by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 11 December 2015

Since last week three representative chambers have made noteworthy votes.

The first was on 3 December, when the British House of Commons approved by 397 to 223 votes a government motion “That this House… supports Her Majesty’s Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria; and offers its wholehearted support to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces”.

This was the Government’s second attempt at getting approval to extend airstrikes against ISIL in Syria (previously they were limited to Iraq) after a similar motion failed in 2013. (Constitutionally, declarations of war need only the Prime Minister invoking the Royal Prerogative, but since the 2003 Iraq War there has been a shift, some would argue a new convention, that essentially requires the House of Commons to agree to any significant military deployment.)

The public discussion in the weeks preceding the vote was intense in civil society, universities, newspaper commentary and social media. Politicians appeared on radio and television debates, while past laws, conventions and resolutions were scrutinised.

In the chamber itself, MPs spent ten hours articulating their support or opposition from every conceivable angle – legal, humanitarian, military, economic, geopolitical, ideological – before proceeding into the division lobbies.

There was some expectation that the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn – the most left-wing leader of the Labour party in decades – was going to whip his MPs into voting against the motion, but at the end of the day he did not. In the event 66 (out of 232) Labour MPs voted for the government motion – encapsulated by the Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn’s electrifying speech (qv YouTube) – while seven (out of 330) Conservative MPs rebelled against the Government.

At times like this we are reminded of the importance of evaluating individuals, not just party logos, come election time: while MPs stand on a party ticket and thereby commit to a certain policy agenda, there are some issues where MPs might contradict their party.

On the same day, our Dewan Rakyat passed the National Security Council Bill by 107 to 74. There was no public debate or consultation in the public domain, and even MPs only received the bill two days before they were to vote on it. I am told, astoundingly, that many cabinet members did not know about it. This might seem shocking, but not as shocking as the contents of the bill.

Many others have denounced the proposed legislation, centring on the Prime Minister’s ability to declare a “security area” of any size, in which the security forces then have extensive powers. It effectively enables Emergency powers without the need to declare an Emergency, which of course requires the consent of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

It was the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman who in 1959 urged the newly independent nation’s lawmakers “to conduct your affairs in such a way that the Parliament will be a shining beacon of democracy at its brightest and best.” The 107 members who voted for the bill failed to uphold this royal command (if indeed they ever read it), and it will have to be seen whether the Dewan Negara will fulfil its functions any more onerously.

The third noteworthy vote was by the Sarawak State Assembly: on 7 December all 61 members present regardless of party affiliation voted to mandate the state government to discuss the conditions set out by the state during the formation of Malaysia in 1963 with the Federal Government.

In recent months we have seen how the leadership of the Land of the Hornbills has asserted what they feel to be their legitimate rights. As a result, real debates have been triggered concerning the official recognition of ethnic identities, the use of English as an official language and education policy.

It is already the case in our federal parliament that policy debates are often trumped by the language of race and religion instead of morality and evidence. But when parliament as a body is denied the opportunity to sufficiently debate – and when members of parliament are so beholden to other interests to not even protest their own emasculation – then the “shining beacon of democracy” that the first Agong spoke about has already been reduced to a flicker, National Security Bill or not.

To revive that flame we should be inspired not only by our own history but also the experience of other countries – last week IDEAS hosted the South African Opposition Leader Mmusi Maimane whose speeches in the National Assembly are hard-hitting and inspiring. But if looking abroad is so difficult, then perhaps our federal lawmakers might learn something about defending national interests from their counterparts in Sarawak.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

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