A PARLIAMENT unaccustomed to a large and vibrant opposition bench has proven ahallenging for Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia. Often, he is the target of criticism alleging his bias towards the executive.
In the first part of an interview with The Nut Graph at his office in Parliament on 6 April 2011, Pandikar Amin talks about how he weighs his decisions as speaker and how he views the role.
The Nut Graph:
What is the most difficult challenge being Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat?
When I excercised my discretion which I really think it is for the benefit of the people and for the good of Parliment, and yet my sincerity is doubted by the parlimentarians who have their own personal views and agendas.
The Nut Graph:
How do you deal with it?
I just have to be very patient. If the situation gets out of hand and I run out of patience, then I would take stern actions. That is when a few of them got themselves suspended from the sittings of the House.
The Nut Graph:
Why should differences of opinion be seen as a challenge against the Speaker?
Of course it is a challenge if neither sides respect each other's opinion. Having said that you also have to look at the differences in the background of being a Speaker in the Malaysian Parliament and a Speaker in the [British] House of Commons. The Speaker of the House of Commons is a position that has been there for hundreds of years. It evolved [out of] the differences of opinion between the monarchy and the masses. The position of the Speaker in the UK Parliament is an institution by itself which everyone respects, including the government.
It is not so in our case. For instance, the budget for running Parliament doesn’t come from a special fund. It is from the consolidated fund, under the Finance Ministry. The appointment of officers in Parliament is not by the Speaker as an independent body, they are still appointed by the Public Service Commission.
In England, if a Speaker stands for election, no political party will put a candidate [against the Speaker], he will win automatically, because the view is that the Speaker is running [in the election] as the Speaker of Parliament. Once [we have] this kind of platform, it is conducive for the Speaker to make decisions, like the Speaker of the House of Commons.
What I want is for MPs to be practical. I have already made concessions as far as I am concerned. I was a very active politician. I was the Ketua Umno Bahagian in Kota Marudu. After I was appointed as Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, I resigned from all my political posts in UMNO. To me, that is a sincere gesture. What I want from all MPs is to show me something visible that they are doing something to uplift the image of our parliament to what we aspire it to be.
But what I get is just the negative. I’ll give you an example. From the word “go” in 2008, SO 18 is being abused by the opposition. They used it for votes of no-confidence against the government. [Editor’s note: SO 18 allows an MP to raise a an emergency motion to discuss a matter of public importance, but this may be refused by the Speaker if the Speaker finds it is not “definite, urgent and of public importance”]. This is blatant abuse of the rules.
If MPs want to object to a decision you’ve made, they have to do it by way of a substantive motion under SO 43 requiring three days’ notice. Has that ever happened in our Dewan?
Any challenge must be done according to the SO. If members of parliament are not satisfied with the ruling of the Speaker, the proper way is not to argue there and then. If you look at SO 43, it says that once a decision has been made by the Speaker, the House cannot review it. Nobody can appeal against it or ask the Speaker to reconsider, because it just cannot be done under SO 43. It can only be done by an independent motion. But here, no. Once I make a ruling, they will scream and say that I am biased, that I’m being used by the executive. That kind of behaviour by itself is also against the SO.
The Nut Graph:
How many times has such a motion challenging the Speaker’s decisions been raised in our Parliament? The picture we get is that such motions are never allowed and that the Speaker therefore, cannot be challenged.
To my knowledge, a few have been raised. It has happened before. Under me, there was one such motion by Jelutong (Jeff Ooi Chuan Aun-DAP). He was not satisfied with one of my rulings so I advised him to bring a motion. So he brought the motion and It was put it in the order paper on the 15.12.2010
But they always complain that it is pointless to bring a motion because it will never come to light, meaning it will never be debated. Because the government’s agenda is always discussed first in every session. Now, that is also not my fault because SO 15 says that is how it should be done. The government’s agenda must be put first before the agenda of other MPs. That’s the rules.
Can you see my dilemma? If for instance, I allow a substantive motion from the opposition, and it gets discussed and then the House vote on it, the government will win because it has the numbers. So what is the point? I will then be accused again and the government will be accused of arm-twisting the minority because they have the numbers. There’s a quote from a Canadian writer that “the government will always have its way and the opposition will have its say”. That’s just the way it is.
So Jelutong brought the motion, it was put in the order paper, but until now the House has not come to it yet because every session it is the government’s agenda that is discussed first. That is the rule in the SO and the MPs know it and they should not accuse me of being biased. Unless the rules are amended, there is nothing I can do about it. That’s what I’m saying, to have a very fair Speaker, you must provide the platform for him to act accordingly.
Let me ask this question. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is governing Selangor, Penang, Kedah and Kelantan. Are their legislative assembly speakers behaving more fairly than me? Are they behaving like the Speaker of the House of Commons? So start making comparisons. Don't just perceive that everything I do is pro-government.
The Nut Graph:
Do you think there is a need for check and balance on the Speaker?
The speaker has to follow the procedures in the SO.
As an example, if you want to compare with the House of Commons. In the UK, the issues to be raised during question time, like our every morning question time, the Private Notice Question (P.N.Q) are first discussed by both the opposition and government and then they will inform the Speaker. But in our case, in accordance with our SO, all questions are pre-determined. The MPs who want to ask questions have to give two weeks’ notice so that the government ministers will have time to gather the necessary answers. The questions are all laid out in the order paper. So we practice parliamentary democracy, but our procedures differ.
If PR comes to power, will they change the SO immediately to have a really independent speaker? If they really do that, they might face the risk of being unable to operate as a government because the speaker will have his own mind and act in accordance with what he thinks. If that is what they intend to do, why don’t they start practicing it in their states?
The Nut Graph:
What factors do you weigh when making a decision that involves your discretionary powers?
Whenever a motion comes before me – I seek all the information from relevant ministries and authorities. From there I form my opinion. To give credit to the prime minister and the chief whip, the deputy prime minister, they never get involved. I allowed, under SO 18(1), motions to debate the strike by fishermen, the rising price of rice and the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide and also the [Genting Sempah] bus crash. These things are urgent and I also want the government to be responsible and answerable.
But the opposition are very fond of reacting unreasonably if I reject their motions. They will immediately hold press conference outside the Chamber to complain about my decision. By doing so they’ve done their job because the matter will be publicised, and they will go back to their constituency and say hey, I’ve raised it already in parliament but what to do, the Speaker did not allow it because he is biased.
[But look at the motions brought]. There was a commotion over a road closure where [a few] people got injured, and the Serdang MP brought it for debate under SO 18(1). If I were to allow that, then I would have to allow every fight that breaks out to be debated in Parliament. Then there was a motion to discuss a collapsed bridge in Perak where a few students died. But the deputy prime minister had already gone there, the problem was already being attended to. If I were to allow that motion, I would have to allow motions on all sorts of other things. Now, I’ve just received another motion to debate the death of a seven-year-old boy under his religious teacher’s care. If I allow this, would I then have to allow every case of child abuse or death in the country to be debated?
The Nut Graph:
Do you try to ensure that your decision to allow or not allow motions is not perceived as biased?
There is no way I can ensure that it’s not perceived as such. You think some of these ministers are happy with decisions I make, when I allow supplementary questions from opposition members who are hard-hitting? Even BN ministers are not happy with me. As speaker I can choose anyone to ask a supplementary question. I could pick an MP whom I know is not hard-hitting. There was once a parliamentary question directed at the prime minister. Many MPs stood up to ask a supplementary question. I could have called a weaker MP but I called Bukit Gelugor (Karpal Singh-DAP) because to me, I am giving opportunity to the government to give explanation. By asking those I know who are well-versed in the issue from the opposition, by letting them pose the question to the minister, what I am doing is giving the government the opportunity to give a good explanation.
The Nut Graph:
The record shows that most opposition motions are rejected.
There are also motions by the backbenchers which I have rejected because of SO 15 - that the government’s agenda must be dealt with first. But they don’t highlight it or hold a press conference to complain about it. Even government's backbenchers face the same thing – their motions never see the light of day because they get pushed down the list on the order paper – that opposition MPs complain of.
There is another thing I’m doing. The way questions in the order paper are arranged. There is nothing in the SO that says that I have to arrange parliamentary questions in a certain way. But I order it in such a way that opposition and government MPs can take turns in asking their questions. First, a question by a BN MP, followed by a question from an opposition MP. I do the same with supplementary questions. So, I’m already doing something positive - a signal to parliamentarians, that I am doing something, departing a little from our normal style of Malaysian politics. So they must also try to do something positive. Instead they always belittle me and abuse the rules, and at the same time portray to the public that they are right.
The Nut Graph:
On your first day as speaker, you didn’t allow MPs to ask any supplementary questions, citing “time constraints”. But aren’t supplementary questions an important way for MPs to question and scrutinise the government on its performance and policies?
Under our SO 24(3) – the speaker may allow not more than three supplementary questions. The text says “may”, not “shall”. This is a matter of interpretation. [Editor’s note: Under SO 99, the Speaker’s interpretation of the rules is final.]
On that day, at the time in question, there had been a commotion going on for almost one hour, all because Bukit Gelugor took issue with [how some MPs did not raise their hands properly when they were sworn in]. We had not yet even started the meeting. When we finally did, I wanted to be fair to all the other MPs who had posed parliamentary questions as listed on the order paper. Shouldn’t we also let others listed further down in the order paper have their questions answered? So that was the reason I didn’t allow supplementary question on that day. My decision is based on my interpretation of the SO which states that I “may” allow up to three questions. Not “shall”. Even then, the government backbenchers stood up to complain against my decision. But it’s a decision I still stand by. If MPs are not satisfied, they can file a motion using SO 43, not by ridiculing me. [TNG favicon]