LETTER | G25 welcomes media reports that several commissions under the Prime Minister’s Department will be made independent bodies and that, instead of reporting to the prime minister, they will be required to report directly to Parliament.
We are encouraged by this institutional reform as it marks an important step towards making the commissions free of ministerial control.
When a commission is established, it is equipped with its own legislation which spells out its mandate. Every commission is therefore governed by its own statute which defines its role and responsibilities and since its powers are derived from parliament, it is only right and proper that it should answer to the legislative authority.
The commissions and agencies mentioned in the announcement are the MACC, Election Commission, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), Public Prosecutor’s Office, National Audit Department, Public Services Commission and the Judicial Appointments Commission.
The new government has also pledged that it will carry out parliamentary reforms to strengthen the system of democracy with checks and balances for good governance.
These reforms will include the establishment of select parliamentary committees with powers to oversee the operations of government and investigate matters of wide public concern such as fiscal and monetary policies, budgetary management and the allegations of misconduct or abuse of power among the ministries, departments, and their agencies.
As seen in other mature democracies, the select committees provide an effective means for parliamentarians to keep a close watch on the executive branch of government, namely the cabinet and its ministers, and make them and their top officials transparent and accountable for their policies, especially in spending public funds.
It is a system of checks and balance to make democracy meaningful to the public who voted their members of parliament and the government into office in order to manage the country on their behalf.
In other countries, their parliaments have several select committees, as many as twenty or more with oversight responsibility on the operations of government and all its institutions.
The committees may be established along departmental lines such as on education, health, security, defence or along horizontal lines cutting across all ministries and departments such as economic policy, trade, foreign affairs, and the environment.
The chairs of the committees are elected by the members of parliament and sometimes they may be appointed by the ruling party. In the case of the Parliamentary Audit Committee, the chair is usually from the opposition.
Their parliamentary committees are very powerful in that they can call ministers and their civil servants to appear at their meetings to answer questions on the issues that require high-level explanations.
They may also hold public inquiries to uncover the truth behind a major political scandal such as 1MDB, a surprise project like the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), or an environmental disaster like the red earth controversy in Kuantan.
In Malaysia, many ministries and departments have statutory bodies and government-linked companies (GLCs) which play a developmental role in rural development, education and training and in the commercial, financial and industrial sectors of the economy.
They should also be made answerable to the select committees by requiring them to submit regular reports to Parliament on their annual performance and compelling them to appear before the committee members to explain their activities and the issues raised by the public.
G25 hopes to see parliamentary select committees playing a strong role in examining every legislative bill proposed by the government or by a private member before it is tabled to the full house for debate and voting. This should also include legislative or administrative matters involving race and religion, as violations of human rights and fundamental liberties have a profound impact on national unity, racial harmony and consequently national development.
The committee should closely scrutinise any legislative bill on religion such as RUU355 and the operations of Islamic institutions, in particular the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) and Institute of Islamic Strategic Research (Iksim), in view of the implications on the constitution and rule of law and the large public funds allocated for religious development.
The select committee should consult with experts and community leaders from all races in order to obtain the public view on controversies involving religious controls on our culture, entertainment or freedom of expression.
This consultative process is essential to safeguard the multicultural character of Malaysian life and preserve the country’s reputation as a moderate Muslim-majority country in tune with the modern world.
Parliamentary committees should not just be for letting off steam and a place for elected leaders to play politics.
They should be empowered with real work and equipped with authority to approve the appointments of chairpersons and chief executives of the independent commissions and the statutory agencies under the various ministries. This is to ensure that they are not politically connected and that they are fit and proper to serve the country.
The nominations to fill top positions in the public sector should be open to serving government officers, retirees, the business community or practising professionals, so as to get the most qualified to serve the country irrespective of race and religion.
All nominations including those that come from the prime minister or his ministers should be subject to confirmation hearings under the respective parliamentary committees. This should include the three top appointments in the civil service, considering the important role that civil servants play as advisers and implementors of government policy.
The empowerment of parliamentary committees will strengthen the governance of the country in line with public expectations in the new Malaysia.
G25 is a collective of top Malay Muslim professionals and former civil servants.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.