Government should consider virtual parliamentary sittings

We must adapt without compromising parliamentary democracy to address issues of national importance that affect the welfare and wellbeing of the rakyat

The Malaysian Bar calls upon the cabinet to consider advising His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to allow Parliament to reconvene during the emergency period. 

Parliament is the legislative authority of the federation, and its vital role in preserving democracy cannot be understated. The purpose of Parliament is not only to pass laws but also to provide checks and balances to the function of the government as well as to provide a voice to the rakyat. 

On 24 February 2021, the Agong decreed that Parliament may convene during the period of this emergency, upon the advice of the prime minister. This is enshrined in subparagraph 14(1)(b) of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021. It is therefore inaccurate to assume that the emergency declaration precludes Parliament from convening. 

The Malaysian Bar takes the view that Parliament should consider to hold a parliamentary sitting physically with a restricted number of attendees that are necessary to satisfy the quorum of 26 members of Parliament divided equally between the government and opposition parties. 

Alternatively, it could also consider arranging for full online proceedings or to employ certain hybrid mechanisms, whereby some MPs attend physically and others attend via online participation. It is pertinent to note that parliaments in other jurisdictions such as the UK have been conducting their proceedings virtually. 

Pursuant to Article 62(1) of the Constitution, each House of Parliament is allowed to regulate its own procedure. Such flexibility is important during these unprecedented times that our country is facing. 

Therefore, Article 62(5) of the Federal Constitution ought to be given a purposive interpretation. This will allow MPs to log in virtually, and this can be construed as attendance for the purposes of achieving the necessary quorum and for voting.

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Pursuant to Standing Orders 90 and 99 of the Dewan Rakyat, the Speaker of the House is armed with powers to make rulings or to suspend standing orders. This authority can be used to allow virtual proceedings or to overcome any impediments that stand in the way of implementing virtual parliamentary proceedings during the emergency period. Even the parliamentary Standing Order Committee should be able to meet virtually to decide on any amendments to the orders to pave the way and allow for online proceedings. 

Malaysia has experienced suspension of Parliament for two years during the 1969 racial riots, and such a position is entirely untenable in this day and age. 

We must take into account the fact that our current Parliament is well equipped with technological tools that did not exist more than half a century ago. Parliament must therefore do what many workplaces are doing in the face of a pandemic: innovate expediently. 

The Malaysian Bar acknowledges that health and safety are important considerations during a pandemic, and against this grim backdrop, virtual proceedings are the safest and most effective way to bring parliamentary institutions up to date with the modern era. 

We must adapt without compromising parliamentary democracy to address issues of national importance that affect the welfare and wellbeing of the rakyat. 

Salim Bashir is president of the Malaysian Bar

This piece is reproduced from here and has been edited for style only.

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