By Denison Jayasooria

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia-The calls for institutional reform are becoming louder each day since GE15. Among them who have spoken up are Law Minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman (Dec 2022), Bersih (Dec 2022), former IRC member Ms Ambiga Sreenevasan (Jan 2023), Senate Speaker Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim (Jan 2023), G25 members and former DAP leader Mr Lim Kit Siang (Jan 2023).

All of these voices are reminding the current Anwar administration to take up the promises of institutional reform made in 2018 but not undertaken. Then in May 2018 with the PH victory, there was the setting up of a special institutional reform committee (IRC) headed by the late Dato KC Vohrah with five other prominent Malaysians. 

The committee submitted its report in July 2018. However, the majority of the recommendations have not been implemented and  since then the report has not been released to the public although there was extensive public consultation in early 2018.

Back then  in 2018, I too was among civil society leaders who made an appearance before the IRC. One of our key calls then was to withdraw the National Human Rights Action Plan (2018) and formulate a new one under the leadership of SUHAKAM

Law Ministry’s Initiatives for reform

It was at the SUHAKAM Human Rights Day program on Dec 12, 2022 that the law minister announced the setting up of a Special Task Force on institutional reform. The Law Ministry then on Jan 17, 2023 hosted a workshop on institutional reform where both civil servants and civil society met to deliberate on the reform agenda. 
There were five working groups on parliamentary reform, judicial appointments, strengthening integrity and governance, human rights and justice in the criminal system. The ministry officials noted the comments made by both the civil service and civil society officials. A follow up event is to be hosted soon.

Parliamentary initiatives for institutional reform

Parliament started a series of public lectures and at the opening held on Jan 27, 2023, the Senate speaker Tan Sri Rais Yatim spoke of the proposed parliamentary reform especially on the independence of Parliament. 
He highlighted the need for the reintroduction of the 1963 Parliamentary Service Act with changes. In addition he highlighted the need for review of the 1952 Privileges and powers Act to strengthen it as well as introducing a political financing bill.

In addition, Tan Sri Rais spoke of a number of new proposals such as a training institute like INTAN for MPs. In his speech the Senate speaker emphasised the separation of powers between the legislature and executive as being key for an effective and independent parliament

Fairness and justice to MPs

There has also been calls for fairness in the allocation of constituency funds to all MPs irrespective of their party affiliations whether with the government party or opposition. As elected public officials they have a public duty and the provision of office, staff and fundings must be non-discriminatory.

Recent calls

Four key themes emerge from among the recent calls in the public arena: -

First, a call made by Bersih (Dec 2022) for the empowerment of parliament. One of Bersih’s recommendations is on the parliamentary special select committee (PSSC). That each ministerial portfolio must have a PSSC and the composition of MPs without executive position (Minister, deputy, speaker or deputy speaker) in order to undertake the check and balance task.

Second, a call for the release of the 2018 Institutional Reform report for public review and study. A call made by Ms Ambiga and G25

Third, for tabling a white paper on the various 2018 reports in Parliament for a renewal of the discussion. A call made by Mr Lim Kit Siang

Fourth, a call for local government elections. Ms Ambiga raised this which has been a long-term call to review the Athi Nahappan Royal Commission Report (1968) on local government elections. Institutional reform for grassroots democracy is centred in the return of local government elections. Likewise it will enable MPs to focus on policy matters and local councillors to address local neighbourhood concerns.

With the political changes since GE15, there is a need for the Federal government to revive the institutional reform agenda. There must be a review of all the earlier work undertaken by various appointed committees and commissions towards greater openness to the findings. 
We must capture the moment for institutional reform to ensure lasting changes in our systems so as to ensure justice, fairness, inclusion for all. This can be working out practically “madani” principles as compliance for good governance.

In addition, the Federal government must institute public discussion with ample opportunities for all to participate. This could be undertaken through special select committees set up by Parliament to facilitate public participation.

*Prof Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is the President of the Society for the Promotion of SDGs and a Senior Fellow of ISIS Malaysia. He holds an honorary professorship from KITA-UKM.*