Ministerial responsibility in the Memali massacre


As far as the constitution is concerned both are responsible and it makes no difference if Mahathir was indeed abroad.

Aziz Bari, The Ant Daily

The issue of responsibility for the Memali massacre in 1985 came up after Tun Musa Hitam, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy between 1981 and 1986, talked about it in Kelantan at the end of last month.

For the record that was not the first time Musa raised the issue. As he said during the Kota Baru forum, he was willing to provide the details of the incident. Somehow none of the media organisation was willing to take up the offer.

I agree with human rights advocate Dr Kua Kia Soong that the Memali incident ranked on par with the Batang Kali massacre where 24 innocent civilians were murdered by British troops in 1942. The Memali incident saw 18 people dead, including four policemen killed by friendly fire. The operation, which was conducted by some 400 armed police, sought to detain Ibrahim Libya, who ran a religious school in Kampung Memali in the Baling district in Kedah.

Musa was the home affairs minister at the time and the police were headed by Tan Sri Amin Osman. The latter was the acting IGP, deputising for Tun Hanif Omar who was then pursuing law studies in England.

Musa resigned as Mahathir’s deputy in 1986 and later contested against Mahathir’s running mate in the Umno party elections in 1987 but lost. So one could sense the blame game when he raised the Memali issue almost three decades after it took place.

In any case Musa said that Memali remained as the black spot in his political career. Somehow his rivalry and eventual fallout with Mahathir was not evident in the white paper on the incident that he presented to Parliament in early 1986.

In the paper Musa put the blame on Ibrahim, who happened to be a PAS leader in Kedah. It should be noted that Umno was nervous with Ibrahim’s growing influence in the area and the matter became a hot topic during the party’s annual meet in Kuala Lumpur. Hence one could understand why Umno exploited the incident to paint an image of violence on its rival PAS, something that was repeatedly played over RTM by the then information minister Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim, who left the federal cabinet last year.

It appears that the public are so concerned whether Mahathir was at home – and not in Beijing as generally thought – and whether Musa was the acting prime minister when the massacre took place.

Be that as it may, a better way to look at it is to use the doctrine of ministerial responsibility that is central to any Westminster type of democracy. The application of the doctrine is stated in Article 43(3) of the Federal Constitution.

Similar provisions can also be found in all state constitutions, which control the working of state cabinets, namely the Exco. The Reid Commission said in its reports that all the principles pertaining to the doctrine apply in Malaysia. This is crucial to fill the gap left behind by the provision concerned.

Briefly the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is one of the ways in which Parliament asserts control over the cabinet, the executive branch in parliamentary democracies. The control is done collectively and individually.

Collective responsibility means that all ministers have to share the burden; they must sink and swim together. They have to resign if they disagree with a cabinet decision or policy. We have had occasions where ministers left due to differences.

In the United Kingdom we have examples like the resignation of Robin Cook who disagreed with Prime Minister Tony Blair over the Iraq war. Here we also have such cases in the resignation of Tun Dr Ismail Abd Rahman during Tunku’s premiership or Tun Ghafar Baba from the Hussein Onn administration.

Under the doctrine, ministers are assumed to be part of a decision even if they are not aware or absent when a particular decision was taken. In relation to the head of state it is assumed that the advice tendered to the office by a minister is the collective decision or view of the entire cabinet.

I think all these are enough to provide the answer for the questions on whether Mahathir was at home or whether Musa was actually the acting premier. As far as the constitution is concerned both are responsible and it makes no difference if Mahathir was indeed abroad and that he has actually put Musa as the acting prime minister. From the constitutional point of view these issues are red herrings.

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