• Parliamentary reform crucial, not just a salary increase

    Parliamentary reform crucial, not just a salary increase
    It’s time to look at overhauling the whole process instead of focusing on a pay hike. 

    How much should Malaysian Members of Parliament (MP) get paid? What would be a ‘fair’ amount of compensation? Should a comparable baseline be the salaries of MPs in other countries, top civil servants in Malaysia or senior management/CEOs in private companies in the country? Will paying our MPs more decrease the incentives for corruption? Will higher pay attract more talent into politics? Some of these questions have been discussed as a result of the pay hike for the legislators, speaker, exco and the Mentri Besar of Selangor. No doubt these questions will be raised again when the MPs’ salaries are revised in the March parliamentary sitting next year.

    While these questions are important and pertinent, they miss the larger issue of which the pay of MPs is but a small part. The larger issue is that of the role of the Malaysian parliament and how the MPs fit into this larger role. In other words, the pay of MPs cannot be divorced from a larger discussion on parliamentary reform.

    While the goings-on in parliament may put many to sleep (except for the occasions which involve paper tearing, walk-outs and heated shouting matches), one cannot have a serious discussion about the pay of MPs without evaluating what these MPs actually do in parliament and what needs to be changed.

    The final and longest parliamentary session of the year has just concluded. This session lasted approximately two months. The proceedings were regularly extended until after 8pm to allow a sufficient number of MPs to debate the budget at the policy level as well as at the ministry level and also to allow the minister time to reply. Even then, many MPs were left out of the debate because of the lack of time. Furthermore, not all MPs who participated in the debates were in parliament when the minister (or more likely his or her deputy) replied.

    As a first term parliamentarian, this seems like a very inefficient use of time. It would be much more effective if more in-depth debates could be held in parliamentary select committees to oversee the various ministries. Each MP would be allocated as least one parliamentary select committee. This would allow individual MPs to pick an area, which he has expertise in or wants to develop an
    expertise in. Co-chairs of these select committees can be appointed – one from BN and another from PR. This would also have the benefit of ‘forcing’ Pakatan to pick its ‘shadow’ cabinet by choosing the chair of each select committee from among its existing MPs.

    Having these select committees can also help the government avoid proposing bills which have not been properly thought through and then suffer the humility of having to withdraw them as a result of a public backlash such as the Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013 which involved a section on the conversion of minors. In the recently concluded sitting, six Bills that had to do with internal security were also withdrawn in order to seek more feedback. If these Bills had been debated by a select committee, the sections that needed amendments could have been revised before the Bills were tabled in parliament.

    Establishing these select committees is only part of the process of making MPs more accountable to the public, especially to their voters. An MP that is part of a select committee will have fewer excuses not to make their voice heard on issues of importance to the ministry overseen by this committee. To increase accountability, the proceedings of each select committee should be televised live either on TV or via the Internet so that the public can evaluate the ‘performance’ of each MP in each select committee.

    Right now, for example, no one knows what questions are being asked in the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the answers given by those who have been called up for questioning. I recently found out that MPs who are not part of the PAC are not allowed to attend these sessions. This is ludicrous and unacceptable. This session (and others) should be broadcast live for the sake of public interest.

    To help MPs prepare for parliamentary sittings including the select committee hearings, research assistants are needed. I can testify that my debate speeches have more relevant content when I rely on the help of my parliamentary assistant. Most parliaments in developed countries allocate funding for their legislators to hire research assistants. Many MPs in Malaysia would be happy to reach this sort of funding in lieu of salary increases since it will allow them to hire better quality assistants at a more competitive pay.

    Ensuring that each MP receives an allocation for constituency servicing would also free up the time for MPs to focus on their parliamentary duties, especially for the Pakatan MPs who currently do not receive a single sen from the federal government in terms of constituency allocation.

    Parliamentary reform is about making our parliament more effective and efficient. By establishing parliamentary select committees to oversee each ministry, the expertise of individual MPs can be enhanced as well as the quality of questions being asked. Our ministers and their deputies will also have to perform better, especially if these sessions are being broadcast live. This way, the main parliamentary sessions can be freed up to discuss other issues of national importance, which currently are not even allowed because of time constraints.

    Allocation for research assistants and constituency servicing will go a long way in helping an MP to be more effective, especially in terms of his responsibilities in parliament. By focusing only on an MP’s pay, we lose sight of the larger challenge – which is that of parliamentary reform.

    This article was published in The Star (online version only)

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