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Parliament can be more than a 'rubber stamp'

  • Democracy works best when MPs act on their constituents' behalf by bringing their voices to the Parliament.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

With more than a year now after the May 2018 election that we witnessed the fall of Barisan Nasional (BN) regime, the Malaysian politics enter a new period of intensive debate about the state of the country and the politics we want. Parliament has been unusually hectic since then.

Recently, Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof commented that the Parliament has agreed in principle to register an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) as part of its function seeking to improve relations with critical civil society organisations (CSOs) on the issue of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It comes after various rounds of advocacy by the CSOs, among them are the Malaysia CSO-SDG Alliance that works actively on the SDGs that takes place for a span of 15 years from 2016 to 2030.

This effort should be applauded for two reasons. First, the openness of the Parliament to venture into such form of informal working groups that is more inclusive in nature. Second, it is recognition to the work of CSOs. Most CSOs operate at grassroots levels and thus, in general, have active engagement with local actors and communities. In the past, the CSOs have very often considered as an enemy due to the nature of their work. It is good to see that their roles are changing from enemies to allies in some ways and that maintaining dialogue with a wide range of CSOs is considered as a regular part of the parliamentary process.

APPG is basically a concept borrowed from the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament. It is an informal working group of Members of Parliament (MPs) and senators to tap society at the grassroots level and come up with policies addressing various concerned issues in the country.

At this moment, our Parliament has the formalized bipartisan parliamentary select committees (PSCs), which the role is to oversee the execution of policies and acts as a check-and-balance mechanism. The APPG is in a different form where it is informal in nature as mentioned. For the PSCs, the components are by the MPs themselves.

As highlighted by the Dewan Rakyat Speaker in his keynote address at the National Forum on Sustainability, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2019, the APPG can provide a clearer perspective on what the public actually needs. This is because the APPG is not confined to formalities and it can be as wide as the boundaries of society. Moreover, in line with the current parliamentary reform efforts, the APPG is able to bridge the gap between Parliament and the people where it can rise above political divide and put the people first.

However, the weakness of the APPG lies with its structure where there will be no formal mechanism to ensure how it will work for the benefits of the people. The effectiveness of the APPG will need to depend on the stakeholders who are in it.

Today, there is growing interest more than ever before in issues related to democracy and good governance in Malaysia. This happens due to various reasons, one being the change of government. Apart from that, the social media also plays a role in increasing the knowledge of the public towards the issues that happen around them.

How can we bridge the gap between Parliament and the people?

In the past, the Parliament of Malaysia was often seen as a “rubber stamp” institution where the public’s voices are often ignored or neglected. Now, the Parliament is seen as one of the key state institutions in a democratic system of governance, in which is has a critical role to play in promoting democracy and good governance.

What is equally important is that this effort can further nurture the understanding of the public towards the roles and functions of the Parliament. Since the change of government, there have been numerous efforts to the parliamentary reforms. One of it is to bring the parliament closer to the public with the aspiration of being a people’s parliament that can represent the voices of people.

A well-function Parliament is one that addresses the concerns of all sectors of society ranging from women, to young people, to minorities and other interest groups. A well-function Parliament must also provide the space and opportunities for all people to participate meaningfully in its work. For the past one-year, numerous efforts have been made by the Parliament to do away with the perception – that Parliament is not accessible to the people. For instance, the Parliament has started to conduct road tours to different states and also by having more programs in the Parliament itself.

In the end, democracy is about choosing people to represent their will and best interest in Parliament and democracy works best when the MPs act on their behalf by bringing their voices to the Parliament.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)


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