A missed chance at reforms

It is a pity that the Prihatin Nasional (PN) leadership has withdrawn the proposed constitutional amendment to limit the tenure of the prime minister to two terms. It would have been a step in the right direction to ensure that useless PMs don’t stay beyond two terms and the better ones are succeeded by others who can build on their predecessor’s good work.

Such a limitation is necessary because currently, under the constitution, there is no oversight of a PM. The PM’s position is extremely powerful. In the hands of someone who does not respect the Dewan Rakyat which is entrusted with the mandate of the people, it is open to abuse.

The fact that Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Takiyuddin Hassan, cooly said in response to a question by Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) Bayan Baru MP Sim Tze Tzin that there was no need to state a reason for the withdrawal reveals the level of understanding of PN leaders of the democratic process. The Dewan Rakyat is the place for national debate and a proper answer must always be given so that the people know why. A minister who dismisses a question without giving an explanation shouldn’t be in the Dewan Rakyat. He can’t answer and is not bothered that he can’t!

A two-term limit will ensure that ministers who don’t live up to expectations will have a definite shelf life — not more than two terms!

We can no longer expect a prime minister of the calibre of the first four prime ministers. They were not perfect and they made mistakes but they always put nation first. Instead, we have to come to terms with the fact that self-serving leaders — some mediocre, some even unknowledgeable and incompetent — can become prime ministers and ministers.

To guard the people from such leaders, laws need to be made — if the constitution does not already have them — to proscribe what the prime minister can and can’t do. Amendments need to be introduced so that prime ministers are held accountable, especially to Parliament.

Now that there are a number of political parties realigning themselves into different coalitions, a new coalition may win a general election and the designated prime minister should not be expected to wait to be sworn in. An amendment must be made so that the prime minister is sworn in within a stipulated time period.

If there is a mid-term change of leadership — as it happened when the PN leadership took over the government — there should be laws to ensure that the new prime minister faces a no-confidence vote in the Dewan Rakyat and survives it with a majority before he takes up office.

Right now, the constitution does not clearly state that a no-confidence vote should be held. The prime minister, as the leader of the house, instructs the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat to convene the Dewan Rakyat. If the prime minister is not confident of a majority, he can stall in convening the Dewan Rakyat and a no-confidence vote will be avoided. These were some of the problems that were exposed as the PN leadership took control of the government by the backdoor.

These “loopholes” in the constitution could be resolved if amendments were made so that the Speaker convenes the Dewan Rakyat and introduces the no-confidence vote independent of the prime minister. Constitutional experts have to be called in to study these issues and word the amendments so that a repeat of what has happened will not happen in the future. If it does, recourse to remedy the situation should be available.

Amendments should also be made so that select committees are set up by parliamentarians and the chairpersons elected by the respective committee and not appointed and approved by the prime minister. This would ensure the independence of the committees in choosing members and electing the chairperson.

Another urgently-needed amendment is in ensuring that all elected Members of Parliament are given the same allocation of funds, irrespective of whether they are in the Opposition or not.

The PN leadership, however, can’t be expected to introduce such reforms because then they have to give up power which we can expect they won’t do.

The PH coalition is best suited to introduce such reforms. However, these amendments require a two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat to be passed, which the PH did not have when it was in government.

There was a very small window of opportunity which the PH could have seized to rally support to retake the government and then to introduce these very urgently needed reforms. PH was thinking of a counter-coup with former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad coming back as prime minister for the third time and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, a PH coalition member) president Anwar Ibrahim as the deputy. Non-PH parties such as Gabungan Parti Sarawak apparently were willing to give Tun the support to form a majority. But Anwar was adamant that he didn’t want to be Tun’s deputy and the plan was scuttled.

If it had succeeded, with majority support and more lobbying to get a two-thirds support, some of the above-mentioned reforms could have been introduced and passed.

It was a tragically missed opportunity. Now, we have to wait for new leaders of courage, integrity and determination to emerge to introduce the reforms. We may have to wait for a very long time. I hope I’m proven wrong!

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