Malaysian Parliament’s first sitting in 2021 leaves little room for debate

KUALA LUMPUR : Malaysia’s Parliament will meet for the first time this year on Monday (July 26), amid growing scepticism that the five-day special sitting will yield any substantial debates regarding the country’s health crisis or ailing economy.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin earlier this month agreed to convene Parliament after pressure from the King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, as the Covid-19 pandemic situation worsened.

Parliament had been effectively suspended since a state of emergency was declared in January, purportedly to tackle surging Covid-19 infections. But the numbers of cases and deaths have climbed steeply since.

The five-day session looks unlikely to feature any debates, ministerial question time, or more importantly, voting on any Bills, which means Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s wafer-thin parliamentary majority will remain untested.

According to the two-page order paper published on the Parliament website on Friday, the sitting will feature ministerial briefings by several senior ministers in charge of key aspects of Malaysia’s Covid-19 response.

This will be followed by the presentation of 12 emergency declaration ordinances, with no indication of a vote as these declarations had already come into effect without Parliamentary approval during the emergency, which is set to end on Aug 1.

Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah speaking at the 14th parliamentary session in Kuala Lumpur on May 18, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

The ministerial briefings will kick off with Mr Muhyiddin speaking about the National Recovery Plan, which sets out how the government plans to exit the Covid-19 crisis. Five ministers, including the Prime Minister, will cover subjects such as fiscal relief, vaccination, healthcare and enforcement of emergency proclamations. Members of Parliament will be allowed to pose questions to the relevant minister.

“There is growing scepticism over the session, amidst fears that it will be a procedural briefings of sort,” said Mr Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, associate director at Vriens and Partners, a political risk, public policy and government affairs consultancy.

The last time Mr Muhyiddin’s majority was tested in Parliament was in December last year when his Perikatan Nasional administration narrowly managed to pass the 2021 federal budget.

Mr Muhyiddin garnered 111 votes to pass the budget, with 108 voting against, and one MP abstaining.

However, since then, Umno – the biggest party in the ruling alliance – has said that it no longer backed Mr Muhyiddin to be prime minister and was withdrawing its support.

However, several senior MPs from within the party – mainly those currently serving in Mr Muhyiddin’s Cabinet – have continued to publicly back him.

Mr Shazwan said that Mr Muhyiddin is likely to remain prime minister under the circumstances.

“No party has enough political support to mount an offensive against the PM at this point in time. While Muhyiddin’s support base is questionable, he will likely remain PM for the time being,” he told The Straits Times.

BowerGroupAsia director Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani told ST that the main focus during the session will be on whether Umno can push through a motion of no confidence against Mr Muhyiddin during the sitting.

However, no motions had been approved by Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun ahead of the special sitting. Datuk Azhar had already rejected a motion by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to debate the emergency ordinances, and also turned down a motion by another opposition lawmaker, Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) Ngeh Koo Ham, to annul the emergency ordinances.

On Saturday, Mr Azhar said that the order of business for the special sitting is decided by Mr Muhyiddin, with the agenda set by the government.

Veteran DAP lawmaker Lim Kit Siang said on Saturday that the decision not to feature votes or debates during the sitting was “most improper”.

“A special meeting of Parliament does not mean that the parliamentary standing orders, parliamentary practices and conventions can be violated,” Mr Lim said in a statement.

Citing Covid-19 protocols, the parliamentary authorities have imposed a cap on the number of media staff who can attend the Parliament session.

Most MPs however are expected to attend.

This came after an initial proposal to limit the number of MPs in Parliament was criticised by several opposition lawmakers. A cap of 80 MPs in attendance was imposed last year, although everyone was allowed to take part in voting processes.

Malaysia has 222 Parliament seats, but only 220 seats are filled after two lawmakers passed away last year. Their seats remain vacant pending by-elections, which have not been called due to the state of emergency.

Covid-19 protocols for Parliament’s reopening

Almost all of Malaysia’s 220 lawmakers are expected to attend the first parliamentary session of the year on Monday (July 26).

There are no virtual or hybrid meetings for the five-day session which will take place under strict Covid-19 protocols.

Only 39 MPS have yet to be fully vaccinated. Most or 35 have had one dose of the vaccine.

Unvaccinated lawmakers are allowed to attend the special sitting but all MPs, regardless of their vaccination status, must register a negative test result for Covid-19 before taking part in the session.

Swab tests were carried out in recent days on MPs and their officers, and reports said some had tested positive.

At least two MPs will not be attending the sitting.

Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi- a government backbencher who has been pushing for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation – has tested positive. He is asymptomatic and is under home quarantine.

Opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP Chow Kon Yeow, who is also Penang Chief Minister, is also in quarantine after his bodyguard tested positive.

By : Ram Anand – THE STRAITS TIMES

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