From the courtroom to the Dewan Rakyat, former Court of Appeals judge Datuk Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof talks about his new experience as the house’s speaker and how he plans raise status of the institution from being regarded as ‘government rubber stamp’ to one which upholds parliamentary democracy. Q: How does being the Dewan Rakyat Speaker stack up against being a Court of Appeals judge? A: Being a judge is more difficult but there are similarities. The difference is the proceeding’s nature. Here, my main function is to moderate debates, questions and answers as well as the legislative process to ensure debates are well-conducted and fair, giving everyone a chance to air their side while adhering to the Standing Orders. The control exercise as a speaker is almost the same as a judge although I’m now looking at a larger setting of 222 members of parliament. Q: What do you make of cases of unruliness among the MPs? A: One can only hope that these cases which become less frequent, but this takes time. Nevertheless, I’m quite pleased with this Dewan session. It started on a rowdy note but behaviour improved towards the end. We ended on a motion on (reopening the probe on) 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), which was unanimously voted on. What was interesting about that was there was no bickering; even the opposition expressed support. I hope to see this more often. There weren’t that many cases of unruliness. On the first day, there was the walkout (by the opposition). The next day, ‘samseng’ was used (which led to Bukit Gelugor MP Ramkarpal Singh being ejected). There were also ‘carutan’ (obscenities by Kinabatangan MP Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin), followed by an apology. Q: Some have argued that you’ve been soft on the MPs who used obscenities and made uncalled-for statements. A: I directed the removal of an MP( Ramkarpal) on the second day, so how can I be said to be soft? Plus it was an MP from Pakatan Harapan. Q: How do you rate your predecessor, Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia? Are there things that you’d like to correct from his time in office? A: I will praise Pandikar because he brought in new ideas such as the Ministers Question Time as well as the special chambers. MQT was a good innovation. The system needs a lot of discipline and time is restricted so that the Q&A is efficient, accurate, sharp and relevant. The special chambers is also a good innovation because matters related to administration can be presented in the chambers in an efficient way and specific questions can be directed to the minister on matters which are sometimes deemed petty.
Pic by NSTP/ASYRAF HAMZAH
Q: Do you feel that there are one or two parliamentarians who are seen but not heard? A: There are many who have still not said anything, especially those seated at the back benches and first-timers. They should be given the opportunity to debate and ask questions. I give them the opportunity whenever they stand up and request to ask additional questions, even the seniors, especially ex-ministers. They cannot be ignored as they have expertise to ask supplementary questions. If not they would remain “backbenchers” and will have no opportunity to be seen by their constituents. Q: How would you rate the quality of debates? A: I’m quite satisfied so far. Barring those few instances (of rowdiness), the standard from both sides have been good. The ministers have been giving good answers, full of content, facts and figures while on the other side we had some very mature intellectual questions and good ideas from former ministers. We hope this culture becomes ingrained. Q: Do you think it helps to have to have figures like Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin who are sharp and do not get easily distracted from making his points? A: Yes, they are expected to push their own arguments on behalf of their constituents. That is what I call being engaged in an intellectual debate, there is back and forth, forcefully maybe but no name-calling. These are the rules of debate. But this is where it helps to have ex-mi
nisters. Our prime minister (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) himself is a senior politician. Q: How do you feel about the Dewan Rakyat being described as a ‘pasar’ (market) in the press? A: Freedom of expression which includes the freedom of the press allows for this. I made a decision for the MP to leave (the session) and such incidents will continue to happen. People will continue to tease and taunt and incense others. The job of the speaker is to calm things down and if it can’t, they can be asked to leave the house. Q: You may be bipartisan as you do not hold a position in Amanah but your deputies Nga Kor Mong and Datuk Rashid Hasnon hold party positions. How does that work out? A: Speakers need to be 100 per cent bipartisan but the deputies are still MPs. We need to understand that the political element also has to exist unless there is a rule stating otherwise. I can follow this as I am not an elected rep. However both my deputies are fair when they are in the Dewan Rakyat. And yes, I will be the middleman to ensure they will continue to be fair. Q: Will you support efforts to reintroduce the repealed Parliamentary Services Act to ensure parliament is run autonomously and not under the Prime Minister’s Department? A: It is more an administrative act; MPs’ independence does not come under it. It’s vital that it is reintroduced albeit with some tweaking in line with PH’s manifesto that parliament has to be independent of the executive and have control of its finances and staffing. Complete separation of powers from the Prime Minister’s Department is however impractical and not possible anywhere in the model. Whatever business that comes through the speaker’s office originates from the executive as they set the agenda. We set the order paper, we don’t draft the bills. But what we can do through the committee system is provide an avenue for bills to be discussed in a more detailed environment. We want them to acknowledge that this is the way to go and not rushed through without public input and discussion like during the previous administration. Bills are essentially drafted by departments. Policies are decided at departmental levels, then it goes to cabinet and then Attorney-General’s Chambers before tabled here. This bill in fact has been ready since 2016. But with new government, it needs to be tweaked. I cannot give dates on when it will be tabled as it does not depend on me alone, but we will be monitoring the agenda. Q: How do you plan to transform parliament and restore its integrity from being seen as a ‘government rubber stamp’ to an institution of parliamentary democracy? A: Start with parliamentary culture where the institution is acknowledged the one that legislates laws but holds the government accountable in terms of policies and expenditure. It is also an avenue for the public to participate, to give their views as per democratic principles. If you expand that concept through the committee system, where interest groups give their input, we will have a mature system. We will have better bills and more accountability. Committees will then be armed with powers to call outsiders to come just like the Public Accounts Committee, which is a good model of openness. We have already named the first 6 select committees. The next phase will be staffing and working out the operating procedures and budgets so that they can get to work. Q: In your past interviews you have expressed hope for no more midnight sittings. Is this doable in the long run? A: We have managed to keep to that, the latest was 11pm so far. If we have this new parliamentary culture, timelines and new committee systems, the order of the day can be adjusted accordingly. I don’t believe that someone needs 30 minutes to 45 minutes to debate. We have proven that restricting it to 15 minutes is enough. They get repetitive with extra time. Some have even managed to deliver their arguments in 10 minutes. Now everyone is happy with this. Q: How important is a shadow cabinet. Can you impress on why this is needed? A: The shadow cabinet is important, even though opposition leader Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has said that there would not be ones. It makes the speaker’s job easier and procedures more efficient. When there is a debate on a topic defence or some bill, once the minister has finished the introduction, the speaker will then know who to call next if there is a shadow spokesman. You don’t need to scout around and look for a person, as there is no guarantee that the person who stands up would be an expert in the field. We give it to the experts and it becomes more efficient. This is also important in the committee system. The opposing party’s position will be represented. Otherwise we will pick any other person to fill in the slot and we don’t want that. It would be good for someone who is a previous minister to be chosen in that particular area to be the chairman of the select committee. We have already shown the way, as the PAC chairman is former deputy speaker Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee. © New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd