With the political and parliamentary crisis in Malaysia, the term bipartisanship has become popular, with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong calling on all elected Members of Parliament to put aside their political differences and, in the interest of the nation, to address the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the economic recovery collectively. Political stability and cooperation are essential. Some have called this a war-time crisis and it requires a different kind of political action and cooperation.
The picture of the PM with three key leaders of the opposition is the first step to ending the political crisis for joint action in addressing the health and economic crises that have crippled our movement and economic growth. In this context too, there could be an institutional crisis in governance, including ethics and integrity
What is bipartisanship?
Bipartisanship takes place when members of parliament from different political parties work together on a common theme or agenda, where they share similar goals and objectives. This could be on the theme of fighting poverty and inequality or addressing the issues pertaining to education and the digital divide, especially for rural students at the national stage, or addressing the plight of Rohingyas or the Palestinians at the global and regional legal.
Members from various political parties work on this theme or area of joint concern, undertaking public advocacy and awareness, making representation locally and globally through inter parliamentarian groups, and even raising funds for addressing these concerns.
However, bipartisanship does not mean political compromise or surrender of core party concerns that are unique to the party, especially in the concerns they are championing. Bipartisan cooperation does not mean losing one’s party ideology nor is it agreement in all areas.
Therefore, the bipartisan cooperation from now, in August, till GE15 is a political agreement to create political stability during the vote of confidence at the first sitting of Parliament in September. The agreement is a joint action for the nation to address the COVID pandemic by bringing deaths down, COVID infection cases in ICU and in general down and increase the percentage of those vaccinated to a much higher figure.
In addition, it is to seek to build back the economy in all sectors. Along with this institutional reform, discussions are also needed in fostering a culture of integrity in public office. Political stability for the next six months to one year will usher in a mood of public confidence for domestic and foreign investment.
What political culture is needed to foster the spirit of bipartisanship?
There is a need to view government MPs and opposition MPs from the right perspective. Both are elected by the people. Often the word opposition is misleading that it’s the party that is anti-government. This is not true as in parliamentary democracy they are the MPs-in-waiting or the potential next government.
In a parliamentary democracy, the majority party is His Majesty’s government and the opposition is also referred to as His Majesty’s opposition. In the parliamentary tradition, the opposition leader is placed on senior protocol and invited to all major public functions, as in the case of the United Kingdom, to the palace, warriors’ day celebration, etc.
In Malaysia, the Merdeka celebrations must be seen as a bipartisan exercise of loyalty to the King and country and not just the display of government MPs. There must be a change in our mindset for mutual respect. All MPs are loyal citizens of Malaysia, elected by the people and their loyalty is to King and country is based on the principles of the Rukun Negara and the Federal Constitution.
What mechanisms are needed?
The institution of parliament must be independent from the executive. The speaker and the deputies must be impartial to all MPs and must gain the support of the majority of MPs. The agenda must be determined by a joint committee with the speaker. The government could table its priorities but there must be an understanding with the opposition on this matter.
Parliamentary behavior during the sessions must be enforced so that MPs are not misbehaving, shouting, and disruptive in the session. All MPs must respect the call and decision of the speaker. Many of the MPs who are misbehaving do not behave in that way in public or if they are lawyers in the court of law. So, why is there this kind of behavior and culture?
We must foster rational, open discussion, even argumentative conversations, but in a respectful way as a lawyer or academic places his or her arguments and seek to win the floor of the house. Therefore, when one speaks the other listens, and then the other can speak.
All MPs must be given adequate time. This is where, if select committees are active and dynamic, there will be a change in the conduct of MPs. They must display utmost statesmanship both in the house and outside. This is why they are called “Yang Berhormat” or “Honourable”, so they must live up to this title and public office they are sworn into.
In this context, too, all elected MPs must be treated equally and not like how it is today with government MPs receiving higher constituency allocations as compared to opposition MPs. The government commitment must be that all MPs must receive the same treatment. They are public officials of Parliament and elected by the people. They must be entitled to employ staff paid from public funds, have an MP’s office in a government building and not in the political party office. MPs must also have an equal allocation for constituency funding.
All MPs, irrespective of their political party, must be invited to official government functions. The MPs must also be invited to all government development meetings.
Increase the work of parliamentarians in select committees and the All Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM). This to me is at the heart of the parliament’s work not just the conversations during the main session of parliament.
The role placed by the APPGM on Sustainable Development Goals is a very good example of bipartisan partnerships in localizing SDGs at the parliamentary level. The chair is from the government party and the deputy chair is from the opposition. We are working in 30 parliamentary constituencies with MPs from all the major political parties. In undertaking this task since October 2019, we recognize that all MPs have a deep commitment to resolving local issues such as poverty and inequality, thus improving the capacity of local people to become resilient. Unlike the select committees, the APPGM-SDG secretariat is made up of civil society leaders and academics who play a supportive role to MPs.
For the moment the proposed high-level committee on economic recovery and the pandemic committee must be independent and must have the powers to decide and function in an effective way. The composition, with members of the government including cabinet ministers, opposition MPs, top civil servants, professionals, academics, and private sector representatives, is most critical. Make these multi-stakeholder groups.
We have all the capable people in Malaysia. What we need is political leadership that has the foresight to recognize the right people, empower them to carry out the task with little political interference. At this stage in Malaysia, we need to end political egoism and work together to address COVID, economic recovery, and institutional reform.
Prof Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is Head of Secretariat APPGM SDG, co-chair of the Malaysian CSO SDG Alliance, and Honorary Professor at KITA-UKM.