July 31, 2015
Malaysia: What Collective Responsibility Means
by Dr. Mavis Puthucheary
The Prime Minister of Malaysia is fully within his constitutional rights to reshuffle the Cabinet, getting rid of those whom he thinks are not loyal to him and packing the Cabinet with a new line-up of faithful supporters.
But for him to say that he had to take this action because they contradicted the concept of collective responsibility shows a lack of understanding of this important democratic convention. The purpose of this article is three-fold.
First it demonstrates that the concept of collective responsibility refers to public criticism of government policy and cannot be used to condone any wrong-doings of individual ministers. Second, it is the Prime Minister who is responsible for taking action that has had the effect of contradicting the concept of collective responsibility. Third, for the concept of collective responsibility to work effectively, members of Parliament, both from the opposition and from the ruling coalition, need to act like parliamentarians rather than representatives of their political parties.
The doctrine of ministerial responsibility, whether collective or individual, expresses the conventional relationship of ministers to Parliament. For the doctrine to work properly, it requires that all ministers be jointly responsible as a team. This means that individual ministers may not in public express views that contradict public policy.
Since the ministers who have been sacked did not openly criticise the policies of the government, they cannot be said to have contravened the doctrine of collective responsibility. Collective responsibility does not mean that ministers must condone the personal misconduct of their fellow ministers.
Indeed, they have a moral duty to protect the integrity of the government. A prime minister who does not take action against a colleague who has been found to have committed a serious personal offence, runs the risk of having his whole government fall.
But what happens when it is the PM who does not resign even though he is directly involved in a financial scandal? In such a situation, individual ministers or the Cabinet as a whole may revolt against the PM.
If this fails to bring about the PM’s resignation, the matter will be brought up in Parliament where it is likely to result in a vote of no confidence against the PM. The fact that the Cabinet has not taken action to censure the PM is an indication of the extent to which money politics has seeped into the political system.
Although the PM accused his deputy of bringing about a negative public perception of the government, it cannot be denied that this negative public perception was already there before the deputy intervened and it is likely to increase with the deputy’s dismissal.
Second, if anyone should take the responsibility for contradicting the concept of collective responsibility, it is the prime minister himself. Although the PM does have the prerogative of choosing his Cabinet, the fact that he chose to appoint the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to be a deputy minister shows his complete disregard for the concept of collective responsibility.
For this committee is most closely identified with the function of securing government accountability to Parliament. The work of this committee is based on the principle that Parliament grants money to the government to carry out certain expenditures and holds the ministers accountable for the proper use of this money.
It is directly involved in the task of holding government accountable for the way it has spent public money. Our Parliament’s PAC was in the midst of carrying out this important function when the PM appointed the chairman and three other members of the PAC to Cabinet positions.
Clearly, the move has had the effect of reducing the effectiveness of the PAC and indirectly preventing Parliament from carrying out its important function of holding government accountable. This, together with the sudden removal of the Attorney-General from office, has had the effect of weakening Parliament and jeopardizing the concept of collective responsibility.
In Britain and other parliamentary democracies, the chairman of the PAC is, by convention, drawn from the Opposition and the committee consists of equal numbers of Members of Parliament from each side of the House.
This reduces the chances of pressures from the government to influence the outcome. In Malaysia the fact that the PM also heads the Ministry of Finance and, further is also head of a Department with diverse functions and has nearly one-third of the ministers working directly under him — a kind of Cabinet within a Cabinet — makes him the most powerful PM in the world. The convention that the PM’s status is one of “primus inter pares” (first among equals) simply does not apply in Malaysia.
Third, paradoxically the principle of collective responsibility can also act as a shield to protect the government against Parliamentary scrutiny. This is particularly the case when backbenchers in Parliament are prevented from making their own decisions because of a strong party discipline.
In such a situation, Parliament and the public are presented with the appearance of a united front that is impenetrable. For collective responsibility to work properly, it is important that backbenchers are given a degree of freedom to exercise their responsibilities as parliamentarians and not just as party members.
This is important because in a parliamentary system, the majority of members of Parliament come from the ruling party. If the assertion of accountability is exclusively a function of the Opposition, we could not properly speak of ministerial responsibility to Parliament.
The maintenance of an effective responsibility to Parliament depends not only on the Opposition but also on the willingness of backbenchers to play their role as parliamentarians. The tendency in Malaysia is for the party whip to come down hard on backbenchers who may wish to query any aspect of government policy.
This practice has the effect of reducing the status of Parliament to a rubber stamp of the government. Yet the role of the backbenchers can be crucial, especially in times of crisis such as what Malaysia is facing today. It is when dissatisfaction among the government’s own backbenchers threatens to break out in open revolt that the government is most responsive to parliamentary pressure.
In many developed democracies, the concept of collective responsibility is regarded as something which has its uses but which can also be inimical to good government. It is recognised that the best decisions are made in an atmosphere of transparency and open debate and this has led to a more tolerant view of public dissension within the government.
Cabinet ministers seem to be given a greater degree of freedom to express views that are contrary to the official view without having to resign or be dismissed.
In Malaysia we have lost out on both counts. A strong party ensures that MPs toe the party line to the extent that Parliament cannot carry out its function to hold the government accountable in any meaningful way, and ministers are prevented from speaking openly against wrong-doings in the government because if they do, they risk being sacked by the prime minister.
As backbenchers fail to see their role as parliamentarians and become lackeys of their party bosses, the concept of collective responsibility becomes little more than a myth to be used by politicians to justify whatever action they choose to take.
* The writer was formerly Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics and Administration, University of Malaya.