Restoring the House’s independence

by Gan Pei Ling / 16 March 2012 © Selangor Times

The Special Select Committee on Competence, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) has become a household name since it conducted the high-profile public inquiries into the Wives of Selangor Welfare and Assemblypersons and Members of Parliament Charity Organisation (Balkis) in 2009. In an exclusive interview with Selangor Times, Selcat chairperson and Speaker Datuk Teng Chang Khim spoke about the steps PR has taken to strengthen the law-making branch of the state.

Datuk Teng Chang Khim

Can you share some of the legislative reforms PR has implemented since 2008?

For a start, we’re the first state assembly to telecast our sittings live via the Internet. We publish a journal now after every sitting to inform the public about what laws and motions were passed. We’ve also increased the days of sitting from an average of six to 20 days a year so that members of the House have more time to debate bills before they’re passed.

In 2008, we set up Selcat and three new select committees that specialised in scrutinising;

1)    state statutory bodies and government-linked companies (ABAS),
2)    local governments (PBT), and
3)    district and land offices (Padat).

Previously the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which only has seven members, has to scrutinise everything the executive is doing. Now they can focus on state departments only.

So instead of seven people, now we’ve 28 state lawmakers from four select committees – ABAS, PBT, Padat and PAC – to watch over the executive.

We appointed two opposition members into each of the seven-member select committees to reflect the proportion in the House.
We also appointed an opposition member to chair the PAC for the first time in Selangor.

Finally, we’re also in the process of enacting a new law to establish a service commission for the House, so that our management and administration are independent of the executive.

Why did the Selangor State Assembly set up Selcat? And what’s the difference between Selcat and the three new select committees (ABAS, PBT and Padat)?

It’s actually a common practice for house committees to conduct public hearings in advanced democracies like Canada, United Kingdom and Australia but this has never been done in Malaysia.

We want to follow the Commonwealth benchmark. But our worry then was, holding public inquiries involves legal procedures and we didn’t have experienced lawyers among the select committees’ members, nor supporting staff with legal expertise to back them up.

That’s why Selcat was formed. It’s meant to specialise in conducting public hearings. We got help from the US Senate, they gave us a two-day training, taught us how the hearings should be carried out.

So now the select committees will refer to Selcat if there are issues of public interest and we’ll call for a public inquiry.

For example, we called for a public inquiry on PKPS Agro Industries Sdn Bhd (mismanagement of RM90.3 million of federal loans given out in 2005 and 2006) last week because ABAS felt the issues should be highlighted to the public.

Selcat has become an icon now. We’ve increased the public’s expectations. Now people are asking why Parliament and other states haven’t set up a similar committee to hold public hearings.

We’ve incorporated ABAS, PBT and Padat into the Standing Orders like the PAC. This is a very important institutional reform. If the next government wants to abolish these select committees, they would have to go through two assembly sittings and amend the laws.

But Selangor Umno deputy chief Datuk Seri Noh Omar has called Selcat a “kangaroo court” that only exposed things but never punished anybody. What’s your response to that?

Selcat, like any other house committee worldwide, only has the power to summon and query. It does not and cannot have more power than the state assembly itself.

The most Selcat can do (and has done) is to call for public inquiry and try to find out what’s happening by asking the state entities like Kumpulan Semesta (Sdn Bhd) to appear before us.

We don’t have the power to seize their documents or search premises. That’s the job of the police, and where it involves corruption, the MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission).

If the opposition has proof that there are criminal elements in sand-mining operations in Selangor, they should lodge a report with the police or MACC. In fact, the MACC has conducted investigations (in 2010) and didn’t find (any wrongdoings).

I also read in Sinar Harian today (March 12) that Umno Youth Selangor wants Selcat to follow the Parliament’s PAC practice to appoint non-politicians into the committee. But the Parliament’s PAC is made up entirely of members of Parliament, all of whom are politicians. (Chuckles)

I’m astonished by their ignorance in the running of a democracy. Either that or they’re trying to confuse the people.

You’ve been a state lawmaker in Selangor since 1995, you were also the opposition leader in the state assembly from 1995 to 1999 and 2004 to 2008. Comparing then and now, do you see an improvement in the quality of debates in the House?

Definitely. When I was in the opposition, there were very few opposition members. The BN executive was only interested to get laws passed. They weren’t serious in debates.

Whereas now, you can see that PR backbenchers are very active during debates. They give good suggestions and aren’t afraid to criticise their own government, it’s encouraging.

To my surprise, the opposition, which has been making lots of noise outside, has been relatively dormant in the House.

They’ve not tabled any good motions so far, 95 per cent of the motions have come from the Backbenchers’ Club.

But in Parliament, the opposition members are more active in tabling motions and submitting private member’s bill. They aren’t doing that here. The Backbenchers’ Club is more active in the Selangor State Assembly. They’re helping the opposition (to raise issues).

You mentioned earlier that the House has limited resources to support its select committees. What other challenges do you face in implementing reforms?

In a democracy, the three branches of government, legislature, executive and the judiciary, should check and balance each other. But the practice in Malaysia is that the legislature acts more like the rubber stamp of the executive. The Speaker is only a figurehead. The House’s administration comes under the executive. The members of the House have no say.

In Selangor (and other states), the House secretary takes orders from the state secretary. The hiring and firing of the staff in the legislature is controlled by the executive.

Imagine now, the House secretary can be transferred if the executive doesn’t like him or her. Our legislature isn’t independent from the executive.

So we must go back to the Commonwealth practice, where the legislature has its own service commission to take care of the hiring and firing of staff. The House secretary will take orders from the service commission, not the executive.

We’ve drafted the bill called SELESA (Selangor Legislative Assembly Service Commission Enactment) to set up this service commission, but the executive has yet to agree.

Why? Isn’t it a good thing to strengthen the House’s independence?

The executive is hesitating because the bill will take their powers (to control the legislature’s administration) away from them.

But they’ve forgotten that these powers belonged to the House. The House, as an independent branch of the government, should have full control of its own budget and staff.

If PR is elected into government for another term and you’re appointed as Speaker again, what other reforms do you hope to implement?

Firstly, we must get SELESA passed. Once the House has control of its own budget, we can set up departments specialising in law, accounting, corporate practices, public administration, town planning and more to support our select committees and members of the House.

Once we’ve established the specialised departments, the departments will research the issues and advise the select committee on questions that should be raised in the meetings and public inquiries.

Then the check and balance provided by the House on the executive will be more professional and effective.

Besides that, I want to bring the House nearer to the people through public education. This has always been on my mind. We need to bring students here and educate them about the House and its history: Why is it important? How does it pass laws?Who were the important figures – Speakers and opposition leaders – that have stood in this House?

Once we have control of our budget, then we can implement a structural education programme.

Related post: Challenging and exciting times

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/

(Rubber stamp by prototype7/

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.


“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.



“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.