MAY 25 — I will be honest; the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) federal government has got me excited about the very real possibility of institutional reforms.
I was skeptical at first, but the way various ministers declared specific plans for their portfolio shows their desire to be accountable to the people, whereas Barisan Nasional (BN) ministers didn’t bother telling us anything in the past upon their appointments.
It is thoroughly exciting to see Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo’s pledge to abolish the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 and to improve press freedom; Education Minister Maszlee Malik looking at Finland, whose education system allows students to participate in multidisciplinary learning and learn across school subjects; and Human Resource Minster M. Kulasegaran’s plans to improve Socso.
And as much as we like to say that we’re Malaysian first, it is certainly refreshing to see racial diversity in the PH Cabinet, with non-Malays comprising almost one-third of the 15 ministers. However, Lim Guan Eng should have disposed of his corruption case before becoming a minister.
Gender diversity, however, is still poor as there are only three women on the Cabinet. Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s appointment as Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister is historic, but it will ultimately be meaningless if she quits mid-term should PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim run for office and become prime minister.
Gender diversity is just as important as racial diversity. If we think that merits and qualifications should be prioritised over so-called gender “quotas”, then Malaysia should hold public confirmation hearings for federal ministers and state executive councillors to test their knowledge on their portfolios before appointing them.
Jannie Lasimbang was appointed assistant minister to Datuk Aidi Mokhtar in the Sabah Ministry of Law and Native Affairs, even though she was a member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for six years (plus other previous significant positions in her work on indigenous issues), while he was merely a Shariah judge and lawyer with no apparent background in native affairs.
PH and its predecessor Pakatan Rakyat did not have a Shadow Cabinet, which would have ensured quality ministerial appointments, while some of their lawmakers who worked on certain portfolios in the past term (such as DAP’s Charles Santiago on health) were not appointed as ministers.
The election of Malaysia’s first-ever alternative government, however, has made Malaysians speak up a lot more about current affairs, with petitions launched for or against certain ministerial appointments.
A young woman even asked me for feedback for a website she is pitching to the government to collate public feedback and ideas on various issues, rather than to have people commenting all over the place on social media.
There is no need to “let” the government go to work first before giving our opinions on any issues.
Ministers will clock in at 8.30am Mondays to Fridays, regardless of what is being said in public.
They are hitting the ground running, as must we ordinary citizens. It is important that we make our concerns on anything loud and clear to ensure a vibrant, functioning democracy.
Never mind if there are contradictory opinions; it is the job of our government and elected Members of Parliament and assemblymen to measure public sentiment before making policies.
If there is one thing I learned from staying in the United States for a month, it is that Americans complain about everything. But the difference is — they don’t just rant on social media, they personally contact their elected lawmakers and demand to be heard.
When I visited US Senator Tammy Duckworth’s (Democrat-Illinois) office in Chicago, her Chicago director told me that the senator has interns who take phone calls to her office and collate constituents’ comments on various issues, usually on Bills that the senator will vote on, such as the recent Senate vote on net neutrality that the Democrats won narrowly with the backing of three Republicans.
According to her staffer, the senator’s office gets thousands of phone calls a week.
Duckworth will take into account her constituents’ stand before voting on a Bill. Sometimes, though, she had to go against public sentiment by prioritising other constituents, such as when she voted against a continued government shutdown over immigration. But even then, the senator dared to meet angry immigration groups to explain her decision in person.
The Democrat senator also has 50 staff in her Chicago office, who are all federal employees. Even though they are funded by the Republican government, she gets to make her own hiring decisions.
Most BN Members of Parliament in the past probably did not bother with offices gathering their constituents’ feedback before voting on Bills. We voters are also partly to blame because many of us likely did not bother either to tell our MPs how to vote.
The new PH government and MPs should channel Malaysia’s newfound love for democracy into properly organised public feedback mechanisms.
Have proper offices for all MPs for a start, inform constituents about upcoming Bills in Parliament, and proactively seek feedback before voting. This is necessary in this new age of Malaysian democracy because citizens are not yet used to monitoring the lawmaking process in Parliament or in the state legislative assemblies.
PH can also revamp the Parliament website so that it is much more user-friendly like the UK Parliament one, where citizens are informed how to contact their MP about a Bill, how a Bill becomes law, and how to submit views on a Bill.
If and when PH restores local council elections, this will gradually change the public mindset of hounding assemblymen and MPs on local issues to one of lawmaking.
Then we will see Malaysian democracy blossom.