By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

Sitting days in Parliament since the last general election have consistently been exciting, and this week’s is no different, as the splendour of the Opening Ceremony quickly gave way to less thespian performances of the many men and fewer women Malaysians elected to represent them.

Giving plausible justifications for policy u-turns is a challenge for even the most confident of governments, and the decision to not introduce the GST Bill has been mercilessly seized upon by the opposition.  The opposition front bench, too, however, are not entirely blameless: after weeks of sustained denunciations of the legislation, they then exhibited ersatz anger after it was shelved.

This is a sad reflection of how too many politicians treat the chamber: as a theatre for antics where support or opposition to legislation is based on tribal political loyalties rather than a considered analysis of the impact on constituents.  On the opposition side there are ideologues of the left who will always oppose GST in principle, regardless of the availability of zero-rating and exemptions as mechanisms to shield the poor.  They joined forces with economic liberals who, while claiming to support GST in principle, barked spurious arguments to oppose implementation now.  But the benefits of GST – being a more efficient method of revenue collection that also promotes accountability – would apply regardless of the timing.

Similar things could be said about the government’s obstinacy with regard to local council elections.  There is no moral reason to deny local council elections.  Their restoration – a commitment made by Tunku Abdul Rahman himself – would greatly enhance democracy by removing the power of state governments to appoint cronies to local councils, enabling ordinary people to be involved in decisions affecting their communities, fostering competition between councils and service providers – driving down costs and saving taxpayers’ money – and furthering public understanding of how responsibilities are decentralised within our federation.

Although we all suspect that the government bottled on GST because of the threat of a mass demonstration and even some rebellions from its own backbenches, the ostensible reason given for the delay – to engage with the people and canvass public opinion – provides a tremendous opportunity which could permanently upgrade the legislative process in this country.  In other Commonwealth democracies, publicly available documents called Green and White Papers are usually issued months before a Bill is presented to parliament for debate.  Often, select committees will hold sessions where members of the public can actually present their ideas, thus shaping the legislation before it is even tabled.  I attended some of these sessions in the UK Parliament, and they are remarkable in how accessible and accountable legislators are made to be. Furthermore, throughout the legislative process, the House of Commons Library produces neutral factsheets detailing the bill’s progress and the likely impacts of the bill, so that constituents can lobby their MP for further amendments as the proposed law makes its way through parliament.  If this is what the government means by engaging with people and canvassing public opinion, it would be a hugely significant contribution to our democracy.

Another view is that the government will do no such thing, instead hoping to regain its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat at the next general election, and then cracking its whips to bulldoze the bill through.  That would be an unfortunate attitude to take, but in this regard they might have to factor in the power of a new force in parliament: the independents.

There have been many harsh words for these individuals of late, with accusations that they succumbed to financial or other incentives.  The more sympathetic criticisms cite genuine disillusionment with their former party’s leadership or policies.  Whatever the truth, defection is a parliamentarian’s right whose exercise will be judged by their constituents at the next election.  Such episodes will have reminded Malaysians of the importance to consider the merits of the individuals and not merely the symbol appearing next to their name on the ballot paper.

But something pleasant may happen between now and then.  What if – and I concede this is a big if – these newly-unshackled MPs surprise us all, by actually considering the policy merits of each piece of legislation?  They no longer receive any whip, and so are free to vote according to their conscience in every instance.  If they do this, they may well be rewarded by their constituents, and I dare say they would be far better MPs than sycophants who do all they can to please flip-flopping party leaders.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

This article was first published in The Sun on 19 March 2010.

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