November 26, 2015
COMMENT: I am not a legal person, neither is Rama Ramanathan. He is an engineer and I am an economist by academic orientation. But I can understand his views on our parliamentary system. In fact, I compliment him for raising the issue of the future role of the Malaysian Senate (Dewan Negara) in our constitutional democracy.
I will, however, take issue with his view that the difference between our Parliament (bicameral) and that of Singapore (unicameral) is because Singapore is a city whereas ours is a Federation of 13 states. That distinction is strictly not a valid one. Both Malaysia and Singapore are independent sovereign nations. Singapore chose to have a Parliament without a Senate for reasons of their own. But that is not an issue. I differ with him since I do not see any value in a piecemeal approach to democratic reform. Our whole system is problematic.
Of what use are a Senate and our Lower House which are mere rubber stamps. We cannot even have a healthy debate on bills and policies proposed and dictated by the Executive Branch. All our Parliamentarians and Senators cannot influence policy making since they are required to act along party lines, and are unable to perform their proper roles in our system of checks and balances as provided for in our constitution and they cannot decide in the interest of their respective constituents.
Our constitution mandates clear separation of powers between Parliament, the Judiciary and the Executive Branch. But over time, our former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad made sure that the legislative and judicial branches answer to an all-powerful Executive Branch. We the voters were equally culpable when we gave UMNO-BN under his leadership two-thirds majority to govern after every election throughout his 22-year rule. That enabled Tun Dr. Mahathir to amend the constitution as he saw fit to become a powerful Prime Minister.
Today both Dewan Negara and Dewan Rakyat are dysfunctional. Our Dewan Rakyat in particular has become a monkey house (with due respects to our distant cousin).
We do not need a rubber stamp legislature because we already have a powerful Executive Branch. Why do we have a Parliament that is just a symbol of democratic governance and elections that are not free and fair. Imagine the millions upon millions of ringgits we can put to better use for nation building.
In reality, we need government, not anarchy. It is an indispensable institution but we have to make it function better. To do so, let us start by undertaking a complete review of our constitution so that the three branches of government operate as our original constitutional experts designed it at the time of our independence 58 years ago, but one that is adapted to meet our present circumstances and stage of political development.
Let us undertake electoral reform to ensure free and fair elections, revise rules with strict criteria for choosing candidates (including background checks) for elections, establish rules with regard to campaign funding, and undertake systematic delineation of electoral constituencies to prevent gerrymandering.
After all that, we can decide whether we should retain our present bicameral Parliament (which is like in the UK), adopt the Singapore unicameral model, or use the American model where Senators and Representatives are elected by the American people. In the United States, the Congress, the Judiciary and the Executive Branch perform their respective roles in accordance with the Constitution. Otherwise, we will be putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.
Finally, we as Malaysians have to decide what democratic governance we want which will be based on a new constitution. We cannot leave this important matter in the hands of politicians, be they from UMNO-BN or the so-called Pakatan Harapan. A national referendum on the new constitution should be conducted for this purpose.–Din Merican
Bicameral Parliament–The Future of Dewan Negara (The Senate)
by Rama Ramanathan
The job of Parliament is to ensure that the Cabinet, composed of the Prime Minister and ministers, carries out the will of the people. The Cabinet is supposed to carry out the will of the people by crafting policies and laws for approval by Parliament and by executing them under the supervision of Parliament.
The Parliament of Singapore is unicameral, whereas the Parliament of Malaysia is bicameral. That means Malaysia has a lower house (House of Representatives or Dewan Rakyat) and an upper house (Senate or Dewan Negara) to represent the people, make laws and monitor the Cabinet, whereas Singapore only has one house.
Why is there a difference between Malaysia and Singapore?It’s different because Malaysia is a Federation, while Singapore is a city-state.
In a bicameral system, all policies and laws, except “money bills,” must be approved by both houses. Typically, the lower house – the Dewan Rakyat – is composed of members (MPs) elected by citizens in largely self-governed, distinct geographical areas.
In Malaysia, states and Federal Territories are largely self-governed; so, they elect MPs to the lower house. Because the number of persons living in these areas varies, so does the number of MPs from each area.
For instance, the population of Johor is over 10 times as large as that of Perlis. Should Johor and Perlis have the same number of representatives in the Dewan Rakyat?
The Federal Constitution answered the question in 1957. The answer hinged on the principle of proportional representation.
Under that principle, areas with larger populations get more voices in Parliament, and thus more opportunity to influence national decisions.
That principle still applies. Presently, amongst the Peninsular states, Johor has the largest number of representatives (26) and Perlis has the smallest number (3).
One of the dangers of states with larger populations having greater influence over national decisions is that factors other than size of the population may be ignored in decision-making.
For instance, a policy to accept refugees crossing the Thailand-Malaysia border may put a greater burden on citizens in Perlis than on citizens in Johor. Residents of Perlis may suffer more.
Similarly, if we made an international commitment to stop cutting down our forests, state revenues will go down more in Pahang and less in Johor. Pahang may have to cut spending or raise land taxes; residents of Pahang will suffer more.
In a Federation, the Senate is designed to ensure that the interest of each area is carefully considered before national decisions are made.
In Malaysia, as in most other nations, the upper house (Senate) cannot reject decisions of the lower house; it can only delay them. But this still works as a strong incentive for the Cabinet to craft policies and laws which will not be delayed by the Senate.
The characteristics of a well-functioning Senate which I’ve alluded to above are not today’s reality. The reality is different for many reasons. I’ll list just five.
First, in 1963, when the Federation of Malaysia was created, Sabah and Sarawak were over-represented and Singapore was under-represented in the Dewan Rakyat – instead of in the Dewan Negara (Senate).
This was a tacit acknowledgement of the lack of electoral legitimacy on the part of Senators, whether they are “elected” (with no competition) by state governments or by the Federal government.
Second, Senators appointed by the Yang diPertuan Agong (actually proposed by the Prime Minister) vastly outnumber Senators from the states.
Decades ago, when there were only 11 states, there were to be 22 senators from the states and 16 appointed senators. Today, with 13 states and 4 Federal territories, there are 30 senators sent by the areas and 40 senators appointed by the Federal Government.
Third, the government uses Senatorial appointments to put unelected persons – who cannot be punished by voters at elections – in Ministerial offices.
Fourth, the Cabinet bypasses Parliament and works through ministerial dictates.
Fifth, though the constitution provides (Article 66), for the Senate to initiate Bills which may eventually become law, I’m not aware of the Senate ever having done so. Neither am I aware of any Bills defeated in the Senate.
The Senate was designed to be a tiger. It has neither roared nor taken prey because the ruling coalition practices “winner takes everything” politics, not politics which acknowledges the Cabinet is subject to Parliament; not the kind that works for compromise and the best satisfaction of the people’s will.
What are Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan’s plans for the Senate? Will they misuse, terminate, revive or re-invent the Senate?