The more powerful of the two Houses of Parliament, the Dewan Rakyat or House of Representatives is the main debating chamber of MPs – members of parliament – elected by the country’s voters.
It is the most important place for discussing policies and making laws. From robust and comical exchanges during Question Time to the careful consideration of government policy in a select committee hearing, Malaysians can follow these developments online, in the newspapers or on TV.
This guide spells out some of the functions of the Dewan Rakyat and unpacks the jargon and formalities behind the country’s law-making powerhouse.
Commentary is courtesy of Ooi Heng, founder of Kajian Politik untuk Perubahan, a think tank focusing on parliamentary research and reform.
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- What does the Dewan Rakyat do
- What is the government
- Who works in the Dewan Rakyat
- 1MDB: the case of who runs the Dewan Rakyat
- The Standing Orders of The Dewan Rakyat
- All about government business
- Backbenchers and ordinary MPs
- Making and changing laws: from bill to act
- That Sedition Act amendment in limbo
- What is a Private Members’ Bill?
- When the Chamber owned RUU355
- How written replies work
- Not forgetting, Minister Question Time
- What is a Parliamentary Select Committee
- The role of the MP in the Budget
What does the Dewan Rakyat do
The role of the Dewan Rakyat is to:
- approve new laws and taxes;
- hold the government/cabinet to account, and;
- debate the issues of the day.
The Dewan Rakyat makes decisions about issues that affect us all: our schools, jobs, health services, environment and crime.
Also, the government cannot make new laws or set new taxes without first getting the approval of the Dewan Rakyat.
As Malaysia subscribes to the Westminster model of parliament, the Dewan Rakyat is just one component of the entire parliamentary system. The other two are the Dewan Negara (Senate) and the king, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
However, it's the Dewan Rakyat is the most powerful of the three.
What is the government
After a general election, the leader of the political party with the most MPs in the Dewan Rakyat is appointed prime minister and asked to form a government by the Agong.
If no party has an overall majority, two or more parties can join together in a coalition to form a government.
Since Malaysia’s independence, Umno has been the dominant party in parliament, winning the most seats, hence the prime minister has always been from that party.
The political party with the next largest number of MPs in the Dewan Rakyat usually becomes the official opposition.
That convention is not practiced here as the current opposition leader, Wan Azizah Ismail, comes from the second most-dominant opposition party, PKR. The one with most seats is DAP.
As the government runs the country, you can find out the who's who on this dedicated page.
Who works in the Dewan Rakyat
The Dewan Rakyat is made up of 222 MPs who are elected by the Malaysian public to represent their interests and concerns.
Each MP represents a different constituency in Malaysia. This is done to ensure that the entire country is represented when new laws are made or new taxes are levied.
A good way to identify a politician and his/her constituency is by way of parliamentary address. For example, Najib Razak is prime minister and finance minister, but he is also the MP for Pekan. So it's common for other MPs to address him as "Pekan".
For seating arrangements, visit the parliament page to get a sense of where everyone is placed in the dewan.
Once elected, MPs will normally serve for a lifetime of the parliament – a maximum five years – before the next general election, where they can stand for re-election, in some cases subject to their reselection as a candidate by their party.
MPs work in the Dewan Rakyat on behalf of the people in their constituencies and check that the government is run properly and that public money is spent wisely.
They also make sure a wide range of opinions and viewpoints from across Malaysia are voiced by debating issues that people strongly care about.
MPs are paid a monthly allowance of RM16,000. The speaker receives RM31,000 while his two deputies receive RM22,000 each.
ooi heng: We have not really debated that while you are receiving corporate level emoluments, are you also saying you are a full-time parliamentarian? We seldom discuss that here.
In other countries, such as the UK and Singapore, when they have an increment, they will discuss and debate in public whether the MP plays a full-time role or a part-time one.
Full-time means once you are elected, you have to get rid of all your existing businesses. For example if you are a lawyer or if you own your own company, you will have to let those go. Then, if you are given a corporate CEO salary, fine.
Here, you are sort of given that kind of salary. Of course it’s disputable, some say that a CEO-level salary should be above RM30,000. But the point is whether should we – and I’m not sure we must – require MPs to be full-time or part-time?
That said, we can’t also blame our MPs, saying, “Why you are still a lawyer, even though you are an MP”. Because there is no such requirement.
As the life cycle of a specific Dewan Rakyat is five years, it's the prime minister who decides when to hold a new election. These elections allow voters to decide who should represent them as their MP.
So, the current 13th parliament will automatically dissolve on June 24, 2018, and a new batch of MPs will be sworn into the Dewan Rakyat on or before August 24, 2018.
1MDB: the case of who runs the Dewan Rakyat
Immediately after the Wall Street Journal ran an expose on the financial scandals around 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a group of opposition MPs, particularly from PKR, wanted to table a motion for an emergency sitting.
Flummoxed, Dewan Rakyat Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia clarified the matter, saying it was beyond his powers to call for one.
The speaker chairs debates in the Dewan Rakyat and during debates, he/she keeps order and calls MPs to speak. MPs can either notify the speaker in advance by writing or standing up from their seat.
The speaker has full authority to make sure MPs follow the rules of the House during debates. This can include:
- directing an MP to withdraw remarks if, for example, they use abusive language;
- suspending the sitting of the House due to serious disorder;
- suspending MPs who are deliberately disobedient - known as naming;
- asking MPs to be quiet so members can be heard.
ooi heng: You cannot tell the speaker to call for a special sitting. That is decided by the prime minister.
Under the Westminster system, the prime minister is also the leader of the house; it is he who decides whether to call for one and when to call.
Many assume the leader of the house is the speaker. No. In a Westminster, there is the leader of the house, and he is the prime minister. The other is the leader of the opposition, which many of us are familiar with.
So when the leader decides to call for a special sitting, he will inform the minister in the prime minister’s office in charge of parliament affairs. This minister will inform the speaker saying the leader of house wants a special sitting.
It comes from the leader of the house; the speaker doesn’t have that kind of power. Of course the speaker is also a powerful figure in parliament, but it’s these few things we usually get confused with.
The Standing Orders of The Dewan Rakyat
The written rules that regulates the Dewan Rakyat and its proceedings are known as the Standing Orders. It’s the "Federal Constitution" for Parliament.
The continuing or “standing” nature of the rules means they do not lapse at the end of a session of parliament. They remain in effect until the House itself decides to suspend, change or repeal them.
In Malaysia, there are more than 100 standing orders, and each constitutes a continuing order of the House for governance and regulation of its proceedings.
What can be found in the document, among others, is a detailed description of the legislative process, the role of the speaker, the nature of the parliamentary calendar and the rules governing the work of committees and ordinary MPs.
Parliament periodically publishes them as a guide for the MPs.
All about government business
When Parliament meets, it follows the Order Paper which lists all business before the House. According to the Malaysian Standing Orders, government business comes first, then non-government business.
As its name suggests, this means matters pertaining to the cabinet are given the highest priority. These are for bills tabled by the ministers and deputy ministers.
But the unique aspect of non-government business is that it allows ordinary MPs to table their motion or bills, this includes the backbenchers from the Barisan Nasional.
So in some countries, a day is set aside where whips from both sides of the political divide will come together and discuss non-government business, basically the motions and bills they want to table who comes first.
The speaker or deputy speaker also chairs this session, but Malaysia does not have such a system in place.
ooi heng: For us, it’s all about government business from day one. A lot of private members’ bills didn’t have the chance to be tabled because they weren’t government business.
Now, you might ask, what about RUU355? That’s because it received the attention of the leader of the house; in this case Najib.
But if we want to reform our parliamentary system, we need to review our Standing Orders and add a day for non-government business.
This also helps shift the blame from leader of the house to ordinary MPs, because it’s their political parties who will send the whips to discuss non-government business.
Another thing, our Order Paper, which spells out the agenda of parliament for a given day, is only uploaded the night before, around 10.30pm or 11pm. This always happens.
I did ask parliament staff why, and they told me they were waiting for the leader of the house to inform the speaker and when everything is finalised, only then will they upload everything.
I mean, you can always upload many times in a day and update it? That’s how other countries do it. Of course the MPs still need to check but doing this allows them to be prepared.
To think we are talking about Industrial Revolution 4.0 and automation. But it’s not the fault of the staff. They said as there was no directive for them do it, they would just follow what they were used to in the beginning.
Backbenchers and ordinary MPs
In Westminster parlance, an ordinary MP is someone who is simply not part of the cabinet/executive. This includes the backbenchers and the opposition MPs.
The backbencher on the other hand is an MP who does not hold a ministerial position. He or she sits towards the back of the Chamber, hence “backbencher”.
The term backbencher can also stretch to encompass opposition MPs who are not Shadow spokespeople. Again, these MPs occupy the rows of benches behind their parties’ spokespeople.
Backbenchers can raise topics for debate or even table a motion.
ooi heng: Backbenchers refer to MPs not appointed to cabinet or who do not hold an important role in the opposition. The question is, when you are in parliament, those BN backbenchers especially, are they representing the executive or legislative?
We always think that because one side represents the government while the other side is the opposition, so everyone on the government side is the executive.
This is wrong because in parliament, only the cabinet – the MPs who are ministers/deputy ministers – represents the executive.
So when parliament is in session, they are there to answer. The rest just scrutinise and ask questions.
Making and changing laws: from bill to act
A bill is defined as a proposal for a new law. If Parliament passes a bill it becomes an act. The entire process of writing the bill normally involves a great deal of discussion and consultation.
In many Westminster systems, such as the UK, the government might publish a bill and invite the public to comment.
This draft version may be looked at by a select committee, who will ask experts for their views on how to improve it. This is called pre-legislative scrutiny and is not practiced much in Malaysia.
A bill is defined as a proposal for a new law or a proposal to change an existing law. This is presented for debate before Parliament.
ooi heng: In some Westminsters, they have a drafting division, so prior to submitting a bill, MPs can request for help from this committee to draft the bill. This division is found on parliament grounds.
In our case, the drafting division is under the Attorney General Chambers, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Office. It does not report to parliament.
So our way of doing things is that the executive leads the whole process of drafting of the laws, together with the drafting division, and the minister who is tasked to handle the bill will finally get the green light from the prime minister whether the bill is good or not.
The point here is, the process starts with the executive, away from parliament grounds, and only makes it way to parliament halfway. In other Westminsters, the life of the bill starts in parliament, right form zero.
Bills are usually introduced in the Dewan Rakyat for examination, discussion and amendment. When the House has agreed on the content of the bill, it will be passed to the Dewan Negara or Senate for another round of scrutiny.
Once the Dewan Negara has agreed to the bill, it is then presented to the Agong for approval. The roles of the Dewan Negara and Agong are at best mere formalities.
Both can’t impede the progress of the bill, they can at best delay and raise questions to the Dewan Rakyat regarding sections of the bill.
In both dewans the bill has to be read three times. Once royal assent is given, the bill becomes an act of parliament and is law. Then the Attorney-General Chamber’s is tasked with gazetting the law.
That Sedition Act amendment in limbo
ooi heng: But sometimes, there’s no mention of enforcement date, meaning that act may not be enforced yet.
I will give you an example. Remember in 2015, Najib suddenly U-turned on his pledge to repeal the Sedition Act? So, he tabled the amendment and despite a lot of controversy, the bill was passed in both dewans, had the royal assent and gazetted.
But until today, no mention in the gazette of an enforcement date.
That means today, if you are detained under the act, you are being charged under the existing one, not the new one. The new one is terrible; no bail is allowed. So under certain conditions, you can go to directly go to jail.
Now, theoretically, it’s the attorney-general who enforces it, but he waits for the leader of the house, meaning Najib hasn’t told him to enforce the act. So, we don’t know when the new act will be enforced.
In this case, I really don’t know what is going on in the mind of Najib.
What is a Private Members’ Bill?
A Private Members’ Bill is a public bill introduced by an MP who is not a government minister. As with public/government bills, the purpose is to change the law as it applies to the general population.
Just like any other bill, a private members’ bill must go through the same set stages of debate, tabling, and readings. However less time is allocated to these bills.
To introduce a bill in the Dewan Rakyat, an MP needs to provide its short title (by which is it is known) and its long title (which describes briefly what it does). Complete texts are not necessary and some private members’ bill are never published in full.
In some Westminster parliaments such as in the UK, there are three ways of introducing a private members’ bill: the ballot, the ten-minute rule and presentation. In Malaysia, it’s the last method, presentation, that is commonly employed by MPs.
When the Chamber owned RUU355
A motion is a proposal put forward for debate or decision in the Dewan Rakyat. It has to be proposed or moved before any debate or vote can take place in Parliament.
There are a few procedures to this. First, the MP writes to the Speaker expressing his/her intention to table a motion. If the speaker agrees, then that motion will be in the order paper.
Since this is a private members’ bill, the motion stage usually takes a longer time. The rule does not apply for the executive who can just stand up and table a motion.
So after the speaker agrees, the said MP will table the motion in parliament. As he/she is an ordinary MP, that person will need to read the proposal and get seconded. The person who supports the motion needs to explain why and this bit of seconding a private members' bill is already considered part of the debate process.
ooi heng: This is what happened when Abdul Hadi Awang (PAS-Marang) tabled the motion for RUU355.
He tried tabling it a few times but it was only when Takiyuddin Hassan (PAS-Kota Baru) seconded the motion, that something changed.
When someone tables a motion, that does not belong to parliament yet because you are not endorsed by the Dewan Rakyat. So he will need to re-submit everything.
That’s why Marang repeated the same process from scratch, until the last one where Kota Baru came in to endorse the motion and to debate as well. But take note of the speaker’s action of postponing the debate to the next sitting. This is new.
So in other Westminsters, from what I have read, after the motion is seconded, the debate process has already begun. This means, the motion now belongs to the Dewan Rakyat and not that particular member.
The connotation they use is "being owned by the chamber", and what does this the mean? The speaker decides.
So the next time when this happens, say for example, the last two days of this current sitting, the speaker decides to proceed, Marang does not have to start over again as the speaker can just open for debate. Once the debate is done, a vote will be taken.
How written replies work
MPs use parliamentary questions to ask the government for information, to challenge government policy or to call for action.
Members can ask questions in person – in the Chamber – or in writing. Oral replies are received during a parliamentary session and Malaysians can read those exchanges on the Hansard page of the parliament website.
Written replies usually allow ministers to attach supporting data such as statistics or documents. How it works is the MP asks a question and that is submitted to the speaker’s office. Someone from the speaker’s office will deliver the question to the respective ministry and the ministry will decided where and when to answer.
ooi heng: But the answers given in writing are not uploaded to website; they are only given to the MP.
In other Westminsters, everything is uploaded to the parliament website. You know why written answers are important? Because this is where you get all the details. And this reply is very important but the public can’t access this on the web.
Not forgetting, Minister Question Time
This is perhaps the most well-known segment of parliament and it can be a dramatic occasion with heated (or comical) exchanges.
Aside from requesting a reply, any ordinary MP can ask for a Minister Question Time and this is done one day in advance, meaning ask today; reply tomorrow.
ooi heng: This is exceptional. Other Westminsters have what they call Prime Minister’s Question Time.
In our case, when the speaker came up with the so-called reform proposal, the cabinet scrutinised it first and the initial proposal had PMQT, but it was changed to MQT.
Who changed it? It could be the drafting division. But I think it’s Najib. He disagreed with this and it was very funny. I still remember the speaker’s explanation.
His explanation was: “Because during the normal q&a session, from 10am to 11.30am, it’s quite jammed in Kuala Lumpur, so the minister will not come on time. It’s always the deputy. So now I want to compel the minister himself to come.”
Of course, this PMQT change was not reported in the media but everyone here knows why the change from that to minister question time.
What is a Parliamentary Select Committee
Select committees consist of small groups of MPs whose job is to monitor the work of the government closely or to take a deep dive into a particular subject.
Usually, committees set their own agenda but they are sometimes asked to look into detail at a draft bill or to investigate an issue raised by public petition. These reports are influential and serve as one of the checks and balances of the executive.
In Malaysia, there are six parliamentary committees, some of them cross departmental boundaries such as the Public Accounts Committee which looks at government’s spending across the board and checks that it properly utilised taxpayers’ money.
The makeup of committee is as such: the respective party whips together with the opposition leader, the speaker as well as the leader of the house will decided who will represent their respective political party.
In some Westminsters, there are select committees who will consist of experts brought in by the MP who proposed the bill; this can very well be used for cases such as the Public Accounts Committee's investigation into 1MDB or the RUU355 motion.
Some systems even allow for the public to sit in but only as observers.
ooi heng: But our system is what you call the committee of the whole, so there’s not much difference between the committee policy and stages of tabling a bill.
In other Westminsters, you call it a committee because it is not a chamber. A committee allows outsiders to come in, stakeholders, NGOs, and the public can observe. Here, they don’t have that kind of setting.
It did happen before, after the first Bersih rally, when Abdullah Badawi was prime minister. There was a select committee on electoral reforms and that time Bersih did attend. That is a rarity but in other Westminsters, it is a convention.
The role of the MP in the Budget
The Budget is the government’s plan for how much money it needs and how much it will spend over the coming year.
The speech usually includes:
- a review of how the economy is performing;
- details of any proposed changes to taxation;
- details of any proposed policy, and;
- forecasts of how the economy will perform in future
It is the only event where parliament convenes on a Friday. After the speech, the government will table a Supply Bill 2018, and the entire process takes close to a month due to a few factors:
- four-day workweek;
- an extensive discussion during committee stage with one ministry at a time, and;
- the possibility of a block vote usually called by the opposition;
The last point is especially interesting: Budget 2010 was only passed 66 votes to 63. This was due to many of Barisan Nasional MPs being absent when the opposition called for a block vote.
Had the bill been defeated, the government would most likely have come to a standstill as salaries, payments and allocation would be up in the air.
Worse, this could have also be seen as a vote of no confidence on the Barisan Nasional side. In fact, this applies to each minister as he or she is presenting their ministry’s expenditure.
At any given time, the opposition can call for a block vote and if he/she loses, than it’s a vote of no confidence for that minister, meaning tendering his/her resignation.
ooi heng: The way the budget is done is problematic. The purpose of parliament is to make law and to care of money.
You are only giving people two days to go through everything, to analyse and be prepared for the debate on Monday.
In certain Westminsters, what they do is if on Friday you table the budget, the next Monday does not deal with the budget but other remaining government bills. It’s only after one week where they’ll return to the Budget.
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