Beyond a shadow of doubt

Is a shadow cabinet merely the dream of a power-hungry opposition? How important is it for a mature democracy?

By Zedeck Siew (The Nut Graph)

THE Pakatan Rakyat (PR)'s plan to set up special panels to "shadow" each of Datuk Seri Najib Razak's cabinet ministries has stirred up debate over whether such a move would serve a real purpose. This arrangement appears superficially similar to the idea of an opposition shadow government that certain quarters have been clamouring for the PR to establish.

Predictably, Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders have been dismissive about the move, with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin saying it was a power-grab plan. In an editorial on 14 April titled Pembangkang terus berkhayal, Utusan Malaysia editor Zulkiflee Bakar even called it an attempt by Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to "drag the people into his fantasy realm."

Is a shadow cabinet merely the dream of a power-hungry opposition? How important is it for a mature democracy?

British concept

According to political analyst Ong Kian Ming, the concept of a shadow cabinet first emerged from the United Kingdom — after whose parliamentary democracy Malaysia's own is modelled — in the 18th century.

"It was in recognition of the right of members of parliament (MPs), who were not part of the ruling coalition, to oppose the policies of the government of the day, and still remain loyal to the institutions of power," Ong explains.

Hence the term "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition". "The opposition is still loyal to the monarch; and more importantly, to the institutions of power, the most important of which is the parliament," Ong says in an e-mail interview with The Nut Graph.

"The concept is pretty entrenched among some of the better-known Westminster-style democracies including the UK, Canada and Australia," Ong continues. A shadow cabinet line-up is official — a list of shadow ministers are even published on the parliament websites of some of these countries.

"By allocating specific portfolios to key opposition leaders, these leaders can focus on specific policy areas to give their input and their criticism," Ong says.

Mirroring the government

"Basically, the UK opposition has appointed spokespersons in charge of particular issues. So you'd have a spokesperson for transport, or defence, or foreign affairs," explains lawyer Andrew Khoo.

"These are meant to mirror the government ministers. When the press wants an alternative view on a particular subject, they will look for the relevant shadow minister," Khoo continues, adding that it would be up to such individuals to question or respond to their opposite numbers in parliamentary debates.

Khoo stresses the importance of such a system for Malaysia. "In the days when the opposition was much smaller, only one representative would speak out. So we saw (former Opposition Leader) Lim Kit Siang commenting on everything," he says.

Now, however, with the PR's nascent influence, a shadow cabinet would signal to Malaysians that the opposition has enough people and expertise to be in government.

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