Are constitutional amendments required for parliamentary sittings?

SPEAKER Azhar Azizan Harun, in an interview with Astro Awani, said: “... [his] legal advisers are of the opinion that the federal constitution needs to be amended to enable virtual sittings”.

Azhar’s legal advisers hold to such a position for the following reasons:

  • “The current constitution says that those who are not present in the House cannot vote” (“presence-to-vote argument”); and
  • “Every time His Majesty the king summons Parliament, His Majesty will issue a proclamation and that proclamation will be gazetted. The proclamation will say the House is hereby summoned to sit from what date to what date… from what time to what time, and thirdly ... venue, and the venue is the House of Parliament. It is physical.” (“location-in-proclamation argument”).

Presence-to-vote argument

The presence-to-vote argument is based on Article 62(5) of the federal constitution, which provides: “Members absent from a House shall not be allowed to vote.”

However, the provision does not necessarily require MPs to be physically present in a parliamentary sitting.

In a virtual parliamentary sitting, the phrase “Members absent from a House” can be construed to mean MPs who fail to attend/are not attending the virtual parliamentary sitting.

These MPs should and would, most definitely, not be allowed to vote.

In view of this, there is no constitutional necessity for both Houses of Parliament to meet in the Parliament building and a virtual parliamentary sitting can be held in the absence of a constitutional amendment.

Location-in-proclamation argument

Azhar is correct in pointing out that a gazetted proclamation regarding a parliamentary sitting usually states the location of the said parliamentary sitting.

For example, the king’s proclamation on February 22, 2018, [P. U (A) 52/2018] states:

“... the first meeting of the sixth session of the 13th Parliament of Malaysia will be held in the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital.”

However, it is important to note the federal constitution does not require the king to appoint the location of a parliamentary sitting.

As such, the location-in-proclamation argument does not hold water and no constitutional amendment is necessary to enable virtual parliamentary sittings to be held.

The gazetted proclamation for a virtual parliamentary sitting can, for example:

  • state that the parliamentary sitting will be “held virtually”;
  • state that the parliamentary sitting will be held “throughout Malaysia”; or
  • be silent on the location of the parliamentary sitting.

On a side note, the Standing Orders of the Dewan Rakyat require the place of the first sitting of the Dewan Rakyat of each session to be stipulated by the king.

As proposed above, the “place” for the parliamentary sitting can be “virtual” and/or “throughout Malaysia.”

In any event, the Standing Orders are not constitutional provisions. Rather, they are procedures created by the Dewan Rakyat pursuant to Article 62(1) of the federal constitution to regulate its own procedures.

As I have argued in the past, “any non-compliance with or breach of the Standing Orders could possibly be dealt with (read: regularised or waived) by the Dewan Rakyat.” – June 2, 2021.

* Joshua Wu reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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