WE, the members of G25, would like to refer to your editorial “A vital component of parliamentary reform” (The Star, Nov 2) where you argued for the establishment of parliamentary select committees (PSC) to be expedited. We agree with your comment and wish to emphasise that this crucial aspect of parliamentary reform should be undertaken urgently. There is no reason for delaying this reform as it can be done without any constitutional or statutory amendment. The existing legislation and Standing Orders of Parliament empower Parliament to establish select committees.
We in G25 have called for several select committees to be established in addition to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). While the PAC is important in playing the oversight role of examining the Government’s financial management and the issues raised in the Auditor-General’s Report, there is, however, a need for other select committees to be formed to regularly monitor the functions of ministries and, where necessary, to hold open enquiries on matters of public interest.
In the public forum on PSCs organised by the Malaysian Economic Association this year, parliamentary veterans from the United Kingdom, Australia, Indonesia and India spoke about how their parliaments make the government of the country accountable to the legislature for its actions and failures.
In addition to performing the regular monitoring of ministerial functions, the select committees are also empowered to conduct open enquiries on matters of public interest. The open enquiry is aired live to provide transparency on how the committees function in examining the explanations provided by ministers and civil servants and in evaluating the testimonies from outside professionals and experts called to testify and to provide their independent opinion on how they assess the issue. After the enquiry is completed, the committee submits its report for the full House to debate.
One of the purposes for establishing PSC is to empower parliamentarians who represent the citizens to engage directly with civil society organisations and expert groups.
The select committees also have the important role of examining bills that are proposed by the Government and debating them thoroughly before they are brought up to the full House for voting. This is a very important role for our elected representatives, which sadly is missing today in our parliament.
In mature democracies, a government bill will only go to the House after it has been cleared at the committee level. The committee will often engage with independent advisers to check on the legality and feasibility of the government bill and, if necessary, it will hold public hearings to satisfy itself that the bill is fit and proper to be recommended to the full House. The process may take weeks or months but it is a necessary step towards ensuring that the bill will be credible in the eyes of the public when it becomes law.
We are encouraged to read the news of the honourable Speaker saying that the Parliamentary Service Bill will be tabled early next year to “revive” an earlier legislation (the Parliamentary Service Act 1963 that was repealed in 1992) that will enable parliament to have its own dedicated administrative service so that the officers can have continuity in their parliamentary work and grow to become professionals in assisting members of parliament in the performance of their duties.
G25 has suggested that, in addition, parliament should be given financial authority under its budget to allocate a certain amount for every MP to employ professionals to assist him or her as advisers on the matters coming up in the agenda so that he can raise the appropriate questions in the select committee he is sitting on and prepare himself for the debate in the House. With adequate professional support, we hope and expect that MPs will take the select committees seriously instead of using the committees as a forum for partisan politics.
Parliament will decide which committees should be formed. Our suggestion is that, at the very least, they should cover key portfolios such as national security, foreign policy, economic policy and financial management, education and health, transport and communications, public administration and law, political financing and elections, national unity and multiculturism.
It is sometimes argued that by having several select committees, government ministries will have the additional burden of answering to parliamentarians. Another criticism is the concern that there will be unnecessary interference in the functioning of government. Further, there will be delay in the passage of bills, and ministers will be put under pressure of time to accomplish their programmes for the people.
The counter-argument from G25 as well as those who believe in making our democracy more respectable is that, if we value integrity, transparency and accountability in government, we should follow the parliamentary committee system that is a common practice in many countries and which has proven to be the most effective way of providing checks and balance on the abuse of power by ministers and civil servants. The time spent in select committees can be the crucial factor saving the country from huge financial scandals.
We, therefore, believe that the parliamentary select committee system will be most important in raising confidence locally as well as in the international community on Malaysia’s commitment towards a high standard of governance.