Strange logic behind one-day sitting

LIKE many other Malaysians, I am deeply concerned that the government has scheduled just a single-day Parliament sitting on May 18. According to news reports, there will be no motion and debate during this sitting.

I feel compelled to write this as a citizen of Malaysia, out of frustration and anger. More importantly, I want my voice to be heard, as that is exactly what Parliament should be.

On the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) website, there is a useful reference page for us to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way parliaments worldwide work, and which parliaments continue to sit. According to the IPU page, various countries, such as Albania, Angola, Belgium, Bhutan, Croatia, France, Georgia, Indonesia, Monaco, Mongolia, Norway, Uruguay and Venezuela, have taken different measures to continue to have parliamentary sessions.

Many parliaments responded to the pandemic with innovative techniques to ensure their vital functions can continue, sometimes even voting remotely.

Here, opposition parties and civil society groups have called for the government to extend its one-day sitting to at least a week with social-distancing measures, such as suitable seating arrangements and online platforms, in place. For instance, the Malaysian Bar has specifically called on the government to come up with laws in relation to Covid-19.

In a statement by G25, it rightly pointed out that under the conditional movement-control order (CMCO), large sectors of the public have already resumed work, and as such, so should the legislative body. Other groups, such as Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran), Persatuan Promosi Hak Asasi Manusia (Proham), Bersih 2.0 and Global Bersih (GB), too, have demanded for Parliament to extend its sitting to at least a week.

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) have criticised the decision to restrict media access to the one-day sitting only to the state-owned RTM and Bernama.

Responding to this, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Takiyuddin Hassan said the decision on the one-day sitting took into account the government’s stand that mass gatherings are not conducive for the time being. “This is to ensure all MPs are able to take part in the session within the scope of the standard operating procedures set by the Health Ministry.”

In a recent development, Dewan Rakyat Speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof has accepted an emergency motion to decide whether to extend the one-day to eight days. But as of now, we will have one-day sitting, which is absurd and outrageous. We need a longer session for various reasons, especially the pandemic. Every day, we have been receiving different updates from different ministries, and sometimes, they are contradictory, and often, there have been insufficient guidelines for the different sectors.

For instance, in the announcement on the CMCO’s extension to June 9, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Hari Raya visits within the same state will be allowed with a maximum of 20 people in attendance at any one time. The same applies to the Hari Gawai and Hari Kaamatan celebrations. However, the Health Ministry said the rule on 20 visitors is not absolute, and people must take into consideration the size of the home.

Also, while most business sectors are allowed to operate under the CMCO, there remains some, such as entertainment outlets and hair salons, that have yet to get the green light. Thus far, there have been no clear SOPs for some sectors that are still not allowed to operate under the CMCO, and the question of when they will be able to reopen remains.

One sector is childcare. As parents gradually return to work, it poses a challenge for many, as schools have yet to open. So far, the Health Ministry has not made a decision on whether to allow childcare centres to operate, although there have been many requests.

These are all valid concerns by different sectors, and they need an answer. We may have different opinions on whether all business sectors should be allowed to open, when should schools reopen and many other issues. All these warrant being debated in Parliament, so that more comprehensive guidelines and SOPs can be drafted to ensure a smooth “exit strategy”. Decisions on the exit strategy must be made transparently, and this requires parliamentary scrutiny.

We have been calling doctors, nurses, police, the military and so on “frontliners” as they continue to go to work every day to ensure that vital functions are performed. What, then, is stopping Parliament from opting for the same measures?

Companies are able to function using different online platforms. Universities are conducting virtual classes, as are schools and even some kindergartens. So, why can’t Parliament go online, just like many other parliaments around the world?

As rightly mentioned on the Parliament website: “Parliament is the legislative authority for the federation and it enacts laws to be enforced nationwide… Parliament passes federal laws, makes amendments to existing federal laws, examines the government’s policies, approves the government’s expenditures and approves new taxes… Parliament also serves as a forum to discuss matters of public interest.”

This shows us how vital Parliament is, more so during a pandemic, which impacts everyone. Parliament is a place to discuss matters of public interest. To put it simply, Parliament represents the interests of the people and ensures those interests are taken into account. In times of crisis, parliaments have a duty to ensure that all measures taken result in the enhanced protection and support of its citizens.

Without debates, how can we have comprehensive guidelines to represent the people? The current policies are one-sided without constructive scrutiny. Parliament is the place where our voices are represented and debates held. For a response to be both comprehensive and legitimate, Parliament must be ready to hear feedback about what’s working and what isn’t.

We need more, not less, parliamentary scrutiny. A one-day sitting while most business sectors are allowed to resume operations casts Parliament in a bad light.

It is a strange logic. It is a sign of a missing parliamentary democracy, and this should not happen. – May 13, 2020.

* Khoo Ying Hooi is deputy head and senior lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Malaya.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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