Monday, August 10, 2009

ANIZA DAMIS Speaks to Dewan Rakyat Speaker, Tan Sri Pandikar Amin

WHAT is it like to have to mediate between a “monkey” and a “Bigfoot”? And what is it like to have to sit through all parliamentary meetings, whether they’re interesting or not? ANIZA DAMIS speaks to Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, in conjunction with the 50th year of Parliament.

Question : What do you see your role as Speaker to be?

Answer: I know it might be disputed by members from both sides of the House, but although my name was proposed by the government, I would like to see my role as Speaker of Parliament; and not as Speaker of Barisan Nasional. I think that fact is enhanced by the deeds and acts of the Opposition, who did not propose someone else, leaving me unchallenged. In that way, I would like to see my role as the Speaker of Parliament of Malaysia, and not as speaker of any party or any particular interest. If that is to materialise, then the Opposition must give me the benefit of the doubt. That, whatever decision I make, either during proceedings or outside Parliament, I do it in the interest of the Malaysian Parliament. If they were to give me the benefit of the doubt, then that would erase the presumptions that, whatever decisions I make, that I’m biased. Let’s not forget that the role of a Speaker in any parliament in any part of the world is very tough. There is no speaker that is perfect.

Any decision the speaker makes won’t make both sides of the House happy. For instance, if I were to allow, particularly, a member of the opposition who is known to ask tough questions of ministers, sometimes I feel the ministers are not happy with it. This might be my assumption, but I can feel it deep in me, that they are thinking: “Why did he call that person?” They are not happy.

But of course, when I do that, my objective is entirely different from what they have in mind. It might be viewed by the government that I’m siding with the opposition. But my objective is entirely different, because the main objective of a parliamentary democracy is check-and-balance. For instance, when a question is asked by a member – particularly from the opposition – to a minister that represents the government, my objective is first to give a chance to the government to explain – especially if the minister has not had the opportunity to explain it outside (of Parliament). So, when a question is asked, although some ministers might think: “Why did he call her to ask me?” The objective is for the rakyat. That government must answer on a particular issue. When a question posed by any member of the House, particularly from the opposition, is not in accordance with the Standing Orders, then of course I will just let that question to be posed.

After hearing whether that question is in adherence to the Standing Order, or whether it would be fair to the minister, then of course I have the option to ask the minister whether he would like to answer the question, or just leave it as it is.I find that most ministers are willing to answer most questions posed by members of Parliament, particularly from the Opposition, even though the questions are not allowed by the Standing Orders.In that case, I think I perform my duty as the Speaker of Parliament, and not as the Speaker of the Government.

Question: Do you think the Government expects you to protect them?

Answer: This is one thing peculiar about parliamentary democracy. Even in the House of Commons (in Britain), although the Speaker of the House is actually a member of Parliament elected by the members themselves, invariably, to my knowledge, there is no member of Parliament that has been elected to the House of Commons that comes from the Opposition. Invariably, that person comes from the Government. If that is the case, then the government feels the speaker must protect the government. And, don’t forget, if you are the speaker, you have the right to vote. If an issue needs to be voted on, the government expects the speaker to vote for the government. So, we must not forget that, at the end of the day, any speaker of the day, to look at it from that perspective, sides with the government. But as I said, I would like to be seen as the speaker of Parliament, and the opposition must give me the benefit of the doubt, that any decision I make is not biased; that it is based on parliamentary democracy and is for the benefit of parliament.

Question: Having said that, when you have allowed a question that has made things uncomfortable for the government, has the government ever grumbled to you privately?

Answer: No. Although some people might not believe it, particularly those who don't side with the government. But, to date, I was never under pressure, by the Prime Minister, or the Executive, or anybody. So, when I sit there, it is entirely my discretion.

Question: You say you see your role as being neutral. The government sees your role as being part of the ruling party. But what is it, exactly? Are members of the Opposition entitled to expect you to be neutral?

Answer: As I said, any speaker in any parliament, in order to work effectively, must be as neutral as possible. Of course, in a situation where there is an issue or a series of issues that is hotly debated by members from both sides, then of course you cannot have satisfaction from both sides. Invariably, the opposition will feel the speaker is always siding with the government. This is not true; it’s only a perspective. We must remember, politicians by nature like to take political mileage. They have their own personal agenda. So, whatever a speaker does, it does not satisfy totally both sides of the house.

Question: Would you say the Barisan side is more satisfied than the Pakatan side?

Answer: Well, maybe the satisfaction (is more) on the side of the government because it is viewed that I side with the government. But that is also a misnomer; when a particular decision is taken of a motion, the speaker does not decide who actually wins or loses on that issue. The question is always put to the government, and they (the house) vote. So, the opposition mustn’t grumble on that issue; I just sit there and preside over meetings. The main objective for me is to guide that meeting so that it will not go haywire, and we must finish the agenda of the day in time. I decide only on certain issues; like if they want to apply for motions under Rule 18 of our Standing Orders. Experienced parliamentarians who have been in the house for two or three terms understand that Rule 18 is not easily granted by the Speaker. Because when you ask under Rule 18, essentially you are asking the speaker to put aside the agenda of the day just for that particular issue.

Question: What does it mean, politically, to be allowed to read a motion?

Answer: They’ve already gained mileage. Because the speaker also has the power to reject the motion in chambers. The speaker can decide that this is something that the MP just wants to read the motion anyway. So, when I look at an issue and I think it’s very petty, I just write to them that I rejected it.

Question: When you know you are going to reject a motion but you allow the MP to read the motion, what is your intention there?

Answer: There are also things that the public want to know about. When a motion is read, together with the facts that the MP has, then, if the press were to give publicity to it, the public will know the facts. But here again, is a situation where the speaker never wins. Always, the speaker is on the losing side.

Question: Recently, the issue of the live-telecast of Question Time arose. Do you think it’s good for people to know that parliament itself is being censored?

Answer: Whether it’s good or not good, I don’t think my opinion on that matter. Ask yourself: if the behaviour of a parliamentarian is like that, and this is watched by students and aspiring politicians – if that can happen in the parliament, where it’s supposed to be an august house, then, maybe the children will think, “Well, why not? Who wants to listen to teachers anymore?” Of course there are bad and good things about it. Not all nations are telecasting their debates. In England, for instance, it took them years and years and years to decide whether to have a television telecast. They had a radio telecast – but that’s because you can censor radio. I was talking to one senator from the Philippines recently, and he said they are trying their utmost best not to have a live telecast in a fixed time like ours. The senator is a member of the opposition, but he said such a telecast doesn’t serve its purpose. He said some of the members of the senators would “misuse” or “abuse” that by doing things that their constituents would see him doing, and being considered as a hero.

Question: But even before the live telecast, for those of us who have been coming to parliament regularly, this is exactly what parliament has been like anyway for all these years.

Answer: This is exactly what the Malaysian parliament is. And those who come here would see that. But I suppose it’s a different thing when you see it on tv, because you have more audience. If you are reporting parliamentary proceedings (in print publication) what is there that you can report? – “Yesterday there was a slight disturbance in the house.” You can write it in a few paragraphs. But a live-telecast is watched by millions.

Question: Shouldn’t voters know what their parliamentarians get up to?

Answer: This is a debatable issue. There are so many Malaysians who are disappointed that what is happening in parliament during that half-hour is not fully telecast. But then again, is there a scientific survey that is done on who likes to watch this, and how many actually watch it? It depends on how you look at it. But to me, as a speaker, a live-telecast makes my job very hard – the pressure is all the time on me. Why can’t these people scream their hearts out at 2.30 in the afternoon? Why can’t they attend parliament in full, although the issue of the day is not something that attracts them? This would make my job consistent; not just from 10-10.30, just because somebody…Can you imagine, at one time, the Chief Minister of Penang raised the issue of the skirt of a female reporter at 10 in the morning? Point of Order means that you raise a point of order when you say that there are disorderly things in that particular meeting. It is not to raise a point of order on an issue that is outside of the meeting!

I also made a ruling that no Point of Order is to be raised before 11.30am. (during Question Time, which runs from 10-11.30am). And now they are following that already. After all, why do they raise a point of order? My perspective on it is that it’s just for political mileage. Where can you have a bigger audience than a live telecast in the morning? If you want to have a live telecast, then do it all-along (the whole day). If you want to educate the public, then emulate some countries where they have one particular channel on tv that specializes on parliament. Because if that becomes the reality of parliament, then people will get fed up watching it, too. But this is something new to us, which we do not actually know what are the side-effects – whether positive or negative. But to me, the side-effect to me as a speaker is bad. When the MP for Bukit Gantang was sworn in: Is that necessary? After you are sworn in, you put that thing on your head and you say “Bubar DUN!” (Dissolve the state assembly!) Is that part of a parliamentarian’s job? You can do that outside parliament. You can have a 24-hour lecture on the matter outside; you can tie anything on your head. But not in the chamber. So, why do you do it there? Because you will get maximum publicity. That is not what parliament is about.

Question: What did you think when Bukit Gantang MP (and former Perak Menteri Besar) Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin did that?

Answer: I was shocked. After he was sworn in, the book was brought to me, and as I was putting my signature in witnessing his signature, that is when he said, “Can I say something?” When I looked up, he pulled something from his pocket – which I didn’t know what it was – and he put it on his head and started screaming. To me, that is not good. If you want to emulate the House of Commons that is not the way. If things like this are unchecked, where are we heading? We are heading like the Taiwan parliament. And I’m sure that’s not what we want. So, if the intention of the live telecast is just to put pressure on me, I don’t want that. You must remember, we sit there day-in-and-day-out. The MPs can walk in and walk out; but we cannot. Our time is fixed. The last sitting, I sat there for over four-and-a-half hours, not going anywhere.

Question: Was it difficult for you to suspend a freshly sworn-in MP for two days?

Answer: Of course it’s very difficult. Whether it’s an MP that’s just been sworn in, or whether it’s a veteran MP.I told myself in the beginning that, if possible, I must not tell any MP to leave. Unfortunately, I cannot keep to that, because if I were to do that – just let it go – then of course no one will respect the chair anymore, because they know they can get away with it. It is always difficult. Sometimes, you know which Bills are going to attract the most interest; so I always anticipate the worst. It can happen at any time; one single provocation, one word, will spark havoc in the House. That is always at the back of my mind; I’m always prepared to face that. If that happens, if I were to chase somebody out, particularly if it’s somebody of the stature of Karpal Singh, it disturbs me; I don’t enjoy doing that. When I go back to my house, it really affects me. Sometimes for one or two days. When I see the video-clips of myself asking people to leave, and I see my face is angry – I know in my heart that I should not be expressing that. I hate myself for being angry.But I’m only human. Then again, how do I react to a behaviour of a few parliamentarians who scream at the top of their heads, and start making allegations towards each other, in a furious mood – I cannot just say, “Honorable Members” with a soft voice, and then laugh. I think that is not a normal reaction for any human being to that kind of scenario. But then again, I was thinking, “This is reciprocating the behaviour of a few parliamentarians.” It comes from my heart and from my head. It shows that I’m angry because, how can an experienced old man do this? So, if he behaves like a kid, then I’ve got to behave like – I suppose, like a parent or like a teacher. But it disturbs me a lot.

Question: What has been your most challenging moment as Speaker so far?

Answer: The most challenging is of course the attitudes of senior parliamentarians. That, knowing fully well what they are doing, blatantly go against the Standing Orders. It is when you chase out a senior parliamentarian. They know what parliament should be like. When you take part in a debate, you must not use words against your fellow parliamentarian, if those words you cannot back it up with facts, and you don’t dare to say it outside the debating chamber. That is a cardinal rule in any parliament anywhere in the world. If you were to hide behind the parliamentary privilege where you cannot be sued, then people shouldn’t call you “Honourable”. “Honourable” means, what you say and how you behave. That is the most challenging part: because I cannot reconcile that. I cannot imagine, for one moment, that one senior parliamentarian, will be holding a ministerial post in the future, behaving like that. Because if he behaves like that, the next opposition will do worse things, because they remember what he did. Unless of course that person already made up his mind that if he goes to that side, he does not want to hold any post. Would that help the parliament that you intend to build as a first class, world class parliament? My answer is No.

Question: In the beginning of your parliament, we had a lot of “monkey” and “Bigfoot”, which doesn’t happen any more.

Answer: It doesn’t happen anymore because they already know what kind of speaker that they have. Like I said, they used to raise a point of order early in the morning, just because of the live telecast. I stopped that, and now they don’t raise it anymore. What I am trying to do now is, although the budaya parlimen (parliament culture) is as we know it, this doesn’t mean that whatever that they used to do before, they can continue to do it now. Because there’s a different person sitting there (in the speaker’s chair).So, what I would like to do, is this: let’s start somewhere. If we want a world class parliament, let’s start somewhere. If this is the starting point, why not. We have started already with not raising the point of order before 11.30. And now, the words that they used to use they don’t use anymore. So I would like to have that kind of parliament. But if you always have a parliament that is very quiet, it’s also bad for the speaker, because he will fall asleep, particularly if you are listening to the same point over and over again, in a monotonous voice, during debating.

Question: Do you think a speaker’s decision should be questioned, and should it go to judicial review?

Answer: By convention, the office of the Speaker must be respected, by both sides. Therefore, based on that premise, things like that ought not to happen. There were cases before, in the House of Commons, but, as far as I know, the decisions of the judges were that parliament has its own powers, and they (the judiciary) don’t interfere. Based on that, I think parliamentarians should stop doing this. In the Standing Orders, if you are not satisfied with the decision of the speaker, then of course you can file a motion. But one parliamentarian, particularly Lim Kit Siang, says that there’s no point; even if he were to bring a motion that he’s not satisfied with the decision of the speaker, the motion would never get discussed anyway. What he says is right. But, he must also remember: that is the Standing Orders of the Malaysian Parliament – unless it is changed. When you don’t respect the decision of the speaker, what decision will you be respecting? In important matters, the speaker’s not actually the one that decides whether a particular Bill is to be approved or not approved.
It is they (the MPs) who vote for it. The speaker only presides over the particular meeting. When I look at the procedure when a motion is put forward), I must look at it to see whether or not the procedure is right or not. If it is wrong, I’ll say it’s wrong. But then, some of them, knowing that it is wrong, still want their own way. So, when I decide that it is wrong, then they feel dissatisfied about it.But, at the end of the day, they know that the Government will still win, because they have to vote on it. But they still pursue the matter.So, to me, in order to have a first class parliament, let’s have an open mind about it. We are celebrating our 50th anniversary. But then, are we saying that we are equal to the parliaments of advanced countries? The answer is No. Do we aspire to have a first class parliament? The answer is Yes. Then the next question would be: How do we go about it?I think everybody knows the answer: First, we must have first-class parliamentarians; parliamentarians that abide by the rules; parliamentarians that have something to say that benefits the people. To summarize it, to have a first-class and world-class parliament, we must have a first-class and world-class parliamentarian.

Question: Do you think we should have anti-hopping laws?

Answer: If you say we should have freedom of expression, then why would you say we should have anti-hopping laws? That is not a solution. If you were to define what democracy is all about, you must have the freedom of expression. Because your decision today might have been based on a different perspective, different reasons. Tomorrow might be a different scenario altogether. Are you saying that, just because you made a decision yesterday, based on a different reason, that you must stick to that decision, even when the scenario is different? Why can’t we have the option of the right of recall? In India, if the constituents are not satisfied with their MP or assemblyman, there is a certain number of voters that can petition to recall the MP and have elections. In that way, you are reverting the rights to the constituents. It’s more democratic that way. If the constituents are not allowed to have their say, then this is one way of letting them have their say.

Question: Are you happy with the conduct of parliamentarians?

Answer: Generally, I’m happy. But with reservations to some of the senior parliamentarians.

Question: Which ones?

Answer: I can’t mention names. People know. Members from the Opposition – like Hadi Awang, for instance – the most he speaks is 40 minutes. He doesn’t utter words that can create ill-feeling, does he? When Anwar Ibrahim speaks, all listen. Because he doesn’t utter words that provoke the opposition or government. When you listen to these people speaking, you can have a very good debate. All the issues that they raise warrants to be answered by the government. I don’t know how much information the public gets from the media about the proceedings, but when I sit there as a speaker, I am satisfied with what they are saying. So, at the end of the day, what matters is for the public to judge. If I can have that kind of attitude from all members, then I think it’s a blessing.

Question: What do you think of the standard of debate?

Answer: Generally, I am also satisfied. Apart from the fact that the issues are very repetitive – one person has already mentioned the issue, but another member is not in the House at the time, and after that, he repeats the same thing. But, although some members are very lengthy with their speeches, it is actually very superficial. No hard facts, just political accusations. Sometimes I feel bored.

Question: What do you think about the walkouts that have been happening?

Answer: Personally, I don’t like walkouts. When you walk out, it means that you don’t want to face reality. You don’t want to hear the story from the other side. I always say, to be a parliamentarian, you must have a very strong heart, a thick ear, and a very thick face. Whatever is thrown to you, that is the person’s opinion anyway. When you walk out, what does it mean? “Well, I don’t want to take part in it because I protest.” When you protest on certain things, why don’t you protest on all? To me, that person doesn’t want to face reality. Because you know at the end of the day, any particular issue that you debate will end up with a vote. You know already the other side has the majority.
Your function as the Opposition – or as an MP, for that matter – is just to say what you wish to say. Whether what you say will be taken into consideration or not is an entirely different issue. But, to me, so long as you have a say, you must say it out. Because you know, at the end of the day, that the government will have its way. During elections, that is the time you put the issue to the rakyat – what does the rakyat want? But if you use parliament to menegakkan benang yang basah (flog a dead horse), say for instance, one MP from the Opposition asks a question of a minister, and he expects a satisfactory answer from the minister. I can’t do that – I can’t ask the minister to answer. So, it’s up to the people to judge the minister – is he a good minister, is he capable, is he up for it?The job of the Opposition is to tell that what you (the government) did is wrong or not wrong. But none of them will have the final say. You can have your say. But I have a particular time to meet. By a certain day I must finish a Bill.

Question: What is your wish for Parliament?

Answer: The only thing I would like the parliament of Malaysia to be is to have responsible MPs. Responsible in the sense that you wish to have a world-class parliament. Then, let’s have a world-class standard of parliamentarian. But that is my wishful thinking; I’m not the one who chooses who to put there – it’s beyond my power. The responsibility of having a world-class parliament is the responsibility of all – including the Opposition, the Government, the presidents of the political parties, and the Press – because you are part of the system. Maybe we aspire to be that, and maybe we are not there. But with the information that we have, with the technology that we have, with the intelligence that we have, we can just pick and choose which model of parliament we would like to aspire to be. We know already that our democracy we inherited from the mother of Parliaments (the House of Commons); it’s there, as a model. We take the good things. But, to me, the most important thing is, so long as we have that kind of understanding, then we must have that kind of tolerance.
The parliamentarians understand that there is an imaginary line that they cannot step over. If they step over it, it is like a booby-trap: it will explode. It’s up to you. You decide yourself. You want to get cheap publicity – you want people to know that you’ve been kicked out – then do it, But if you are thinking “It’s bad for me if I were to be kicked out, because then I cannot perform my functions, I cannot participate in the debate and all my constituents will feel that I’m a ‘naughty boy’,” then, don’t do it. If you want to have your say, to have a beautiful debate like the Leader of the Opposition or some other parliamentarian that debates beautifully, then, debate! You have all this freedom; but you must understand that freedom also has its limits. So, when you find one senior parliamentarian who is supposed to be a prominent lawyer, who is constantly hiding behind the parliamentary privilege, in refusing to utter words which he thinks if he were to utter outside the debating chamber he would get sued, it’s up to the public to form an opinion. My opinion is that, whoever you are, whatever your status, when you transgress the rules, you’re out. So, you’ll find that, some MPs, in one parliamentary sitting, find themselves outside. What do you call that – habitual offender? Political agenda?
Whatever. I’ve made up my mind that, they have their own agenda, and I have mine. If your agenda is political, I’m sorry; mine is non-political. I must make sure that the time limit that we put aside for our debate must be adhered to. But most of the time, it cannot. At the last parliamentary sitting, we extended by two days; the previous sitting, we extended two days, and the previous one. And we debate until 11 or 11.30 at night. And then after that you find the quorum is not there, because everybody starts going out. At the end of the day, you see just three persons sitting inside. That is the budaya of parliament Malaysia. What to do?

Question: There have been times when I have seen you being aggravated to what seems to be your fullest. How do you manage to control yourself from losing your temper? And how do you prevent yourself from having a heart-attack?

Answer: For every parliament sitting, if it’s my turn to sit in the morning, then, the night before, I will read all the questions that are going to be asked during Question Time. From that question, I will know roughly what will be the answer, what will likely spark a controversy. So, I prepare myself mentally. And it’s never happened in my time, or with my two deputies, where we’ve got to adjourn the sitting because it is too chaotic. As far as possible, we don’t want that to happen. I will not do things like lose my cool, or leave the assembly – just walk out while the mace is still in place. You can see some of the parliamentarians get quite tense, but usually they can laugh after that. So, most of the time it’s just a matter of reacting to the atmosphere. But when I think that I cannot handle this job anymore, there’s nobody holding a gun to my head: I can just call it a day. But there are a lot of things that come to mind: for instance, whoever said that a position of responsibility was easy? It’s not a walk in the park.
If I think that my position is tough, then what about the prime minister? Or what about the opposition, who want to be in power? It’s just a package; it’s part of the job that I have decided to accept. I should know better. I know the challenges, and I know that whatever that I have in mind would not be agreed to by everybody. Everybody aspires to have a parliament with a world-class standard; I want it to be that way. But then again, I also realize the fact that I cannot have my way of how I see the Parliament of Malaysia should be. It must be taken step-by-step. So, I have to accept some Malaysian Parliament budaya. Although I’m not ‘with it’ entirely, for the time being, I suppose I have to compromise. But let’s slowly do it. I might not be here forever – I might be just a one-term speaker, or shorter than the previous speakers. But at least I want to go down history as a speaker who has tried his best to perform the duty to the best of his ability. Everyone knows that the 12th Parliament is out-of-the-ordinary. I’m just glad that I’m part of that. I am trying to do a good job, but I also know that no speaker in the world is perfect.

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