The change in government in Malaysia which took place in February 2020 was painful for many reasons. For one, it overturned the mandate given by the voters to Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the 14th General Election. It was also a major setback for democracy in the country as many of the reforms initiated by the PH government will likely be ignored or even reversed under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government. Personally, it was painful to see former colleagues whom we campaigned with during the 14th GE and who stood with us against the kleptocratic BN government now sitting on the other side with some of the very people they vehemently criticized before.
But one may say that those who betrayed PH were politicians who were largely looking after their own personal interests. We could still rely on the non-politicians, technocrats, and activists who were appointed by the PH government and could not be easily removed by the PN government. Or so we thought. The decision by Azhar bin Azizan @ Harun, better known as Art Harun, to accept the appointment as the new speaker for the Dewan Rakyat shocked many of the PH MPs. I am sure that many of Art’s friends were also shocked by this. Let me explain in detail why many of us were shocked by this decision.
Firstly, Art, before accepting the nomination as Speaker for the Dewan Rakyat, was occupying a very important position which is the chairman of the Election Commission (EC). The independence of the EC Chairman is even more important given the high likelihood of a general election in the near future and also the upcoming Sarawak state elections. The members of the Election Commission, which includes the chairman, cannot be easily removed by the PN government. It is stated very clearly in the Federal Constitution under Article 114 (3) that a member of the EC “shall not be removed from office except on the like grounds and in the like manner as a judge of the Federal Court”. Art did not have to step down just because he was requested to step down by the Prime Minister. It is noteworthy that to date, NONE of the other members of the Election Commission have announced their resignation.
The Prime Minister probably knows that he needs a more compliant EC chairman when facing the 15th General Elections. He also probably knows that it would not be easy to replace an EC chairman. Hence, the offer for the Dewan Rakyat speakership to entice Art to step down as the EC chairman.
Art DID NOT have to accept this offer by the Prime Minister. He had already carried out some positive reforms in the EC such as allowing NGOs to be appointed as election observers during the by-elections which took place after GE14 and to allow political parties to once again appoint Assistant Registrars to help with voter registration. There are still many outstanding reforms to be carried out by the EC including ensuring automatic voter registration and implementing the lowering of the voting age to 18 years old. From a check and balance on the PN administration standpoint, Art could have played a much more effective role as the EC chairman compared to the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat.
By accepting the nomination for the position of the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, he is allowing the following to take place:
(i) To show his implicit support for the PN government since it is the PN MPs who would vote out the PH appointed speaker, Tan Sri Ariff, and vote in Art as the new speaker
(ii) To show his implicit support for the process of removing Tan Sri Ariff as the speaker, which is unprecedented in Malaysian parliamentary history since Tan Sri Ariff had not resigned or done anything to disqualify himself for the position of the speaker 2
(iii) To allow someone who is less committed to the process of electoral reform to become the new EC chairman
Art Harun’s defenders may say that he accepted the nomination because he could be a ‘better’ and ‘fairer’ speaker than someone else which could have been proposed by the Prime Minister. This remains to be seen. He was a day late in asking the MP from Baling, who is well known for making sexist and derogatory remarks in parliament, to apologize and retract his calling of the MP for Batu Kawan ‘gelap’ (dark) and asking her to put on some ‘bedak’ (talcum powder). The reality is that he was put in his position by the PN government and the PN MPs and he cannot go too much against those whom he is beholden to. (If PN can unseat a speaker without due cause, they can move a motion to replace Art if he is seen as overly independent and impartial) The fact that one of the first acts is a speaker was to kick out the MP for Shah Alam may be a sign of things to come…
In addition, whatever further reforms which he may want to initiate or implement would be stymied by the PN government and their leaders. The last thing which the PN governments want is a more accountable parliament. Art would be lucky if he can prevent many of the reforms introduced by the former speaker and supported by the PH government from being reversed by the PN government. Introducing new parliamentary reforms that would be supported by the PN government is very unlikely.
It was very disheartening and disappointing to hear Art Harun defending the procedural aspects of his appointment as a speaker in his first press conference as speaker of the Dewan Rakyat. He said that there was no need for there to be a vote to be taken to support the motion for him to be appointed as a speaker as there were no other candidates presented. His justification was that since there was only one candidate which was proposed to replace Tan Sri Ariff as the new speaker, there was no need for a vote to be taken. This view completely ignores the fact that the position of the speaker had not been vacated when the motion to propose Art Harun as the new speaker was published. No 14 day notice was given to the opposition MPs to propose an alternative candidate (or candidates) which is also stipulated in the standing orders. That he would use such a ‘warped’ interpretation of the standing orders in a way that legitimizes his own appointment only goes to highlight the ‘fiasco’ surrounding his appointment.
As it stands, Art Harun’s image as a reformer and independent ‘activist’ has been tarnished by his resignation as the EC chairman and in his acceptance to be nominated and then being sworn into office as the new speaker of the Dewan Rakyat to replace Tan Sri Ariff. I am not sure if there’s anything he can do to repair this damage and also the damage to the institution of parliament in the country.
Personally, I am sure that the pain of betrayal will subside after a while. But in the meantime, I hope the expression of my feelings publicly will not be held against me. The saga of betrayals that is worse than a Shakespearean tragedy continues in Malaysian politics…