Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh
WHEN Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh was Dewan Negara president, the upper house of parliament started regaining just a little bit of its clout as a check and balance to executive power. In 2005, for example, senators resisted just being a rubber stamp for the controversial amendments to the Islamic Family Law (Amendment) Bill. As head of the senate, Hamid has also openly criticised his own party members, calling them “hooligans” for bad behavior in Parliament.
The veteran Umno politician served long and hard as both a Member of Parliament and Perlis menteri besar before taking on the mantle of Dewan Negara president in 2003. He retired on 6 July 2009 after 31 years in politics.
In this final of a two-part exclusive interview with The Nut Graph on 23 July 2009 in Kuala Lumpur, the 65-year-old talks about the need to differentiate between party and government. He also candidly evaluates Umno’s performance as the most dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
TNG: Do you think it [the overconcentration of power in the executive] is also compounded by the fact that in this country, people have been unable to differentiate between party and government?
Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh: Correct…. Ah, now coming back to my regrets. That has been my lifetime disappointment in my involvement with Umno, in my involvement with my colleagues at state and federal level, in my involvement with the civil service. Some people find it convenient to attack Barisan Nasional, and Barisan Nasional gets the blame.
So it works both ways. It’s the party and the civil service.
[Well], Tun Abdullah was from a civil service background….
What other reforms or measures do you think would help strengthen the upper and lower houses of Parliament, to make it more transparent and accountable?
The structure as it is today, the structure which people are dissatisfied with, is really locked into the constitution. In many ways, quietly, every time [the Barisan Nasional] amended the constitution, they actually reformed the system. With consent or without consent, by deceit or silap mata. People wanted reform, but every time the constitution was amended it was reformed in the operation of the rule of law, and it was defective. Until [after] doing too much, there was anger and discontent, and people acted out of this vague awareness, and the result was March 2008.
We must have one of the most amended constitutions among all Commonwealth countries.
Which is why [other] people don’t tamper with constitutions.
You have said you wanted take on this responsibility as Senate President because you wanted to go one step further, to be above your party.
It relates to what you said earlier, that people are confused between what is government and what is Barisan Nasional. Between what is party and what is country. Somehow it has got to that stage, where 50 years of dominance by one single party, that [this] has been the mindset — Malaysia is Barisan Nasional, Barisan Nasional is Malaysia. There has been a cynical exploitation of this inability to make a difference. There is certainly a need for thinking citizens, for the majority of citizens in fact, to always preserve that dichotomy [between] country and political affiliation.
But as a party with the plurality of seats in the Dewan Rakyat, do you think it is incumbent on Umno to do anything? It is a bit of an obvious question, but what can Umno do to make sure that this should be the dichotomy?
For a start, whereas leaders found it convenient to make the two equivalent, people have to be educated. Either through reading, through frequent repetition, or through sheer propaganda. I mean, you can do propaganda for a good cause …
It becomes public education.
You said it. In terms of public education, what is the proportion of Malaysians who are aware of what a democracy really is, what a two-party system really is?
People depend a lot on the media for their public and political education, and sometimes I must say the media doesn’t live up to this role to educate.
I have one example of a senior officer addressing some correspondence [to] “Parlimen, Jabatan Perdana Menteri”. I was flabbergasted!
(Laughs) The fellow doesn’t know who is the [parent] and who is the [child]!
Elections for Dewan Negara
Do you think reforms in Parliament can only go so far if Senators remain unelected? Should we introduce elections for the upper house?
I think so. I think for the sake of the country, the provision in the constitution should now be invoked. But it might not work favourably for Barisan Nasional.
So you’re saying the provision is there.
Yes, but it has not been invoked. Possibly because of the perception that it might not work favourably for the ruling party. Because then you would not only have opposition in the Dewan Rakyat, you would have opposition in the Senate as well.
But if the Barisan Nasional remains stubborn in not introducing these elections, it could lose the lower house wholesale in the next general election.
It could, it could not, depending on how the electorate changes.
In Japan they elect both houses, [and] the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) looks like it’s on the way out.
[It also happened to the] Congress Party [in India]. What makes the Barisan Nasional so special that it can defy the forces of history [that affect] the Congress Party, the LDP …
The Kuomintang [in Taiwan].
Denial in Umno
But as someone who’s in the party, do you think it’s denial, or do you think it’s a lack of awareness that Umno or the BN refuses to see this?
At the lower level, it’s a lack of awareness. At the higher level, it is denial. And for a small majority, it’s just cynical assertion for the sake of power.
When you were President of Dewan Negara, when the Umno Youth accosted Karpal Singh in Parliament, you used the word “hooligans” to describe them. And you were one of the few Umno leaders who said that fresh elections in Perak are necessary. But do you think people in your party actually listen to people like you?
Frankly, I didn’t expect anybody to listen. But those instances that you quoted were examples of calculated, deliberate, maybe feeble, but individual attempts to contribute by trying to jolt the system. To get out of that denial. In private conversation, it is said very often. But once in a while, I make calculated attempts to provoke thought publicly.
But it was appreciated by many, even though your statements were not played up very much.
That proves they had substance!
What happened to the more engaging and more democratic-minded leaders in Umno, such as yourself, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, and Tun Musa Hitam? Datuk Zaid Ibrahim got sacked, and then joined Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
Events. And I have answered your question — that the majority of Umno is not interested in listening.
Do you think Umno can ever get it back, to have this caliber of leaders?
If they could get it back, they would have appreciated Tun Abdullah‘s leadership, instead of blaming him for the (post-March 2008) debacle. But because of this Umno-knows-best and Umno-knows-everything psyche, Tun Abdullah’s letting things come to the surface was not appreciated as a positive contribution to Malaysia, but it was seen as a negative contribution to Barisan Nasional. Doesn’t this prove your Barisan Nasional-Malaysia thing?
I might be wrong, but the frustration with Tun Abdullah wasn’t that people didn’t think he wasn’t a good person, but that he wasn’t assertive enough.
Because if he had been assertive, he would have asserted the old ways. And so, he didn’t assert the opposite, but he just let it come to the surface. If he had been an assertive person, he might have been asserting along misguided ways. You can be assertive in misguided ways.
Checking power in Malaysia