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.

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