JUNE 25 — The Committee of Privileges is a Dewan Rakyat select committee which considers matters relating to parliamentary privilege.

The remit and powers of the Committee of Privileges are set out in the Dewan Rakyat Standing Order No 80, which reads as follows:

(1) There shall be a Committee to be known as the Committee of Privileges to consist of Tuan Yang di-Pertua as Chairman and six members to be nominated by the Committee of Selection as soon as may be after the beginning of each Parliament. There shall be referred to this Committee any matter which appears to affect the powers and privileges of the House. It shall be the duty of the Committee to consider any such matters to them referred, and to report on them to the House.

(2) Whenever the House is not sitting a member may bring an alleged breach of privilege to the notice of Tuan Yang di-Pertua who may, if he is satisfied that a prima facie breach of privilege has been committed, refer such matter to the Committee, which shall report thereon to the House.

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(3) The Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and documents, and to report from time to time.

It is clearly stated that the Committee of Privileges shall be referred to on “any matter which appears to affect the powers and privileges of the House” and “it shall be the duty of the Committee to consider any such matters to them referred, and to report on them to the House.”

Parliamentary privilege grants certain legal immunities for Members of Parliament (MPs) so they can perform their duties without outside interference. This includes freedom of speech and the Dewan Rakyat to regulate its own affairs.

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Erskine May, often referred to as “the Bible of parliamentary procedure” explains that when these rights and immunities are disregarded or attacked, it amounts to a “breach of privilege”. A privilege matter is essentially whether the House of Parliament — the Dewan Rakyat being the lower House in Malaysia — has been impeded in a way that affects how it performs its duties.

In Malaysia as is elsewhere, when a matter is referred to the Committee of Privileges, it is tasked with the investigation of potential breaches of privileges and/or contempt of the Dewan Rakyat.

The Committee can also be tasked to consider wider matters relating to parliamentary privilege from time to time, as instructed by the Dewan Rakyat.

The Committee, however, can only consider matters referred to it by the Dewan Rakyat as a whole. It reports to the Dewan Rakyat its conclusions on whether a breach of privileges or a contempt has occurred and its recommendations on any sanctions.

Final decisions on these matters must also be taken by the Dewan Rakyat as a whole.

Under Standing Order No 80A, the Dewan Rakyat is also empowered to punish for “contempt of the House” in any case where it appears to the House that there has been the commission, whether by a member or by any other person, of any acts, matters or things as are made punishable as contempts under the Houses of Parliament (Privileges and Powers) Act 1952.

The Dewan Rakyat may appoint a committee to summarily enquire into such a case and appropriate action in accordance with the said Act.

In the United Kingdom (UK), even the prime minister has been referred to the Committee of Privileges.

On April 21, 2022, the House of Commons referred the question of whether then prime minister Boris Johnson had misled the House through his statements on gatherings at Downing Street and Whitehall during lockdown, to the Committee of Privileges.

This followed the passing of a motion tabled by the leader of the Labour Party. The then prime minister was accordingly investigated by the Committee of Privileges.

The Committee investigated whether Boris Johnson might have misled the House in statements that he made in the House about alleged breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street and, if so, whether this might have constituted a contempt of parliament.

It must be remembered that an investigation by the Committee of Privileges is a parliamentary one operating according to the rules and conventions of parliament. It is separate from the legal process, because only parliamentarians can make decisions about issues of parliamentary privilege.

In the case of Boris Johnson, the investigation was focused on whether:

  • The House of Commons was misled.
  • If the House was misled, whether that constituted contempt of parliament (in other words, whether the functioning of the House of Commons was impeded by this).
  • If the House was misled, how serious was the potential contempt.

Given the power “to send for persons, papers and records”, the Committee began to invite evidence in the summer of 2022, and in March 2023 published an interim report, setting out the issues it wished to raise with the then prime minister.

In the interim report, the Committee further stated that it was investigating whether, if a statement made by Johnson to the House of Commons was found to have been misleading, it was “inadvertent, reckless, or intentional.”

In late March 2023, Johnson gave evidence to the Committee in a public session. Ahead of this, Johnson and his legal team had provided a written response to the issues and evidence raised in the Committee’s interim report. His submission was published by the Committee.

In a 108-page final report, the Committee found that Johnson had committed “repeated contempts of parliament”. The report also stated that, had Johnson still been an MP, the Committee would have recommended that he be suspended from the House of Commons for 90 days. Had this sanction been agreed by the House, it would have triggered a recall petition in Johnson’s constituency.

However, since Johnson had already resigned as an MP, the Committee recommended that he not be granted a parliamentary pass — something to which former MPs are usually entitled and which gives access to the parliamentary estate.

Wan Saiful said the motion against him was defective. At a press conference in Parliament, he shared with reporters purported proof to back his claim that the court charges brought against him could be dropped if he declared support for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. — File picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Wan Saiful said the motion against him was defective. At a press conference in Parliament, he shared with reporters purported proof to back his claim that the court charges brought against him could be dropped if he declared support for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. — File picture by Sayuti Zainudin

So, why the commotion in the Dewan Rakyat over the motion submitted by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said to refer Bersatu’s Tasek Gelugor MP Datuk Wan Saiful Wan Jan to the Committee of Privileges?

Wan Saiful said the motion against him was defective. At a press conference in Parliament, he shared with reporters purported proof to back his claim that the court charges brought against him could be dropped if he declared support for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Like Boris Johnson, he could have shared the proof by giving evidence to the Committee in the course of its investigation.

An MP referred to the Committee of Privileges should not play the victim. Let the investigation by the Committee take its course.

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