Malaysia: What Collective Responsibility Means

July 31, 2015

Malaysia: What Collective Responsibility Means

by Dr. Mavis Puthucheary

Mavis PuthuchearyThe 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. 

26 thoughts on “Malaysia: What Collective Responsibility Means

  1. The Malaysian Cabinet does not understand the concept of collective responsibility. That is why Ministers like Paul Low and Idris Jala have not resigned. Men like them together with other Ministers are collectively irresponsible for not standing up against the Prime Minister for his misconduct amounting to criminal breach of trust. Our government is toxic and dysfunctional.–Din Merican

  2. A good and mature analysis of the meaning of collective responsibility by Dr. Mavis Puthucheary, my economics classmate at the University of Malaya in Singapore (now NUS), former UM colleague, and wife of a University mate, the late James Puthucheary. Well written, Mavis. Chung Tat Lim.

  3. You folks don’t seem to understand. Najib wants his Cabinet to be collectively responsible for saving his ass. We can’t leave a little thing like fiduciary responsibility get in the way of common UMNO interest.

    All this sophistry by people telling us that it within his purview to reshuffle the Cabinet points to a profound lack of sincerity or ignorance and deeply troubling systemic dysfunction.

    It is a pity that the criminal behaviour of political or economic elites are always some how justifiable when they cause more damage to society than your average criminal.

  4. We know what to do come GE14. Before that, talk is no use. Mamakthir has been a good sifu during his 2 decades at the helm. Now his silence is deafening.

  5. Tat Lim,
    Not sure if James is related to Domonic. I only knew that Janil who Dominic’s son is now an MP in Singapore

  6. The Malaysian government is no longer a civilized govt of respect. It has regressed to a barbaric form. Even monkeys under the concept of collective responsibility better than our ministers! Our ministers are a bunch of cowards and they are all as dirty as the main culprit. I wonder what will make the entire nation to rise up in arms against this virulent cancer that’s eating up our government!

  7. Someone in an earlier thread suggested that our members of parliament and even our cabinet members are all a bunch of dummies – daft as they can be.

    So Ms Puthucheary, how do you expect these dummies to understand what you have written? Sheesh …. what crap we get for breakfast every morning !!!

  8. There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.

    How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid.

  9. What Collective Responsibility Means:
    You help me, I help you
    You scratch my back, I scratch yours
    You help me win votes, you collect from me

  10. 1. The crux of the matter is that ‘collective responsibility’ of this Cabinet of Curiosities is that they practice Collectivism – sharing the spoils of ripping the national coffers apart.

    2. Also Colostomy – where they short circuit the shit that should be allowed to pass naturally. Therefore, the increasing misuse of draconian measures and rule by law of their own choosing.

    3. Meanwhile, they also practice a sort of Condensation – where all the Perfumed of Araby are distilled as a Lubricant for Daily Proctoscopy of the Malay gentry, who support them unconditionally and without moral-ethical remorse, because thinking is otherwise too difficult – without props and handouts. TBH, MARA, KWAP and FGV etc are just convenient acronyms.

    So yes, Conrad – they justify their own Chemistry of Criminality.

  11. Din,
    It’s an open secret that Nixon went behind Lyndon’s back in enticing South Vietnam President not to accept the peace deal. So much for collective responsibility though Nixon was a private citizen. Likewise carter got his arse played out by Reagan over the Iran hostage issue.

    On separate note, what do you think of the upcoming Donald Trump? Remind me of Nigel farage, Ibrahim Ali and Enoch Powell…….Hahahaha!

    Frankly speaking, I prefer Ross Perot

    But then Perot is kinda isolationist especially when he says no to NAFTA

  12. I believe “Collective Responsibility” as understood by Najib means:-

    “Collective” comes from the root “collect”, or “to collect”; “Responsibility” comes from “responsible”

    So “collective responsibility” means “responsible to collect”

    Muyhiddin in the “leaked” video said he asked Najib why the money was banked into the latter’s own bank account, and though the video ended there without an answer, I believe Najib answered….”…because I am responsible to collect on behalf of UMNO”

    So the good Prof. and the law text books she reads, (written mostly by Westerners who knew next to nothing about our history and culture), got it all wrong.

    I’ll give her a C —

  13. /// Wayne July 31, 2015 at 1:42 pm
    I’ll give her a C — ///

    Correct, correct, correct!
    Or should it be collect, collect, collect

  14. Explaining ‘collective responsibility’ as the good professor has done is about as useful as explaining the the virtue of abstinence to hardcore whores.

  15. “First it demonstrates that the concept of collective responsibility… cannot be used to condone any wrong-doings of individual ministers,” Dr. Mavis Puthucheary.

    Najib is defending his PM post and he does the defense by reshuffling his Cabinet. He may use the reason of collective responsibility or simply just “I don’t like the persons now”. The good professor’s appeal to getting rid of “the” wrong-doings is wrongly placed priority in this situation because:

    1) Accusation of wrong-doing alone must not be used to remove a head of state, unless we can tolerate the blood-shed on the streets and years of instability. The so-called wrong-doings such as corruption in election funding are pale in comparison in wrong-doing of allowing coup to take place.

    2) Accusation of wrong-doing can be turned into a crime for a head of state only if we have a highly credible judicial system. Both BN and oppositions seem to agree we don’t have a minimally credible judicial system. So, the route of removing a head of state through legal means is outside the reach of Malaysia.

    Comparing 1MDB scandal with Nixon’s Watergate is missing a main point, i.e. USA has credible judicial system that is respected by its people. Malaysians should not cheat ourselves into believing we suddenly have credible judicial system when we just pooh-pooh’ed it during Anwar trial just a few months ago.

    Instead of legal means, the only route can be used to remove a PM is through political means, i.e. via vote of confidence in the Parliament and all deliberation toward the vote. For opposition, even losing in the vote of confidence under unfair speaker is a blessing in the next election.

    Between likely wrong-doing of corruption in election funding and wrong-doing of usurpation, we should avoid the latter, as George Washington advised his countrymen in his farewell speech:

    “If in the opinion of the People, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed, ” GEORGE WASHINGTON, farewell address, Sep. 19, 1796

  16. Dato, they are also totally morally corrupted & have no integrity at all. The sight of these people makes me sick.
    They want us to be sick. As it is, we are already a sick nation.–Din Merican

  17. The lesson about collective responsibility by Sir Humphery Appleby

    Sir Humphrey: It is characteristic of all committee discussions and decisions that every member has a vivid recollection of them and that every member’s recollection of them differs violently from every other member’s recollection. Consequently, we accept the convention that the official decisions are those and only those which have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, from which it emerges with an elegant inevitability that any decision which has been officially reached will have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials and any decision which is not recorded in the minutes has not been officially reached even if one or more members believe they can recollect it, so in this particular case, if the decision had been officially reached it would have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, and it isn’t so it wasn’t.

  18. “Najib is defending his PM post and he does the defense by reshuffling his Cabinet. He may use the reason of collective responsibility or simply just “I don’t like the persons now”.

    Najib is defending himself against the possibilities of legal entanglements and is using the powers granted by his office, to further those ends. It is not simply a matter of getting rid of people not to his liking but getting rid of people, who pose a threat by calling for legal investigations and sanctions if any wrong doing is discovered.

    1) This alleged wrong doing is more than just corruption in election funding (sic). It is misappropriation of state funds, criminal breach of trust and a whole host of other legal issues. Furthermore the threat of a coup is not from external sources but from his own political party, which is perfectly acceptable within a democracy as demonstrated by the “retirement” of political party heads in many functional democracies around the world.

    2) Your nonsensical claim that because we don’t have an unbiased legal system, the only way to remove a head of state is by Constitutional means – even if said Constitution means has already been compromised…by …that legal system and the Executive. How this jibes with your contention that this Bugis warrior is defending Parliamentary democracy is beyond me.

    Just because we cannot rely on our biased legal system does not mean we have to rely on our already compromised Constitution. Or rather because your champion of Parliamentary democracy has not only removed members of his Cabinet but also the AG and head of Special Branch, to facilitate an easy escape from legal provisions, what we are left with are the internal mechanism of his political party to resolve this issue.

    You attempts at setting a false dilemma are noted but unwarranted. This is not a choice between an usurpation and allegations of corruption. With regards to the former, there is no usurpation because we do not vote for a Prime Minister. His own political party does that and as such are well within their rights to challenge his leadership.

    With regards to the allegations of corruption. Said use of public funds was for the benefit of his office and the sustaining of his political allies. And since he has ensured that there would be no legal reckoning by his reshuffling and distributions from his bank accounts , the best we could have hoped for is that, his looting would be sanctioned albeit hypocritically by his own party.

    We need not justify his behaviour as within the law and characterize his position of that of defending parliamentary democracy.

    Lastly you quoting or rather misquoting Washington, is about as helpful as looes’s youtube videos. There are very specific historical reasons why that bit you mentioned is not relevant to our historical and contemporary experience but, I’ll quote a bit which is.

    “All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

    However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. ”

    What the hell, people should read the whole farewell and discover what is relevant instead of people – Shiou and me – pontificating on what bolsters our arguments.

  19. Sorry, Loose 74, I am not too sure what their relationship is. The Puthuchearys are a talented lot. There was a Joseph G. Puthucheary among the first batch of 26 BA graduates from the University of Malaya (UM) [now NUS] in Singapore in1950. James Joseph Puthucheary got his BA Hons from UM in 1954 and then did his LLB on a part-time basis later at the University of Singapore (former Singapore Division of UM). Mavis joined UM, together with me in 1951, and both of us got our BA Hons in Economics in1955. The BA coure in UM up to the 1958-59 session was a 4-year course then. We were colleagues at UM K.L. Dominic is, of course, a lawyer. His wife is Professor Dr S.D. Ampalam, former Professor of Microbiology of the Unversity of Malaya in Kuala Luumpur. She joined the Faculty of Medicine in 1963 and was sent for training at the Central Labortory. Milton Road, in Portsmouth, UK, in 1963-64.We were also colleagues at UM in K.L. Mavis woud be the right person to answer your question, Loose 74. Thank you.

  20. When the Bario Medicine Man “stole” the “Transformation Kit” from Shell “Responsibility & Accountability” was considered irrelevant for a democracy about to be transformed into a autocracy. McKinsey and BCG were also instructed to dump it.

  21. To most Malay/Muslim, political career is everything to them for many reasons with no alternative career path to move on to.

    They, their family, friends and supporters, won’t forgive you for sacking them for they have lost the ‘ opportunity ‘.

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