The story behind parliamentary written replies

By Lu Wei Hoong

parlimenEarly last month, PKR’s Bagan Serai MP N Surendran slammed the institution of Parliament as “a waste of money”, because recent events have shown that it merely acts as a “rubber stamp” for the government of the day.

To members of the media who cover the Dewan Rakyat sitting, parliament may seem to be forum for arguments between the government and opposition, without any substantial solution being reached.

The Malaysian Parliament meets for three sessions a year for an average of about 70 days, compared to many other Commonwealth countries with legislative sittings of up to 150 days or even some which meet all year round except during holidays.

The last Parliamentary session was from 9 June to 19 June 2014, a total of eight sitting days, since Parliament does not sit on Fridays.

After each Parliament session is adjourned, a pile of blue books will silently be left on each MP’s table. Those are the compilation of written replies which could not be answered by the respective ministries during the Parliamentary session due to lack of time.

A Parliament staff told me that should the MPs not collect their respective compilations before the stipulated deadline, these books will be recycled. Figuratively, taxpayers’ money goes down the recycler’s shredder.

So what is the importance of these Parliamentary reply compilations?

During each Parliamentary session, MPs (other than Ministers and Deputy Ministers) are allowed to submit a maximum of 15 Parliamentary questions (10 oral and 5 written questions). These questions are instrumental to serve as a check-and-balance to the Cabinet or government.

Everyday, these questions will be printed on the Order Paper, which is a detailed itinerary of the day’s proceedings. The questions will be answered by the respective Ministers during Question Time, which is normally between 10 to 11.30am. During the 90-minute session, usually there will only be time for ten replies to be read out.

PM hardly seen during Question Time

Question Time allows the opposition to demonstrate their ability to scrutinise government policy, it can also be optimised by the Ministers to show their ability to govern. Some countries such as United Kingdom and Australia have gone further by establishing Prime Minister’s Question Time. This is to allow the nation’s top executive to face tough questions from the opposition leader.

Sadly, the voice of our Prime Minister Najib Razak is hardly heard in Parliament, except during the first day of the parliament sitting and during the tabling of the federal budget in his capacity as Finance Minister. As Najib shrugs off his responsibility to answer tough questions in Parliament, it is not strange that our premier also refused to be questioned during the media conference on the disappearance of flight MH370.

As a daily sitting could have more than 140 questions scheduled, most of the ministerial replies –which are not tabled in the chamber— will be edited into a daily compilation for MP’s reference. Questions which are read out during the sitting will be recorded in the Hansard.

The compilation has valuable data for reference. For example, most of the questions in the Mar-Apr session focused on the Goods and Service Tax, inflation, the dipping rubber price and Pan-Borneo Expressway. While offering a glimpse into people’s daily issues, MP’s ability to handle issues could be reflected in the questions as well.

Replies given by the respective ministries would reflect their seriousness in tackling the issues. For instance, the Finance Ministry has given a set of standard answers for different questions on 1Malaysia People’s Aids (BR1M) and 1Malaysia Development Berhad, showing the ministry officers are not serious in drafting the responses.

Digitalize and upload answers into the Parliament website

Such important data should attract the MPs’ interest. So why do so many MPs leave the compilations on their tables in the chamber?

The problem arises because there is no index of contents on the compilation’s front page, which makes it difficult for the MPs to find a specific reply on a topic. Each compilation book is compiled chronologically by collecting all replies given on the particular date.

The compilation should be arranged according to the Ministry and issues rather than simply according to the date.

Worse, the compilations are not uploaded to Parliament’s website for public viewing. This is unbelievable in the internet era. In the website of New Zealand’s Parliament, you could easily find a specific reply by typing in the keywords.

The digitalization of the written replies to be uploaded to the Parliament website is crucial for the voters to evaluate the performance of MPs and government. We should not allow the compilations to be thrown and shredded by the recyclers.

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