We, members of G25, have often stressed the importance of good governance and of maintaining the image of Malaysia as a well administered country. Recent developments, including the 1MDB controversy, prompted us to issue several public statements to remind the authorities of the need to uphold and respect the independence of our public institutions in carrying out their functions under the Federal Constitution and the respective legislations.
G25 proposes that Parliament be more assertive in performing its role in our system of government (Parliament makes laws, the Executive carries out the laws and the Judiciary interprets and enforces the laws). Consistent with the doctrine of separation of powers implicit in the Federal Constitution, and the imperative need for proper and effective checks and balances to safeguard public interests against the abuse of power, we are proposing that Parliament carries out its oversight function on a regular basis through the establishment of Parliamentary Select Committees.
The current oversight role by Parliament takes the form of raising questions during question time and debating issues, and monitoring by Parliament on financial matters through the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (‘the PAC’). The quality of the discussions is dependent on the extent civil servants are able or willing to respond to the queries raised by MPs and the PAC. Further, the PAC generally is confined to reports on financial management. We always note with dismay from the reports that Ministers who might have misused their powers in the decision making process are not called upon to testify on the scandals in which they are either involved in or held responsible.
We are respectfully proposing that Members of Parliament as the representatives of the people carry out their duty more effectively as the watchdog which ensures ministries and departments are fully accountable on financial management and how budgetary allocations are spent. For example, a Minister who spends the whole of the ministry’s travelling budget within the first few months of the year, or who takes a large delegation to an international conference without prior clearance from the Federal Treasury, must be made accountable for his conduct. In our system of parliamentary democracy, the only authority that can question the Minister’s spending is Parliament. In the United Kingdom, even the sovereign knows that when it comes to spending public monies it is subject to Parliamentary control and scrutiny. Parliament being the highest legislative authority, it is incumbent upon the elected representatives to play their proper role as the guardian of the people’s interest and rights. In a parliamentary democracy, as the people have given their trust to the political leaders, the latter in turn, must honour this public trust and must ensure good governance, transparency and accountability by all levels of government.
In the United Kingdom as well as in other democracies, the practice is for the select committees to be appointed on a permanent basis and to specialise in their areas of responsibility such as finance and economic management, law and order, defence and security, and social services like education, health, and transport. In Malaysia, apart from these sectoral portfolios, there is also a need for select committees to deal with sensitive matters such as race relations and interfaith consultations on religious issues. Select committees are particularly useful when Members of Parliament want to investigate something rather than merely debating on it. In a brief guide on the role and functions of select committees issued by the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, select committee comprising cross-party group of MPs or Lords is given a specific remit to investigate and report back to the House that set it up. The committees gather evidence from ministers and officials, the public and organisations outside Parliament and their reports are published and the Government must respond to their findings.
In the United States, congressional committees are powerful bodies that monitor very closely the White House’s administration of the country from inception of the President’s legislative programme right through the implementation of the budgetary expenditures approved by Congress. Public hearings on matters of public concern are held regularly, such as on the 2007/2008 Wall Street financial meltdown. The issues are investigated and corrective measures were recommended. Several top bankers were indicted following the congressional hearings.
After more than 58 years of independence, this participatory approach by Parliament overseeing and monitoring the ministries and departments through Parliamentary Select Committees is timely. For instance, the existence of a Select Committee on Malaysia’s External Debt could have avoided the 1MDB fall-out as questions on its foreign currency debt could have prompted a more prudent financial operation of the company. Other examples of public interest that calls for parliamentary inquiry are the environmental disaster on the coastal beaches of Kuantan, the financial management of the ports, etc. Similarly, Parliament should play the same role of ensuring that religious authorities operate within the powers as specified under the Federal Constitution, and that the fatwas and the respective State Syariah Enactments give due regard to the fundamental rights of the citizens and the multicultural nature of Malaysian life.
There is already in place a legal mechanism for Parliament to appoint Special Select Committees under Order 81 of the Standing Orders, which empowers the Dewan Rakyat to establish Special Select Committees. Such Committees can be set up to inquire and deliberate on matters determined by the House. The members of the Special Select Committee are nominated by the Committee of Selection, but have the power to elect its own Chairman. Select Committees shall have the power to compel any person to appear before it and to ask for documents and papers to be produced before it.
As in the United Kingdom, the special select committees should announce intentions to conduct an enquiry and publish the terms of reference for that particular subject. The public and interested groups should be invited to submit relevant evidence and written submissions. The committees will then notify the groups or individuals, including ministers and civil servants, to appear before them for questioning and are given legal powers to gather evidence from anyone called up by the committee.
In addition, parliamentary select committees should be empowered to recruit full-time paid qualified staff to prepare well researched reports and intrusive questions for the Committees’ enquiry sessions with the ministers, the civil servants and any other relevant persons. The committees may also hire lawyers, accounting firms or senior professors to prepare special reports as needed. Similar to the United States and the United Kingdom, the committees’ must produce reports to be tabled in the full Houses of Parliament for debate and made transparent to the public.
The parliamentary select committee system will entail operating costs which are necessary to help save billions of ringgit that otherwise will be lost through poor management in the ministries and departments or through unethical conduct of ministers and civil servants. Existence of these committees with authority to question any minister or Government official at any time, enables Parliament to make everyone holding decision making powers to be more responsible and accountable in his/her official or private life. Citizens will have access to fact-based testimonies by witnesses and independent professionals on issues of public concern, and will not need to only rely on social media reports which may be false, inaccurate and unfair to the Government. The select committee system is the best way for the Government to be transparent and be accountable and maintain its reputation. It is, therefore, in the interest of the Government to set up Parliamentary Select Committees to better govern the country.