In this webinar, Professor Wong Chin Huat discussed Malaysia’s parliamentary structure, which in recent times have seen MPs change their party affiliation in order to climb the hierarchy.
MALAYSIA STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Monday, 26 April 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Professor Wong Chin Huat to deliver a webinar on the “Malaysia’s Post-2018 Parliament: from “rubber stamp” to “frog exchange””. Prof Wong is a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development. Trained at the University of Essex, he specialises in political institutions, covering parliamentary democracy, electoral systems and decentralisation. He advises the Coalition for Clean and Fair Election (Bersih 2.0) and formerly served in the Malaysian Government’s Electoral Reform Committee.
In his presentation, Professor Wong Chin Huat spoke about two structural issues that affect Malaysia’s parliament. First, the propensity for members of parliament (MP) to cross the floor at critical junctures, which contributes to political instability and could potentially violate the pact between voters and their elected representatives. Second, the lack of rigorous and technical debate on policy issues.
Prof Wong began with an overview of the functions which a parliament should fulfil under the Westminster system. Members of Parliament are given the responsibility to legislate bills and pass budgets, while overseeing the executive (i.e. cabinet). Parliament is therefore the venue where MPs – elected representatives of the rakyat – perform checks and balances on the ruling party.
Prof Wong argued that the Malaysian parliament merely “rubber stamps” the decisions made by the executive branch of the then-Barisan Nasional (BN) government prior to 2018. With the duration of parliament sitting lasting for two months on average in each year, coupled with the absence of Parliament Select Committees (PSC), most government bills were passed without much debate or scrutiny. Unlike other Westminster systems where political parties compete by offering differing policy proposals, Prof Wong argued that Malaysian politics is organised along the lines of communalism and clientelism. Politicians outcompete their rivals by championing for the exclusive interests of a single ethnic group, while simultaneously offering direct assistance to their constituents to secure their electoral advantage. MPs from the ruling party possess huge material advantages compared to their counterparts on the opposition benches, as the former have access to Constituency Developmental Funds (CDF) and can shape the allocation of public expenditure. As MPs engage in a competition for governmental positions (ministerial portfolios for instance), policymaking takes a back seat. Prior to 2018, only 38% of MPs (mostly BN MPs) were tasked with responsibilities concerning the cabinet portfolio or formulation and scrutiny of parliamentary bills.
Prof Wong highlighted that under Pakatan Harapan’s rule, the coalition achieved some (though limited) success in pursuing parliamentary reforms. The creation of Select Committees provided opportunities for backbench MPs to participate in the drafting and scrutinising of governmental bills, and the composition of the Committees was intentionally bipartisan. However, Pakatan Harapan (PH) failed to resolve the unequal allocation of CDF. Consequently, opposition MPs merely received a fraction of the amount allocated to government MPs. This structure created a powerful incentive for opposition MPs to seek to return to power.
The PH administration collapsed in February 2020 as numerous MPs defected, while Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia simultaneously withdrew from the PH coalition. Under the present Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration, the same incentives have encouraged numerous PH MPs to defect and throw their support behind the Muhyiddin Yassin administration. In addition, most backbencher PN MPs are appointed as Chairmen or top executives of Government-linked Corporations (GLC), which constitute an additional source of income.
Prof Wong shared that MPs are expected by their constituents to provide direct assistance and benefits, especially in rural and semi-urban constituencies. CDF and GLC salaries are therefore necessary sources of funding for MPs to fulfil such roles. In contrast, party hopping is generally not perceived by the electorate as unethical. In the 2020 Sabah state election, which was triggered after state assembly-members defected en mass from PH plus coalition, more than half of those who switched their political allegiance successfully defended their seats.
Prof Wong concluded his presentation by stating that rampant party hopping has resulted in unprecedented intra-party fragmentation, coupled with perceived legal immunity for PN MPs with allegations of “double standards” in terms of COVID-related safe distancing and quarantine measures. Instead of condemning politicians who switch their party allegiances, Prof Wong argued that the focus should be on reforming the system by equalising the provision of CDF and other governmental expenditure.
In the question-and-answer session, Prof Wong addressed topics relating to the effectiveness of anti-hopping laws, the formation of coalitions, and recall elections. He argued that recall elections could constitute one partial means to curtail unwanted party-hopping. Recall elections could be initiated against any sitting elected representative following a suitably large petition from the constituency – regardless of whether they cross the floor. This would not violate the constitutional provision on the right to free assembly, but would empower voters to remove their unresponsive representatives and weaken the power of party bosses. The webinar attracted a large turnout of 120 participants from Singapore and abroad.