Playing nice at the Dewan Rakyat, but is it effective?

Recently, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob commented on how “calm” and “respectful” the Dewan Negara proceedings have become. He attributed it to the MoE signed between his government and Pakatan Harapan (PH). Yes, the Dewan Rakyat has become a tame affair, but how effective is that?

When RSN Rayer (Harapan-Jelutong) asked Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (BN-Bagan Datuk) if he has offshore accounts based in the British Virgin Island as revealed by the Pandora Papers and whether he intends to bring the money back to Malaysia, Zahid gave a lengthy account and said “do not assume that I was trying to run away from being taxed”.

Rayer tried to press the issue but was told by Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun that Zahid did not allow any more interruptions. Zahid then told Rayer that he could discuss this with Zahid in the canteen.

Is it Azhar’s role to speak on behalf of Zahid as if he were the latter’s counsel? As a Speaker his job is to moderate the debate and facilitate an exchanged of arguments no matter how heated the debate becomes. Azhar didn’t do that and instead discouraged the line of questioning by Rayer.

He was “playing nice” but the public are now deprived of an answer to Rayer’s question. We don’t know if Zahid has paid taxes or not. The public have a right to know if Zahid’s account was legally sourced and taxes duly paid. This is of public interest and not a personal matter that can be settled in a canteen. But the Speaker blocked the debate and now the public doesn’t know.

Is this what Ismail means by a calm and respectful Dewan Rakyat? The absence of debate with everyone playing nice by asking polite questions and getting polite answers so that government MPs can get away with whatever they are up to without being pressed further and badgered for an explanation?

In a latter session, PKR president and Port Dickson MP Anwar Ibrahim asked the government to expedite the introduction of reforms as according to the MoE, saying that the progress was “slow and deliberately delayed”. But, there was no response from the government side.

So, the people don’t know if the government is serious about fulfilling its end of the MoE or whether PH has been played.

What kind of Dewan Rakyat is this? There is no sensible and intelligent debate. No understanding of how MPs operate — sometimes belligerently when the interests of their constituents are at stake and they angrily demand explanations. Govt MPs should not feel cowed when a confident query is made. That’s part of the debate. They should respond with equal confidence. If they are unable then it’s time they learn and acquire the skills for public debate and rise up to the challenge, not protect themselves with rules and a pact!

The Dewan Rakyat is not a press conference where the government presents its information and then seeks polite questions. Pressing a point with more questions and demanding explanations are the rights of an MP. That’s how checks and balances are executed — not through polite questions and answers as in a press conference.

It’s no wonder that the DAP’s Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh questioned in the Dewan Rakyat if Parliament was now a reading class. “This is a reading class, right? All (the ministers and deputies) came here to read,” she said in reference to government MPs who were reading their answers from prepared scripts.

What has the Dewan Rakyat achieved from playing nice? Zilch. The public is still in the dark about what the current government does.

Government MPs should start practising the art of public debate and stop expecting everyone else to play nice so that their lacks are not exposed and they can remain in government unopposed.

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