Advent of Reforms

By Wong Chen

As I write this article on the Sunday morning, 29th of October 2023, there is much domestic frustrations on school matters related to Solidarity Week. Our own solidarity as a people and a nation is somewhat being tested by events of the Israel – Hamas war, unfolding 7,669 km away. Directions from the Ministry of Education (MoE) on Solidarity Week have been lacking, and the urgency of the crisis did not help considered decision making. Lack of internal consultation caught most legislators unprepared. In fact, most MPs that I spoke to, learnt of the MoE directive letter on Solidarity Week via WhatsApp. Then on Friday, the videos of school children carrying toy guns led by teachers, appeared on social media. The implementation of the MoE directives was being carried out ahead of time, without proper direction and supervision. All I can say for now, is that legislators will be back in Parliament on Monday to try to find answers and solutions.

Now to the main substance of this article. Despite the many problems besieging our nation, including the historic low of the ringgit, I do have some good news to share from Parliament. As you may know, we are now in the third and final session of Parliament for 2023. This third session is primarily to do with the Budget, but there is a one week before the tabling of the Budget and one week after the final vote on the Budget for laws to be debated and passed.

After 11 months of the Unity Government, I must admit that there has been very little substantial legislative reforms. Together with many likeminded MPs, I have been consistently pushing my own government to pursue more legislative reforms. I have been chairing the political finance reforms and is also very active on bringing back the Parliament Services Act. It has been a long and difficult slog with hopeful signs that these laws may be debated in March 2024.

However, at the Parliamentary administrative and standing order level, we did make much progress.Β  Major select committee reforms (of which I am chairing one), Prime Minister Question Time, and Kamar Khas reforms being the more notable successes. However, in terms of laws passed, we only had one major legislative reform, that is on the ending of mandatory death penalty. Why was this a major reform? Firstly, it is for human rights and secondly, it enables us a much better international standing for trade negotiations purposes. In short, it was a reform law important for our economy as well as our human rights reputation.

It is on above context, that I am very happy to report the events of the historic week of 2nd of October to 5th October, where in four days, we saw three major fundamental reforms in Parliament. They are; (a) ministerial statement, (b) prison reforms, and (c) the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

Ministerial statement is a Parliamentary procedure whereby a minister comes to Parliament to address an important and urgent matter. A ministerial statement or position is read by the minister and then MPs can engage the minister in an open debate. There is no vote on the matter as this is not a motion. This is a procedure that enables direct participation of policy making of MPs in new matters where the minister is seeking the views of Parliament. This procedure is practiced widely in Westminster based Parliaments but on 2nd October 2023, it was finally deployed in Malaysia. This may seem a minor matter and in fact all newspapers and observers missed this historic practice, but it is truly a very big advent because it empowers MPs an avenue into government policy making.

The second set of reforms, were the prison reforms which are strictly an administrative matter of the Home Office. It came out of the blue in Parliament. Kudos to the minister for laying out his plans which was substantive and holistic. We were all caught by surprise by the speed and earnestness of the commitments. For a decade, likeminded progressive MPs together with civil society have been campaigning for prison reforms, so it was absolutely surreal to hear the minister taking the lead to solve overcrowding, juvenile imprisonments and prison facilities. Kudos must also go to the MPs in the Select Committee for Institutional Reforms, led by YB William Leong (PKR Selayang) for visiting many prisons and then lobbying and engaging the minister thereafter.

The third reform, was a major legislative reform, the passing of the Fiscal Responsibility Act. The Act basically put restrictions on the Minister of Finance to behave responsibly and not to impair the fiscal position of the country by pursuing excessive and unsustainable debt. I took part in this debate and suggested further improvements. As you may remember, I am a fiscal expert and have led the Pakatan Harapan budget team for many years. So, to take part and witness the debate of this very important bill was surreal. I remember all those years fighting to push this agenda. When the vote for the bill happened, and the law passed, I sat down in disbelief that we had achieved something that we have fought so hard for more than a decade.

In that one historic week, I now see more hope for reforms. We can and must celebrate these wins, but we must also continue to push and push for more reforms. As your MP, I pledge to continue to do just that.