According to Austen also, to become a good Speaker, it requires “in particular, the capacity to win for the man, through the objectivity and impartiality of his conduct, the respect which the House gives to the office.”

This is consistent with the authoritative and iconic Erskine May — considered “the Bible of parliamentary procedure” — who wrote that “confidence in the impartiality of the Speaker is an indispensable condition of the successful working of procedure, and many conventions exist which have as their object not only to ensure the impartiality of the Speaker but also to ensure that his impartiality is generally recognized.”

Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said chairs the Dewan Rakyat sitting, September 15, 2021. — Bernama pic
Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said chairs the Dewan Rakyat sitting, September 15, 2021. — Bernama pic

It remains to be seen how impartial Pengerang MP Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said would be if she were to chair parliamentary sittings as temporary Deputy Speaker now that she is the prime minister’s special adviser (law and human rights).

Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun contends that there is no conflict of interest as Azalina’s appointment is not one of a ministerial level. But it is a century-old convention that Speakers and Deputy Speakers renounce all party affiliation, and by extension appointments such as Azalina’s. 

This convention has not taken root in Malaysia, but it should be, as part of parliamentary reforms.

That’s why parliamentary reforms must start with the Speaker and Deputy Speakers.

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

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