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Know Your Government – Member of Parliament

By A. Jeyaraj

In the final of this three-part series, we will look at the roles of a Member of Parliament (MP).

The Malaysian Parliament is modelled closely after Westminster, comprising of two assemblies: the lower house (Dewan Rakyat) and the upper house (Dewan Negara).

Members of the Dewan Rakyat are known as Members of Parliament whilst Dewan Negara members are called Senators. MPs are elected by voters at the General Elections whilst Senators are appointed by the government to represent each state and the interests of various national bodies such as sports, arts, senior citizens, environment, etc.

An MP is elected to serve for a period not exceeding five years whilst a Senator’s term is for three years. Senators are limited to two terms whilst MPs can be re-elected indefinitely.

Currently, we are in the 13th parliament term since Independence and the current term expires in May 2018. The current term sees 220 parliamentary constituencies.

The government, that is, the Executive would be the party with the most number of seats out of the 220 and it’s leader would be the Prime Minister. Since Independence, Malaysia has been governed by the same coalition: now known as Barisan National with the current Prime Minister being the sixth.

The Dewan Rakyat sits in session three times a year with the opening of each year’s session being officiated by the King. The royal address at each year’s opening would dictate the direction of the government of the day.

When in session, the Dewan Rakyat would typically begin with a 2-hour question time where ministers will answer pre-submitted questions from MPs. As in the State Assembly, the first prepared question will be followed by a supplementary question. These Q and A sessions are an opportunity for MPs to be a check and balance of the Executive, that is, the ministers.

The question time is then followed by the debates on bills. Bills are proposals for new laws or amendments to existing laws which the government of the day wishes to present. Individual MPs may also present bills known as Private Member’s Bill.

However, official government business would take precedence over private bills. Very rarely does a private member’s bill see the light of day especially if it comes from the opposition. However, it is interesting to note that once, the Dewan Rakyat remained in session till 5am the next morning in order to rush through various government bills for the sole purpose of having a private member’s bill to be at the top of the agenda for the following day’s sitting. This was the proposal for amendments to Act 553 (the Sharia Law).

Based on the explanations above, we can safely conclude that one important duty of an MP is to be the voters’ ‘eyes and ears’ in Parliament to ensure their rights are protected. New laws or amendments to existing laws should be in the best interest of the nation instead of for the interests of individuals or specific groups of people.

Similarly an MP has to raise questions and concerns of his constituents and in some instances even to propose amendments or laws for that objective. One example would be if residents know of the opening of a highly toxic industry in their area, they will have to lobby their MP to stop that industry in their neighbourhood.

An MP should also remain in close contact with his constituents to be able to know and understand their concerns and aspirations. A common complaint from voters is that their MP is seldom or never seen in the area except during election time. This is true in many instances as most MPs are more concerned about being close to their political leaders instead of their voters. It is very rare to see an MP having a dialogue with their constituents to take instructions on how to vote on a specific issue such as Act 553. MPs often forget that they are the people’s representative in Parliament: not their party’s representative only. However, most would put their political survival ahead of the interest of the constituents.

Although this is now the 13th parliamentary session, most of us have voted in the past 13 elections for the party instead of for the candidate. We know little of what our elected representative stands for on important issues such as taxation, education, environment, to name a few. Therefore an important duty of an MP is to be able to share his stand on important issues with his constituents through his published manifesto so that his voters can understand and continue to support him.

Each year in October, the Minister of Finance would propose to parliament the government’s budget for the following year. It is therefore the duty of the MPs to scrutinise the budget proposal in the best interest of the nation. Similarly, it is the duty of the MP to submit on behalf of his constituents to the relevant ministries for infrastructure projects required in the constituency. These projects include roads, bridges, telecommunication infrastructures, public transport systems which can improve the quality of life for the constituents. Therefore one responsibility of an MP is to network with the relevant ministries. However, this is almost never done especially by the opposition MPs. Although in opposition, I believe an MP must put as priority, the interest of the constituents and the constituency ahead of party politics.

During weekends (Dewan Rakyat only sits from Monday to Thursday) and when parliament is not in session, MPs should be at their service centres and visiting their constituency. This would also be the period when MPs should be networking with the civil service in the ministries. In Malaysia, most MPs still maintain their full time professional occupation.

Where does a MP get his finances for his service centres and providing assistance to needy constituents?

Currently all government MPs get an allocation of between RM1-2 million to support their constituency work. However, opposition MPs receive zero allocation. This may seem like a punishment to the voters for voting the opposition. The government’s justification is that similar allocation is made available via the constituency coordinator which is almost always the ruling political party local leader. Therefore this allocation is often used for political interest only, as the general public and even the elected opposition MPs sometimes do not know who the coordinator is. As an elected representative, the government MP has an obligation to be transparent on spending the allocation but the same cannot be said for the appointed coordinator who is answerable only to his political leadership.

This would explain why the opposition needs to periodically organise fundraising events whilst we do not see the same by the government MPs.

Nevertheless, this abuse of public funds should not be tolerated and it is one area that has to be reformed. MPs from both sides have to be treated equally as they were elected into office by the people.

In their service centres, an MP would commonly meet with people who come for financial and welfare assistance. There will also be groups who come to lobby for specific issues. Then there are also individuals who come for support or guarantee letters from the MPs for loans, job application, entry into institutions, etc. Not all requests will be entertained, but the MP has to be very diplomatic. Where possible, issues can be forwarded to the state assembly person or to the local councillor.

Therefore it is important for all three public service practitioners to be working as a team. Proper partnership and cooperation would greatly benefit the constituency. However, when political survival takes precedent then sadly, it is always the less fortunate community in the constituency that suffers most.

Above all, a good elected representative, be it in the state assembly or parliament, must always put the constituency and the constituents first above political leaders. All constituents must be treated equally and never taken for granted. Humility is always the best policy in public service.

 

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