Lip service to Commonwealth Charter principles on democracy?

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Charter of the Commonwealth

We have the facade of a democracy but if one were to look at the substance and means used for it to function as such, then there is much to be desired, writes K Haridas.

Malaysia is committed to uphold the 16 core principles of the Commonwealth Charter, including democratic governance, that over the time has been enhanced and strengthened as well as the important role of Parliament, said Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. He was addressing the 23rd Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth.

We must read the Bernama news report to realise that he was speaking about Malaysia. Democratic governance and basic human rights, he stressed, included human rights, peace and security, tolegrance and respect, freedom of expression, separation of powers, rule of law and good governance, and these were all enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution. These represented the pillars of the constitution.

Does he really believe this to be true? The report of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has never been tabled in Parliament, and their budget has been reduced – to increase the budget of the prime minister’s department? Also, there have been so many derogatory remarks regarding Suhakam despite the work they do. Such is this government’s commitment to the cause of human rights.

What are the examples of democratic governance that we can boast about? The legislature, is namely the lower house, the Dewan Rakyat, operates like a factory churning out bills while the upper house remains an endorsement chamber.

Rare are the bills that are adequately discussed by stakeholders, then onto the committee stages before being voted upon. The Dewan Rakyat appears to be manipulated and is perceived to serve as the thumbprint of the executive.

We have a pliant judiciary, which was likewise pummelled by Dr Mahathir into submission. Everyone knows how highly our judiciary is regarded today. The selection and promotion of judges by the Executive is perceived to be lacking in independence, unlike in India where the judges stand fiercely for their independence in keeping with the notion of the separation of powers.

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Words like upholding and committed are so loosely used. We have the facade of a democracy but if one were to look at the substance and means used for it to function as such, then there is much to be desired.

We have a powerful executive that is autocratic. It was even worse under the two thirds majority regime but any improvement since then has been marginal due to a loss of power.

Let us just consider the recent National Security Council Bill 2015, which was bulldozed through the lower house with no concerns addressed. This obnoxious piece of legislation was never discussed at committee stage nor were interested stakeholders included who could have either improved or amended relevant aspects or asked for it to be reviewed altogether

Former Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan described it as “the worst piece of legislation I have seen. This is not about security; this is about insecurity and power. There is no check and balance in this legislation. Some may believe that the prime minister was the chosen one by God. I would not give the Prime Minister such power; you should give no one such power,” she added.

In a piece in the print media, Tunku ’Abidin Mukriz noted that three representative chambers within the Commonwealth had recently passed critical resolutions. The discussions, the participation and the involvement of MPs over radio and TV highlighting issues was a norm that we can at best be jealous of.

On the day the Dewan Rakyat passed the National Security Bill by 107-74, there was no public debate or consultation in the public domain with important stakeholders. MPs only received the bill two days before they were to vote on it. It would not have been astounding if many MPs and cabinet ministers would not have even known about it. So, Zahid Hamidi, how are these core principles of the Commonwealth Charter practised in Malaysia?

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“It is already a case in our Federal Parliament that policy debates are often trumped by the language of race and religion instead of morality and evidence. But when Parliament as a body is denied the opportunity to sufficiently debate and when MPs are so beholden to other interests to not even protect their own emasculation – then the shining beacon of Democracy that our first Agong spoke about has been reduced to a flicker,” wrote Tunku ’Abidin Mukriz.

How do we act in this manner at a time when the trust deficit regarding the prime minister is so enormous and increasing? The allegations and the interference with regard to the 1MDB fiasco flies in his face. Executive interference with the independent task force has made many lose confidence in the actions of this PM and his new-found deputy. What more can be said about the state of democratic governance in the country.

We are even told that the money found in the prime minister’s account was a donation to assist the party maintain power and was used to fund the last general election. I hope money power is not part of the Commonwealth Charter!

The use of money on this scale to secure an election illustrates the rot in the system and the state of our democratic credentials. Will this be tolerated in many of the outstanding democracies within the Commonwealth?
This is a litmus test for where we are with our democracy.

Between what is endorsed in the Commonwealth Charter and its practice in Malaysia, there is a huge ‘application gap’. I wonder how people like the honourable Speaker listens to such rubbish and accepts such unfounded claims.

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Some of our parliamentarians have no pride in being representatives of the people. They look forward to nothing but perhaps to serve their own self-interest and get a slice of the pie. One backbencher has admitted to having received RM1m for election purposes. Otherwise, they would today have defended the legislature from high-handed executive interference.

The same goes for our judges who are looking forward to their promotions, titles, benefits and transfers rather than forward-looking with pride to ensure that their sacred responsibility towards meeting out justice is protected and served. There are very few forward-looking judges who care about judicial independence and justice without fear or favour.

We are today paying the price for nearly three decades during which the executive has subtly conveyed the message that the judiciary has to take their positions with executive interests in mind.

Zahid believes that the more balanced the legislative-executive relation is, the more effective will the parliamentary democracy system become. It is for him the recipe for good governance and progression towards a mature democracy. Does this mean that he does not believe in the notion of separation of powers? This notion is not about balance.

This is where we are with our continuing experience of Democracy. We want to play by our own rules and not accept the binding conventions and practices that are critical for a thriving democracy and that ensures that respected institutions like the judiciary and the legislature play the role required of them.

People’s representatives draw their power from the people and the more detached this link becomes, the more it weakens the democratic spirit and its practice.

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