THE Dewan Negara, or Senate, has long been perceived as a “rubber stamp” of the Dewan Rakyat or Lower House in Malaysia. In a Westminster parliamentary democracy, the Senate is meant to provide checks and balances on the Lower House. Indeed, healthy democracies thrive because of checks and balances.
That the Dewan Negara in Malaysia has ceased to play that role effectively is cause for concern. At least one senator, Dr Syed Husin Ali, wants to see the Dewan Negara strengthened. Six months after his December 2009 appointment, Syed Husin, who is also Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) deputy president, launched a campaign to reform the Senate. He is, of course, not the only citizen with such concerns.
Syed Husin and civil society groups have a host of measures they would like implemented. What are they? How will these measures make a difference, and will they gain any traction?
Role of the Senate
Senators are responsible for scrutinising and debating bills that have been vetted by the Dewan Rakyat before they can be passed as law. The Upper House in other democracies such as the US and Australia wield considerable power. In Australia, for example, the Upper House can block legislation originating from the Lower House.
In Malaysia, the Senate cannot veto any bill passed by the Dewan Rakyat. However, Syed Husin explains that the Dewan Negara can amend or delay the passage of ill-considered legislation. But this has happened so rarely that headlines were made when women senators vehemently opposed controversial amendments to the Islamic Family Law in 2005. Eventually, these women senators were compelled by the party whip to vote for the bill.
“Once, 15 bills were passed in the Senate in two days,” Syed Husin adds in a phone interview with The Nut Graph on 2 June.
“We need to revive the Senate and make it more effective,” he concludes.
Syed Husin also points out that according to Article 45(2) of the Federal Constitution, appointed senators are supposed to be distinguished in public service or their profession, or represent racial minorities and indigenous peoples.
Today, he notes, the Senate has instead become “the ‘back door’ for politicians who have lost in the general elections to be made ministers or deputies”. In Malaysia, only a member of the Dewan Rakyat or Dewan Negara can be appointed to the cabinet.
Syed Husin cites the example of Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, who lost in the 2008 general election but was appointed a senator and a cabinet member later. Umno Wanita chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and former MCA Wanita chief Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun were also appointed as the Women, Family and Community Development Minister and Deputy Minister in the same way.
In Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1 June cabinet reshuffle, three politicians – People’s Progressive Party (PPP) senior vice-president Datuk Maglin Dennis D’Cruz, and MCA vice-presidents Datuk Donald Lim Siang Chai and Gan Ping Sieu – were sworn in as senators after their appointments as deputy ministers were announced.
- A Kohilan Pillay (Gerakan) – Deputy Foreign Minister
- Datuk Dr Awang Adek Hussin (Umno) – Deputy Finance Minister
- Datuk Donald Lim Siang Chai (MCA) – Deputy Finance Minister
- Gan Ping Sieu (MCA) – Deputy Youth and Sports Minister
- Heng Seai Kie (MCA) – Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister
- Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom (Umno) – Minister in the Prime Minister (PM)’s Department
- Datuk Maglin Dennis D’Cruz (PPP) – Deputy Information, Communications and Culture Minister
- Datuk Maznah Mazlan (Umno) – Deputy Human Resources Minister
- Datuk T Murugiah (PPP) – Deputy Minister in the PM’s Department
- Datuk Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin (Umno) – Federal Territories and Urban Well-being Minister
- Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil (Umno) – Women, Family and Community Development Minister
- Datuk G Palanivel (MIC) – Deputy Plantation, Industries and Commodities Minister
- Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon (Gerakan) – Minister in the PM’s Department
BN senators who are also ministers or deputy ministers
Apart from these political appointments, the Senate has also become overgrown with appointed members. Originally, there were more state-elected senators, Syed Husin says.
Currently, 44 out of the 70 senators are appointed by the Agong on the prime minister’s advice. They outnumber the 26 senators who are elected from the 13 state assemblies.
“There should be a balance between federal and state interests in the Senate, as recommended by the Reid Commission (the independent commission that drafted the Malaysian constitution),” argues Syed Husin.
“Direct election is the best way to reform the Dewan Negara,” says Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh, who was Senate president from 2003 to 2009.
The Umno veteran points out that Article 45(4) of the Federal Constitution provides for the direct election of senatorial seats allocated for states. The clause also allows the number of appointed members to be decreased or abolished.
“It’s in the book, we don’t even have to amend the constitution. We just need Parliament to pass a bill,” says Abdul Hamid in a phone interview.
Syed Husin agrees on the need for elections. One of his proposed measures in strengthening the Senate is to let professional groups and minorities like the Orang Asli elect their own representative. This would be an interim measure, he says, until a mechanism is devised that enables these groups to ably compete in direct elections.
Syed Husin is also proposing that the number of senators who represent state interest be increased from two per state to three, as constitutionally provided for.
He suggests that this third state senator should be elected, while the other two remain appointed. Additionally, positions in the Senate that are not allocated for professional or minority groups should be elected positions, not appointed. He says this would be an interim measure until full elections can be held for the Senate.
Political scientist and The Nut Graph columnist Wong Chin Huat agrees that all senators should be elected, but by using a party list–proportional representation system. This system would ensure that a party is able to secure seats in proportion to the amount of popular votes it has garnered. The current system, where a simple majority suffices to secure a seat, has resulted in parties winning a number of seats that are disproportionate to its popular votes.
A report, Transforming the Nation: A 20-Year Plan of Action for Malaysia, has also recommended that all states be given at least three seats in the Senate. The report suggests that more populous states like Selangor may be given additional seats, on the condition that they remain under-represented.
“This is to check the power of larger states,” Wong, who is one of the report’s drafters, explains. The document was written by academics with input from grassroots leaders.
The document also recommended that Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan should in total hold at least one third of the seats in the Senate. That way, East Malaysians can veto any constitutional amendments that affect their interests.
“Meanwhile, the over-representation of East Malaysians in the Lower House now may be reduced as part of a package solution,” Wong adds.
Additionally, the document proposes to allocate three seats to Orang Asli voters, and one seat each to Eurasian and Thai Malaysians in the Senate. “There is no way these minorities can swing the vote in a statewide election, and we need senators who will speak out for them,” Wong says.
Despite these recommendations, Syed Husin admits that reforming the Senate is going to be an uphill task. For now, he is just trying to popularise the idea of reform among voters. Whether or not Senate reform occurs will depend on just how much traction these ideas gain in years to come.
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