The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, in a statement released on 24 February, decreed that Parliament could reconvene even under emergency rule.
Many have debated and criticised the suspension of Parliament after a state of emergency was declared in January. The move to suspend Parliament irked MPs on both sides of the divide, civil society groups and others.
In its statement, the palace clarified the misperception that the emergency proclamation prevents Parliament from sitting.
The Agong can declare a state of emergency, upon the advice of the prime minister, while Parliament is still in session or when it is adjourned or dissolved. The required condition is that there are elements such as a threat to national security, to the economic life of the nation or to public order.
The question is whether the current coronavirus pandemic in Malaysia justifies the declaration of an emergency.
Since the emergency proclamation on 12 January, much speculation has swirled. Many have a mistaken understanding of the impacts of a state of emergency, and what mechanisms should be in place to maintain checks and balances amid the health crisis.
The debate on whether the declaration of the emergency is rational should be examined from various angles, such as the Constitution, existing regulations and other laws.
Some say the imposition of emergency rule to curb the coronavirus pandemic is justified and a rational move to curb the rise in the number of daily infections.
Others argue it is unnecessary as we already have the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and other mechanisms such as the movement control order.
Still others believe all this is a Perikatan Nasional strategy to cling on to power as the government is on the verge of collapsing.
Several NGOs, including Aliran, have filed an originating summons against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the federal government to challenge the lawfulness and constitutionality of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021. The case is pending.
Whichever side of the political divide we are on, all parties must ensure that parliamentary democracy is upheld. As a nation that subscribes to parliamentary democracy, we cannot ignore the consequences of not convening Parliament.
In an emergency, we must have checks and balances over the excessive authority given to the executive. How can we ensure the executive does not abuse this authority? Can the executive guarantee the rights of the people? These questions are of utmost importance.
Parliament is the legislative arm of government, and MPs debate and pass laws to be enforced nationwide. The House examines government policies and approves government spending, especially through the budget.
In short, Parliament is the platform where elected representatives can discuss issues of public interest. This is vital in our efforts to curb the pandemic. So, all 222 MPs must be given an avenue to discuss and debate policies and motions for adoption.
In this way, Parliament can play its crucial role in reviewing the transparency of the executive, for instance, in the Temporary Measures for Government Financing (Covid-19) Bill 2020.
Around the world, the pandemic has created unique challenges for legislators, forcing emergency provisions in parliamentary procedure and innovative techniques to ensure the system remains responsive to vulnerable communities.
Many other countries have shown they can convene their parliaments safely despite the health risk.
I do not see any reason why Parliament cannot function virtually. With the recent statement from the palace, many of us hope Parliament will reconvene soon. This will allow MPs an avenue to monitor and bring the people’s issues to the attention of the executive. Elected representatives can also monitor and review policies to handle Covid-19.
Parliament is above all a supervisory body meant to provide checks and balances on the executive arm of government. Strong legislatures bolster the delivery of democracy, and they are even more crucial during this health crisis.
The various parliamentary select committees should at least be allowed to meet and deliberate MPs’ suggestions. By right, they should discuss and review every policy the government wants to implement.
Being inclusive will help assure the public that a myriad of views have been carefully considered so that only the most suitable options are implemented.Khoo Ying Hooi
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
27 February 2021