First published in The Star
By Wan Saiful Wan Jan
LAST Thursday the Malaysian Economic Association held a conference on the role of parliamentary committees in the governance of Malaysia’s economy. This is a topic that is of great interest to Ideas and me.
At Ideas, we have been campaigning for greater transparency and accountability from our Government since day one. Connecting democratic parliamentary processes to the governance of our economy is an important step forward.
Our Parliament has played a very minor role, if any at all, in the nation’s economic governance. We have seen quite a few scandals involving billions of ringgit, but Parliament’s role in providing a check and balance is still very unclear.
If we go by international standards, Malaysia has a lot to improve on. In 2015 we scored just 50 points out of 100 in the Corruption Perception Index, and very poorly at 24.9 out of 100 in the Open Government Barometer.
Here, by parliamentary committee what I mean is a formal grouping of Members of Parliament and Senators, on a cross-partisan basis, to examine the expenditure and spending policies of ministries and government departments, as well as to examine the Executive’s policies on the economy.
Parliamentary committees are a normal practice in many Westminster democracies. In such countries, parliamentarians distinguish themselves from the Executive. They see their role as providing a check and balance to the Executive, not being subservient to it. And these parliamentarians utilise the committee mechanism to challenge and question the Executive.
Unfortunately our own Parliament has not followed this trend and we have no committee that is worthy of praise today. Our parliamentarians, especially those from the government parties, seem to not care at all about being independent from the Executive.
Every time the Executive brings something to our Parliament, it is always passed as if Parliament is just a rubber stamp. This is why the committee system is needed. It can provide a structured mechanism for Parliament to function properly in providing a check and balance against the Executive.
Nevertheless, I do feel that the push to create parliamentary committees can only be our long-term target. Even though there is an immediate need, it is not something that we can expect to happen soon because there is hardly any political will. I cannot see this idea being implemented in the immediate term.
This is why I have been proposing that rather than wait for a perfect parliamentary committee to be set up, we should work instead to create something similar to the British Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs).
The website of the British Parliament describes the APPG as “informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament. They are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many choose to involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities.”
The most important phrase for me is “no official status within Parliament.” This means it can be set up without requiring official approval, and simply by having a group of MPs and Senators coming together under one banner. In other words, it can be set up now without waiting for anything.
Since APPGs can involve individuals and organisations from outside parliament, there is a door for interested NGOs to provide secretariat services too. Thus it should not be too onerous to set one up.
But this idea does have two major weaknesses.
One, I suspect it would be difficult to get equal commitment from MPs and Senators from both the Government and the Opposition. But looking at how things are in the country today, I do feel that we are desperate enough to just go ahead with whoever wants to participate.
Admittedly if we get parliamentarians from just one side, the group will be imperfect. But we should not make perfection the enemy of the good. We should just take the first step and work hard to improve it as we go along.
Two, being an informal grouping, the APPG will not have the power to summon any minister, government agency or officer to testify. Still, I do not think that, that should be our excuse.
There are many ways to find information about government workings. If resourced sufficiently, specific studies can be commissioned on a particular topic.
Or a suitable expert who is not part of the government bureaucracy can be invited to testify and present their findings. Basically, we can still design a model to create accountability even if we cannot officially call government agency representatives or ministers.
The APPGs can be the first step to facilitate dialogue and conversation on a cross-partisan basis, prior to having a proper formal Parliamentary committee. It will provide us with a foundation to move towards a better and proper committee system in our parliament.
Until the proper parliamentary committee is created, this is a good starting point.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.