Penang backbenchers free to raise issues. That’s a healthy sign

There will, essentially, be no whip for the backbenchers in the present state assembly 

THE DAP, a 58-year-old political party, is cracking open the democratic window for its elected lawmakers in Penang. The party, which is leading the state government under the unity government, has promised state assemblymen that they can raise any issue on the floor, without fearing sanction. 

In a speech at the DAP Penang state convention, DAP secretary-general Anthony Loke said there will, essentially, be no whip for the backbenchers in the present state assembly. 

Lawmakers from DAP and other parties shoring up the current state government, helmed by Chief Minister (CM) Chow Kon Yeow, are free to speak up and raise any issue they deem fit. 

“If you want to know about an issue, ask. If you want to debate an issue, go ahead. Saudara Chow has given me the commitment that he is prepared to answer any questions,” Like told the assembly. 

It is understood that the ruling coalition running the Penang state government — made up of Pakatan Harapan (PN) and Barisan Nasional (BN) lawmakers — has yet to appoint a whip. 

In the Westminster parliamentary system, which Malaysia adopts, a whip is an MP or a state assemblyman who is sort of the leader of the backbenchers. 

The whips are appointed by each party in Parliament to help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business. One of their responsibilities is making sure the maximum number of their party members vote, and vote the way their party wants, according to the UK Parliament website. 

What else do they do? 

Whips frequently act as tellers (counting votes in divisions). They also manage the pairing system whereby members of opposing parties both agree not to vote when other business (such as a select committee visit) prevents them from being present at Westminster, it added. 

In Britain, it added that whips are also largely responsible (together with the Leader of the House in the Commons) for arranging the business of Parliament. In this role they are frequently referred to as ‘”the usual channels”. 

Some of those roles are similar to the Malaysian Parliament and state assemblies. 

Of course, DAP is doing this from a position of strength. All the more so after cruising in the previous state assembly with a supermajority. 

Penang went to the polls on Aug 12, 2023, along with Selangor, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. In the 15th Penang state election, the PH-BN combo won 29 seats while Perikatan Nasional (PN) won 11 seats. 

Of the 40 seats PH and BN contested, DAP contested 19, PKR contested 13, Parti Amanah Negara contested two and BN, six. DAP made a clean sweep, while PKR, Pari Amanah Negara and BN won seven, one and two seats, respectively. 

For PN, of the 40 seats it contested, Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia contested 19, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia contested 11 and Pas, 10. Gerakan lost all the seats it contested, while Bersatu and Pas won five and six seats respectively. 

So, that’s the makeup of the floor at the moment. 

In the 2018 state elections, held alongside the general election at the federal level, PH romped home by winning 37 out of the 40 state seats, easily one of its finest performances ever. DAP contributed the lion’s share with 19 seats, with fellow coalition members PKR contributing a handsome 12 seats and Amanah two seats. This gave them a supermajority in the state assembly. 

In the three earlier state polls, BN won 38 seats (Umno 14, Gerakan 13, MCA nine and MIC two) in 2004. In 2008, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) emerged victorious with 29 seats (DAP 19, PKR nine and PAS one), while BN secured 11 seats, all of them won by Umno. 

In 2013, PR once again captured the state, winning 30 seats (DAP 19, PKR 10 and PAS one), while BN got 10 seats, again all coming via Umno. For the second straight state polls, BN components Gerakan, MCA and MIC had been wiped out. 

“We have allowed backbenchers room to debate openly for some time now,” said Penang CM II Jagdeep Singh Deo, who happened to be the first PR whip in Penang when DAP and the coalition wrested the state from BN for the first time.

But with power comes responsibility.

Penang lawmakers must now make good of the laudable move allowing them to openly raise issues by addressing matters close to the heart of the people of Penang. Ensuring Penang continues to up the game on the economic front will be a key challenge. 

Ensuring the Malay voice is heard, and seen to be heard, is equally vital. “The Malays are now the single largest majority ethnic in Penang,” Datuk Muhammad Farid Saad, a three-term Umno assemblyman from Penang’s Pulau Betong, dislodged in the 2018 political tsunami, told me when I spoke to him a few months before the 2023 state elections. 

This is a real concern. In the 2013 polls, PN won all 11 Malay-majority seats. They also took home three under the Permatang Pauh parliamentary constituency — Seberang Jaya, Permatang Pasir and Penanti — once a fortress for the family of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. 

It was also good to hear DAP’s Loke raising the alarm against corruption. 

“If it is proven that any officer or any party is involved in an integrity issue or lapses in governance issue, action will be taken to ensure the good name of the state government is not tarnished,” he said. 

Let’s hope this threat will translate into action. 

  • Habhajan Singh is the corporate editor at The Malaysian Reserve. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition