Restoring order in Parliament

Mohamad Ariff says it does help to have a Dewan Rakyat speaker who is grounded in the law

By P PREM KUMAR & ALIFAH ZAINUDDIN / Pic By MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

After 10 years since renovations began at the Parliament House, the place still looks like a work in progress — with no clear sign that the job will meet its 2020 completion date.

People who regularly go to the Parliament complex will often tell you that even the scaffoldings are beginning to look like permanent aesthetics to the building.

The “ongoing construction” of the 55-year-old Parliament — whose original simple design might have reflected our bygone lawmakers’ “practical” roles — can be taken as a metaphor to the struggles of new legislators elected after the recent general election inside the august house.

Pakatan Harapan’s landslide victory on May 9 has paved the way for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to push forward a promised reform agenda which had since affected changes across the board from the executive, to the judiciary and legislature levels.

On the opening day of the 14th Parliament exactly a month ago, the first wave of legislative reforms took place when former Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof (picture) took his oath as the ninth speaker of the Dewan Rakyat.

His swearing-in ceremony was very much as dramatic, as the swearing-in of MPs was historic.

It was the first time in Malaysia’s history that the two sides of the Parliament swapped seats.

In the four weeks that followed, the Dewan Rakyat witnessed another bout of theatrics, a hint of maturity and several key election promise bills being passed. Mohamad Ariff recently sat down with The Malaysian Reserve in an hour-long interview to discuss his experience so far.

From the Courthouse to the Lower House

There is an air of familiarity in the way the newly appointed speaker talks about his role and environment.

“It is like being in court on a very bad day when you need to control the crowd (of 222 MPs),” he laughed, perhaps describing the difference between managing the court and the Parliament.

“But honestly, it is not that bad. I would think that there is a great deal of similarities than there are differences when I was a judge,” Mohamad Ariff said.

As a law practitioner for over four decades, and being appointed as Kuala Lumpur High Court judge and Court of Appeal judge along the way, Mohamad Ariff said it does help to have a Dewan Rakyat speaker who is grounded in the law.

“This will allow him or her to understand the subjudice and then decide accordingly…not based on whims and fancy. The dynamics in Parliament are very much rule-bound.

“When I had to look at the issue as to whether 1Malaysia Development Bhd can be raised or whether the gag order binds Parliament, these are essentially very legal issues that concern a very legal concept, so you can’t run away from the law,” he added.

Mohamad Ariff said his legal background had also taught him some important virtues which would prove to be useful as a speaker — including patience, fairness, equality and the need to maintain decorum.

Mohamad Ariff surprised many when he expelled Bukit Gelugor MP Ramkarpal Singh from the main chamber after he refused to retract his remark on Opposition MPs.

Against the strict facade of his predecessor, many view Mohamad Ariff as one who is soft-spoken.

“I think I am a very reasonable person. Reason is the law,” Mohamad Ariff said of his leadership style.

“I don’t know if I’m a soft person, but I go by rules and reason. Sometimes you cannot always go by the book, it depends on the circumstance,” he said.

In Parliament We Trust

With the new Parliament set up, many are anticipating that it would usher a new dawn of Malaysian politics — one where proper checks and balances are put in place and proper debates are established.

“As a legislative body, this is not only a place to make laws which follow due processes of parliamentary cultures and rules. It is also a place where the government can be held accountable and the finances of the country can be overseen in great detail.

“Once a culture is in place, accountability becomes second nature,” Mohamad Ariff said.

However, Mohamad Ariff said he is aware that this can only be done if there is an improvement in the general parliamentary culture and this is reflected in the quality of questions and debates posed by MPs.

“I think that there is a great room for improvement. Not only are questions sometimes repetitious, some- times questions are posed as submis- sions or debates although the rule says you’re supposed to ask questions, not present a speech.

“There is a tendency for MPs to not follow this rule. If they keep to the rule, then I think many more questions can be answered. Questions have to be relevant, pertinent and brief. You cannot be out of point,” he said.

While old habits die hard for some, Mohamad Ariff said he has seen incremental improvements in general.

“That is why we need to also reform parliamentary culture. It is something which may take a bit of time, but I would think it has already started. I think the quality has somewhat improved.

“There are some very good MPs who ask very pertinent questions. We would like to see more of that,” he said.

In charting a new way forward for the country’s legislative process, Mohamad Ariff said he is open to ideas that can create stability in all three branches of power in Malaysia.

This includes a proposal mooted by the Parliament’s new Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee to have an open debate on PAC reports.

“In principle, why not? That is how they do it in matured jurisdictions. Investigations are done at the committee level, the committee then com- piles it and sends a report, then we can debate the report. I think it should be doable,” Mohamad Ariff said.

Physical Changes

The Parliament’s RM600 million renovation is expected to be completed in 2020, with rooms promised by the previous administration for all 222 MPs.

However, Mohamad Ariff said this is unfeasible as there are not enough individual spaces to cater to all members.

“But there are rooms that are being constructed for the MPs, so now we have to see how best to utilise those rooms. You must bear in mind that Parliament is not like any other office.

“The MP is not going to be here all day. When Parliament is in recess, they have other things to do outside in their constituencies and jobs. Most of them have their own job so some of them may need rooms, some of them may not.

“But we are not only looking at MPs. The supporting staff sometimes from the ministries — they need rooms. But not all the time. It is only now when Parliament is in session there is a rush for space to work,” he said.