Strengthening Dewan Negara

by Gan Pei Ling / 9 June 2010 © The Nut Graph

THE Dewan Negara, or Senate, has long been perceived as a “rubber stamp” of the Dewan Rakyat or Lower House in Malaysia. In a Westminster parliamentary democracy, the Senate is meant to provide checks and balances on the Lower House. Indeed, healthy democracies thrive because of checks and balances.

(Rubber stamp by prototype7/sxc.hu)

(Rubber stamp by prototype7/sxc.hu)

That the Dewan Negara in Malaysia has ceased to play that role effectively is cause for concern. At least one senator, Dr Syed Husin Ali, wants to see the Dewan Negara strengthened. Six months after his December 2009 appointment, Syed Husin, who is also Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) deputy president, launched a campaign to reform the Senate. He is, of course, not the only citizen with such concerns.

Syed Husin and civil society groups have a host of measures they would like implemented. What are they? How will these measures make a difference, and will they gain any traction?

Role of the Senate

Senators are responsible for scrutinising and debating bills that have been vetted by the Dewan Rakyat before they can be passed as law. The Upper House in other democracies such as the US and Australia wield considerable power. In Australia, for example, the Upper House can block legislation originating from the Lower House.

In Malaysia, the Senate cannot veto any bill passed by the Dewan Rakyat. However, Syed Husin explains that the Dewan Negara can amend or delay the passage of ill-considered legislation. But this has happened so rarely that headlines were made when women senators vehemently opposed controversial amendments to the Islamic Family Law in 2005. Eventually, these women senators were compelled by the party whip to vote for the bill.

Syed Husin

Syed Husin

“Once, 15 bills were passed in the Senate in two days,” Syed Husin adds in a phone interview with The Nut Graph on 2 June.

“We need to revive the Senate and make it more effective,” he concludes.

Political appointments

Syed Husin also points out that according to Article 45(2) of the Federal Constitution, appointed senators are supposed to be distinguished in public service or their profession, or represent racial minorities and indigenous peoples.

Today, he notes, the Senate has instead become “the ‘back door’ for politicians who have lost in the general elections to be made ministers or deputies”. In Malaysia, only a member of the Dewan Rakyat or Dewan Negara can be appointed to the cabinet.

Syed Husin cites the example of Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, who lost in the 2008 general election but was appointed a senator and a cabinet member later. Umno Wanita chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and former MCA Wanita chief Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun were also appointed as the Women, Family and Community Development Minister and Deputy Minister in the same way.

In Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1 June cabinet reshuffle, three politicians – People’s Progressive Party (PPP) senior vice-president Datuk Maglin Dennis D’Cruz, and MCA vice-presidents Datuk Donald Lim Siang Chai and Gan Ping Sieu – were sworn in as senators after their appointments as deputy ministers were announced.

  • A Kohilan Pillay (Gerakan) – Deputy Foreign Minister
  • Datuk Dr Awang Adek Hussin (Umno) – Deputy Finance Minister
  • Datuk Donald Lim Siang Chai (MCA) – Deputy Finance Minister
  • Gan Ping Sieu (MCA) – Deputy Youth and Sports Minister
  • Heng Seai Kie (MCA) – Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister
  • Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom (Umno) – Minister in the Prime Minister (PM)’s Department
  • Datuk Maglin Dennis D’Cruz (PPP) – Deputy Information, Communications and Culture Minister
  • Datuk Maznah Mazlan (Umno) – Deputy Human Resources Minister
  • Datuk T Murugiah (PPP) – Deputy Minister in the PM’s Department
  • Datuk Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin (Umno) – Federal Territories and Urban Well-being Minister
  • Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil (Umno) – Women, Family and Community Development Minister
  • Datuk G Palanivel (MIC) – Deputy Plantation, Industries and Commodities Minister
  • Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon (Gerakan) – Minister in the PM’s Department

BN senators who are also ministers or deputy ministers

Apart from these political appointments, the Senate has also become overgrown with appointed members. Originally, there were more state-elected senators, Syed Husin says.

Currently, 44 out of the 70 senators are appointed by the Agong on the prime minister’s advice. They outnumber the 26 senators who are elected from the 13 state assemblies.

“There should be a balance between federal and state interests in the Senate, as recommended by the Reid Commission (the independent commission that drafted the Malaysian constitution),” argues Syed Husin.

Elections

“Direct election is the best way to reform the Dewan Negara,” says Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh, who was Senate president from 2003 to 2009.

The Umno veteran points out that Article 45(4) of the Federal Constitution provides for the direct election of senatorial seats allocated for states. The clause also allows the number of appointed members to be decreased or abolished.

Abdul Hamid

“It’s in the book, we don’t even have to amend the constitution. We just need Parliament to pass a bill,” says Abdul Hamid in a phone interview.

Syed Husin agrees on the need for elections. One of his proposed measures in strengthening the Senate is to let professional groups and minorities like the Orang Asli elect their own representative. This would be an interim measure, he says, until a mechanism is devised that enables these groups to ably compete in direct elections.

Minority interests

Syed Husin is also proposing that the number of senators who represent state interest be increased from two per state to three, as constitutionally provided for.

He suggests that this third state senator should be elected, while the other two remain appointed. Additionally, positions in the Senate that are not allocated for professional or minority groups should be elected positions, not appointed. He says this would be an interim measure until full elections can be held for the Senate.

Political scientist and The Nut Graph columnist Wong Chin Huat agrees that all senators should be elected, but by using a party listproportional representation system. This system would ensure that a party is able to secure seats in proportion to the amount of popular votes it has garnered. The current system, where a simple majority suffices to secure a seat, has resulted in parties winning a number of seats that are disproportionate to its popular votes.

A report, Transforming the Nation: A 20-Year Plan of Action for Malaysia, has also recommended that all states be given at least three seats in the Senate. The report suggests that more populous states like Selangor may be given additional seats, on the condition that they remain under-represented.

“This is to check the power of larger states,” Wong, who is one of the report’s drafters, explains. The document was written by academics with input from grassroots leaders.

The document also recommended that Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan should in total hold at least one third of the seats in the Senate. That way, East Malaysians can veto any constitutional amendments that affect their interests.

Wong

Wong

“Meanwhile, the over-representation of East Malaysians in the Lower House now may be reduced as part of a package solution,” Wong adds.

Additionally, the document proposes to allocate three seats to Orang Asli voters, and one seat each to Eurasian and Thai Malaysians in the Senate. “There is no way these minorities can swing the vote in a statewide election, and we need senators who will speak out for them,” Wong says.

Despite these recommendations, Syed Husin admits that reforming the Senate is going to be an uphill task. For now, he is just trying to popularise the idea of reform among voters. Whether or not Senate reform occurs will depend on just how much traction these ideas gain in years to come.

The evolving Chinese Malaysian

by Gan Pei Ling / 14 May 2009 © The Nut Graph

(All pics courtesy of Namewee)

(All pics courtesy of Namewee)

RAPPER Wee Meng Chee, aka Namewee, was wrapped in controversy in July 2007 because of his national anthem parody Negarakuku. The six-minute video clip, which has been accessed by half a million viewers, touched on several “sensitive” issues such as police abuse, racial discrimination, and indolent civil servants.

At that time certain quarters, including government leaders, accused him of mocking the national anthem and insulting Islam. Then Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said even called for his arrest under the Internal Security Act.

Though the opposition and non-governmental organisations came to his defence, Nameweeeventually bowed to public pressure and issued a public apology.

The 26-year-old returned to Malaysia last year after completing his studies in Taiwan.

He spoke exclusively to The Nut Graph recently about being connected to Malay Malaysians, and his experiences selling pirated VCDs. The interview is translated from Mandarin.

TNG: Where were you born?

I was born in Muar, Johor on 6 May 1983. I’m the eldest in the family; I have a younger sister who is 22, and another younger brother who is 18.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Muar and studied in SJK (C) Chung Hwa 1B. After that, I went on to study in an independent Chinese school, Muar Chung Hwa High School, and later flew to Taiwan to study mass communications in Ming Chuan University.

Can you trace your ancestry?

I’m third-generation Malaysian. My paternal grandparents came from Hainan, China. My grandfather arrived first. After he had settled down and became financially stable [in Muar], he returned to China to my grandmother and brought her here.

My maternal grandparents also came from Hainan. My [maternal] grandpa came here to try to make a living because China was very poor then, but my [maternal] grandma is of Baba Nyonya descent. Her ancestors may have arrived in Southeast Asia a few hundred years ago.

What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?

When I was 16, I sold pirated VCD at shopping malls — that was when I came into contact with a lot of music, because there is a lot of foreign music [that cannot be found on genuine CDs] and can only be found in [stalls that sell pirated ones].

In addition, I saw the ugly side of many police and customs officers when they came to raid the stalls. That was a very crucial period in my life, because my ears and eyes started to open and widen then, and that was when I slowly formed my own mindset.

Selling pirated VCDs

What do you mean by the ugly side of the officers? What kind of mindset did you form?

Those people who buy, sell, and confiscate pirated goods actually form an “iron”, or “golden triangle” that keeps the trade alive and prosperous. Everyone plays their own role; none can live without the other.

Nevertheless, I do not really hate the piracy trade because I got to know lots of foreign music through this channel. I developed more open ideas and concepts about music, and had my own thoughts and principles when it comes to music. These are all part of an important process that help to form an independent mind.

What are the stories that you hold onto the most from your grandparents?

After the Chinese civil war, China was poverty-stricken, so my [paternal] grandfather followed his uncle down to Southeast Asia when he was only 13 years old. He started everything from scratch and later opened a Malay restaurant in Muar. My family’s present financial stability can be attributed to Malay [Malaysians].

My grandfather didn’t know how to cook Malay dishes, he set up the restaurant and sold drinks only. But [due to the location], there were quite a lot of Malay [Malaysians] around town, so he decided to rent the stalls to them without collecting any rental fees at first. He let them do business there for free to make the restaurant more well known. He worked together with every one of them — if want to prosper, must prosper together ma. After the business was stable, then only they talked about the rental fees.

That’s why my grandfather was successful in the end. Those who sold satay and other Malay delicacies in his restaurant, all [eventually] became classic Malay stalls in Muar. He was even interviewed and filmed by a local TV station about his mee bandung.

My grandfather and the Malay [Malaysian] stall owners in his restaurant had a revolutionary kind of feeling in common. Their friendship continued long after their retirement.

The restaurant has been sold but the Malay stalls remain. The third generation of the original stall owners — the grandchildren of the uncle who sold satay, and the grandchildren of those who sold other Malay dishes — are running the stalls now.

Besides that, my [maternal] grandma was born in Indonesia but is of Malacca Baba Nyonya descent. She lived like a Malacca Nyonya till she married my grandpa; then only her lifestyle changed. However, her Nyonya dishes and desserts remained as delicious as ever. Although she has passed away now, her homemade delicacies remain in our hearts, leaving an everlasting impression.

Her bahasa was also more fluent than some Malay [Malaysians]. She could use the bahasa local slang to joke with the Malay [Malaysians] and make them laugh out loud. And because her ancestors arrived here much earlier, her Hainanese was also quite different from the usual Malaysian Hainanese, the largest distinction was that hers was mixed with a lot of bahasa terms. The everyday Malaysian Hainanese wouldn’t understand her, so in a stricter sense, her Hainanese should be renamed “Nyonya Hainanese”.

Paternal grandparents

How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?

I heard all these stories from my family members. When I listen to these stories, I feel like I’ve entered a time tunnel.

How the Chinese culture in Malaysia evolved into its current state — these stories are key [to understanding this], and the process. We can find several clues from these stories. We (Mandarin-speaking Chinese Malaysians) will find out eventually that our Mandarin is very different from that of China and Taiwan. And we need to learn to accept, to respect [this], instead of feeling inferior because of the differences, and worship foreign cultures blindly.

What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian? Is it your gender, age, work, race, or religion, or anything else?

I don’t face any of the problems you mentioned. I live very well as a Malaysian. Our ability to adapt in foreign countries is superb, as we already have various races at home, and we learn how to live together when we’re growing up. If there is any, I would say as an artist, the freedom of artistic or creative expression in Malaysia still has lots of room for improvement.

Currently, it’s not only the laws that are limiting the development of art and creative work; the people’s own mindsets also pose a great obstacle. Because they’re not open-minded, even if the laws allowed, the public might not be able to or dare to accept [certain works]. Fortunately there’s the internet now. The net can broaden one’s vision and horizon, so I’m quite optimistic about it.

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.

Malaysia is a multiracial, multireligious, and multicultural country. This could be an advantage, but also a disadvantage. I hope Malaysia will make full use of this advantage to develop more of its strengths, such as open up schools that use different languages as their teaching medium, various markets, and allow diverse cultures to flourish.

If this special characteristic becomes a weakness, then it will result in bumiputera policies, oppression of other languages and religions, and other tragedies. That’s why I hope Malaysia will become a more open, diverse, and free country, making the most of its own strengths.