KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 13 — Ever since his nomination, public expectation has been riding high on Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof to transform the Parliament into a world class institution.
But after a month on the job, dealing with a mass Opposition walkout in protest of his appointment and more recently, MPs who resort to name-calling when provoked, the 69-year-old former judge and a non-politician is learning that the road to parliamentary reform requires a more fundamental approach.
“Of course you can institute reforms, but if you don’t change the culture, then you get into a bit of an issue,” he told Malay Mail in a recent interview.
First off, he said, is changing mindsets.
“World-class behaviour to achieve word-class status. This is also a difficult aspect which involves everyone. Members of Parliament, parliamentary staff, the Speaker, the media. everyone. We have to elevate the status of Parliament,” he said.
Rubbing out ‘rubber stamp’ view
To do that, there is a need to tackle the perception of Parliament as just a “rubber stamp” for laws drafted by the ruling party.
“Parliament is important, but of course there are checks-and-balances within the political system so Parliament cannot be made or seen as a rubber stamp.
“Everything stems from Parliament. There cannot be a government, unless Parliament is established,” Mohamad Ariff said.
Prime Minister’s Question Time
To increase transparency and accountability in government, Mohamad Ariff said he is looking to introduce a dedicated slot during sittings for the prime minister to answer specific questions related to policies and governance issues — known in the UK as Prime Minister’s Question Time. It has also been adopted by other Commonwealth countries.
While saying he is looking at the UK model which allocates 20 minutes a week for MPs to question the PM, the Speaker said he hopes to tailor it to suit local practices.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a great change from the Minister’s Question Time to the Prime Minister’s Question Time,” he said, adding that he hopes to improve on the UK model.
But he also said there may not be a need to hold the Prime Minister’s Question Time on a regular weekly basis.
“The Prime Minister’s Question Time is going to be on a need basis, I think. Otherwise, it’s going to take a lot of the prime minister’s time. Already the prime minister has been coming to answer questions,” he said.
Mohamad Ariff said discussions on the matter have already started, but added that more high-level talks were required before a decision is made.
“There will be the first meeting of the House Committee next week. We take it from there,” he added.
Topic-driven parliamentary select committees
Mohamad Ariff’s quest to run the lower law-making House more efficiently next takes a look at the organisation structure of the parliamentary select committees (PSC).
Instead of setting up each PSC according to the ministries which can be troublesome if there may not be enough representatives, he is hoping to separate them into topic-based clusters.
“You can have a rights committee for instance, which should be looking at human rights and all the other rights, including probably legislations pertaining to these issues.
“You can have a science and technology select committee as a cluster, as well as education, transport, services and energy,” he said adding that the idea is currently his proposal based on personal observations.
Like the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition’s electoral promise to appoint an Opposition member to chair the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Mohamad Ariff similarly hoped that Opposition MPs will be chosen to ensure checks and balances, and to raise standards of fair representation.
The Australian approach
The Speaker hopes to increase Parliament’s public engagement to get greater feedback from regular citizens on proposed laws before they are presented for tabling in the Dewan Rakyat.
The Dewan Rakyat currently has five committees: the Parliamentary Select Committee, the Standing Orders Committee, the PAC, the House Committee and the Rights and Privileges Committee.
The Dewan Negara has four: its own Parliamentary Select Committee, Standing Orders Committee,House Committee and the Rights and Privileges Committee.
Parliamentary committees are formed to carry out functions which the Houses are unable to perform, such as investigation and researching on issues.
The committee members are appointed to study or deliberate on matters which are otherwise complex and time-consuming to be debated in Parliament.
The committees can also study proposed bills, before it is tabled to be made into laws, to ensure that the Parliament is well informed.
“We are looking at the Australian practice. Australia is a good example. It’s all in the website. They invite participation from ordinary citizens, and I think that is something that we should be looking into.
“That’s the point of having select committees anyway. Engagement, feedbacks, getting expertise from outside, whether in terms of formulating policies or just engaging, or having people come in to talk about proposed legislations, before it is proposed to the House,” he added.