Public gaffes, past decisions dominate Dewan Rakyat debate

Decorum in the chamber also appeared to have somewhat improved as most exchanges between MPs last week were grounded on issues instead of the usual hubbub


IT WAS a rather odd sitting for the government at the Dewan Rakyat last week, as members of the Cabinet were forced to make several clarifications after a series of missteps made were highlighted by the Opposition.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Finance Ministry had to issue two statements in reference to the slip-up made by PM Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in a special address on July 2.

Separately, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah had to release two statements to clarify the issue relating to National Film Development Corp (Finas) Act 1981.

The public had reacted almost in real time to the errors, as well as to Saifuddin’s initial response to queries on the Finas Act in the Dewan Rakyat. Demands for clarification grew quickly online. If anything, this showed that the public was keeping a close watch on the MPs’ performance.

Decorum in the chamber also appeared to have somewhat improved as most exchanges between MPs last week were grounded on issues instead of the usual hubbub. This came after newly appointed Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun declared that he would no longer tolerate the use of foul, racist and sexist languages in the august house.

Despite playing in defence for much of the week, the government still managed to whip up an attack against the Opposition with questions on Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) contentious decisions being raised in the chamber. Here are some highlights on what transpired.

Finas Fever

The blanket statement by Saifuddin last Thursday requiring all video producers, including social media users, to have official licences for filming was scorned by Malaysians online, with critics describing the use of broadly worded laws to silence detractors as a backslide on free speech.

Saifuddin told the Dewan Rakyat that the Finas Act 1981 states that the production, exhibition or distribution of a film requires a licence from Finas. The Act defines films as any recordings on any material, including feature films, short films, short subject films, trailers, documentaries and advertising filmlets.

When pressed by Opposition lawmaker Ahmad Fahmi Mohamed Fadzil (PH-Lembah Pantai) on whether a video by American dentist Dustin Phundheller on YouTube had Finas’ filming licence, the minister merely repeated what the law states and said authorities will act according to the statute.

Ahmad Fahmi went on to question the minister’s broad response in a press conference, asking if the same legal interpretation can be used against YouTube sensation couple S Pavithra and M Sugu. He then raised concerns over the use of the Act for selective prosecution.

“I’m not sure if the minister is aware of the full ramifications of his answer,” the MP said.

Subsequently, Saifuddin issued two separate statements, in which he clarified that the government had no intent of suppressing the public’s freedom on social media. He recognised that the law was not up-to-date on current trends and that the ministry is open to suggestions to improve the Act. The public’s response, however, remains mixed as the Act still stands.

Number Blunder

To err is human, but are corrections divine? Evidently, the latter do not get the same prominence as the original mistake as in this case involving government cash handouts.

Muhyiddin in his special address on Covid-19 last week said some 1.4 million e-hailing drivers had received a RM500 allowance each, amounted to RM34 million. Another 477,000 taxi drivers, tour guides and bus drivers had received a RM600 allowance each, totalling RM28.8 million.

To ordinary taxpaying citizens, such gaffes would have gone unnoticed. But for former Transport Minister Anthony Loke (PH-Seremban), the mistake was spot on, as his past portfolio had prepared him with the real figures at hand.

“The PM’s televised address to the nation is a serious speech. Facts and numbers expressed must be accurate and not mislead the people. PMO officials should make sure that the figures are checked before it is included in the speech,” Loke said on Facebook.

“If 1.4 million drivers are paid RM500 per person, the amount is RM700 million, not RM34 million. I think the more accurate number is RM34 million and if divided by RM500, the total receiver is 68,000 people, far different from 1.4 million people,” he said. Loke said there were only 120,000 e-hailing drivers registered under the Land Public Transport Agency.

Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz openly admitted in the Dewan Rakyat, the day after the speech was delivered, that some numbers in Muhyiddin’s speech were incorrect.

He had also identified errors in the wage subsidy figures which stated that some 834,000 employers and 6.7 million workers had benefitted from the RM7.4 billion subsidies that had been disbursed. The PMO later issued a statement on the correct figures.

It said a total of 68,336 e-hailing drivers had received the RM500 cash payment, which amounted to RM34 million. For taxi, express bus and tour bus drivers, the amount disbursed was RM22.2 million for 37,127 recipients. On the wage subsidy figures, a total of RM7.4 billion has been distributed, benefitting 313,000 employers and 2.5 million workers.

Counter Attack

Last week also saw questions on individual companies being single-handedly raised by Tan Sri Noh Omar (Perikatan Nasional [PN]-Tanjong Karang), who sought explanations on decisions made by the previous administration. One of it was on the contentious vote to extend Lynas Malaysia Sdn Bhd’s rare-earths plant licence by three years. The other was on land sales involving TH Plantations Bhd.

To both questions, the respective minister and deputy minister in charge gave a comprehensive account on events that took place under PH rule, raising questions on the decisions made in between, before concluding with hints that some decisions may be reversed.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar made it clear that the renewal of Lynas’ licence and the inclusion of terms to build a locally-based permanent disposal facility for its radioactive wastes by March next year were made by his predecessor.

The decision to renew Lynas’ operating licence last year triggered a backlash from the public, with local residents saying they fear a repeat of the Asia Rare Earth Sdn Bhd disaster in Perak, where cases of birth defects and leukaemia were reported.

On TH Plantations, Deputy Minister in the PM’s Department (Religious Affairs) Ahmad Marzuk Shaary made it a point that the company’s shares in two subsidiaries were being sold to non-Bumiputera Tamaco Plantation Sdn Bhd and that the deal was undervalued.

Former Religious Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mujahid Yusof Rawa (PH-Parit Buntar) defended the decision, citing TH Plantations’ swelling debt, and insisted that Ahmad Marzuk admit to the fact that the companies to be sold are non-profitable.

Ahmad Marzuk said it was not impossible for the PN government to cancel the sale, while alleging that the decision was part of the previous administration’s asset disposal drive.