Part 3 on Malaysian Parliament, 9 March – 9 April 2015 session: On anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more. Q&A with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 11 April 2015.
Q. People are angry with opposition MPs who did not turn up for the vote. What is your opinion on this?
Every MP is responsible for his/her own action, or in this case absence. They should face their constituents on this matter – their constituents have a right to question them and to know the truth. I got a lot of calls from reporters asking me to state who were absent. I got many postings on facebook asking me to reveal the absentees. I also got hammered for no reason too.
I did not keep a list but I know for certain about the presence or absence of those seated near me. Some of the lists being circulated on the internet are clearly wrong. Raja Bahrin of Kuala Trengganu was definitely there for the vote and throughout was instrumental in the POTA fight.
Some lists reflect who were there for the day but in fact were missing for the actual vote. Only Parliament records can confirm the vote list. I wouldn’t venture to make a list from my memory but I will vouch for those seated near me.
Q. Were they properly alerted to these crucial matters (POTA and Sedition Act amendment), so they could come back to vote?
Yes, we have a dedicated WhatsApp group for Pakatan Rakyat MPs. So, they would have received notices. The Chief Whips would have also SMS-ed them. For those overseas or outside KL, they probably could not come back in time to vote.
Q. But why not rush back? Why even be outstation or overseas in the first place? The POTA bill were on your desks a week beforehand. Don’t all MPs plan to be at all the Parliamentary sittings? How many days do you have each year for this?
Look, I cannot speak on behalf of those absent. Whatever reasons they have for being outstation or overseas they need to answer to their own constituents. We are in Parliament for roughly 80 to 90 working days a year, divided into three sessions.
Q. Your observation – what are typical reasons for being missing from their seat in Parliament (other than being sick)?
They may have important “official engagements”, who knows? That’s the most overused excuse. It’s a bit like “melawat sambil belajar” (a study trip). But I don’t believe anyone had official engagements at 2.30 am. I believe Parliament must be a priority, especially so when debating legislations. During question time and less significant policy level debates, you can arguably take some time off. These events are when ministers answer your questions. In most cases, the ministers actually try very hard not to answer your questions.
However, you should never ever be absent when legislations are tabled, especially so involving crucial legislations such as POTA and the Sedition Act. My own practice is to decline any invitations when Parliament sits. I enjoy my Parliamentary work with fellow MPs and at this time, I am quite happy to leave my staff, who are very competent in helping with all the sundry complaints of potholes and clogged drains.
Even during legislative work, of course, you cannot sit there in your chair every second of the sitting. It is common to sometimes take an hour or two off during a full day’s legislative sitting especially if you’re not scheduled for debate or not an expert on a particular subject. Most will hang out at the Parliamentarian’s lounge or head out for a meal as the food in Parliament can be quite awful. Importantly, we also have out of chamber things to do like discussions with others MPs, working with our researchers, drafting and so forth. But all these activities should be done in premises of Parliament.
For instance, when I debated on the Securities Commission Act amendment, a somewhat specialised matter, a lot of MPs took breaks and the hall was three-quarters empty. But MPs should always be nearby, to rush back to vote. It is practice for MPs who want to push the matter to a vote, to give other MPs at least one hour’s notice beforehand. When the vote comes, there is a two minutes warning by a bell to alert MPs back into the chamber.
Q. You clearly have no answer for your missing brethren. OK, so, how can the opposition ever defeat a contentious UMNO/BN bill?
That’s not quite fair. But I can understand people’s frustrations.
How can you defeat a legislation? You can never defeat the UMNO-BN administration in a straight vote as they have 60% of the seats in Parliament. They only need 51% to pass any legislation. They need 66% to amend the constitution, which is why they are stuck on the issue of electoral boundary redelineation.
There are basically three key ways to defeat a bill. One, is to win BN backbenchers over to go against the Najib administration. This very rare event happened last November last year, when the BN backbenchers asked the government to withdraw the bill on MP's pay. They regarded Najib’s proposed pay rise as insufficient, since it was lower than the pay of a state assemblyman. Many backbenchers were furious and as such Najib had to withdraw the bill.
Second, is to get external people to pressure the government. For instance, last year, in the investment panel issue, I provided information to the media, rating agencies, academics and the business community on Najib’s bill. They in turn pressured Najib to drop his plan for an investment panel within the income tax department. So we achieved a positive result. The contentious investment panel clause was removed. Many regarded it as an unusual and dubious thing. My office and I worked very hard on this issue.
Third, is to convince the Speaker that the Najib administration has failed to follow procedures of the Standing Order, hence the bill cannot procedurally, be tabled. We tried the third move on the Sedition Act amendments but the Speaker rejected Gobind’s sub judice argument and instead supported the Najib administration.
Q. What other important bills were there in this sitting?
In addition to POTA and the Sedition Act amendments, there were two other significant bills presented to us during the sitting: the KWAP bill deals with the civil servants' pension fund; and the bill on the creation of a Malaysian Aviation Commission.
These two bills saw the consolidation of the Prime Minister’s powers. He will have a lot of influence over the decisions that these two bodies make. In the KWAP bill, the Bank Negara Malaysia (central bank) representative was removed from KWAP board for reasons unknown. The type of investments KWAP could make, was broadened to include derivatives and unlisted entities (these offer less transparency).
In the Aviation Commission bill, which decides on licensing for the operation of airlines, ground maintenance and aerodromes (in my estimation a RM 20 billion industry since Air Asia is valued at RM 6 billion and MAS at RM 4 billion). The commission allows for nine members on the board, with one appointed by the Ministry of Transport and the other eight appointed by the Prime Minister. Najib has powers to decide everything about the Board including selection of its members, their remuneration and their sacking.
Q. It’s been a long interview, any last words?
Many people feel a loss of hope as they see all the odd things happenings at the top. Some people grow used to these abuses by UMNO BN and now believe there is no other way. When several Pakatan MPs failed to do their job in Parliament, it compounds that sense of hopelessness.
Many are already upset with the stagnant economy and the fall of the Ringgit. GST comes along. Then draconian laws passed in Parliament. It is all very sad and sickening. People keep asking how much lower we can go. People even stop me on the street to ask if they should leave Malaysia for good. I just shrug and then say we must stay and we must continue our fight for democracy.