THE STATE OF OUR NATION
By Khaliq Mehtab
State Assemblyman for DUN Bertam, Penang
Malaysia is in distress. A combination of political factionalism and a raging pandemic is on the verge of bringing the country to economic collapse. The political spin doctors are out in force, each of them interpreting the advice from the Agong to best suit their political agenda, with little or no regard for the truth.
At times like this it becomes necessary to take a step back and subject these purveyors of propaganda to a critical analysis of the claims they make. Of note are two recent posts from opposite ends of the spectrum. First there is the Sarawak Report’s recent post “The Agong Shows His Hand – But Meddling In Politics Is Beneath His Role” and on the other end of the divide Malaysia Today’s “Agong Meddling in Politics, So What?” (https://www.malaysia-today.net/2020/10/29/agong-meddling-in-politics-so-what/).
Then there is the provocative and incorrect attack against the Prime Minister by lawyer Gerard Lourdesamy which has appeared in the Facebook account of William Leong, MP of Selayang, of the PKR. The fact that this lawyer’s commentary is not on his own Facebook account but on the Facebook of a PKR propagandist is revealing. It is more a political writing than a legal academic writing.
As a state assemblyman and a lawyer, allow me to dichotomise these anti-government hypotheses. The central theme of the attacks against the Agong is that the Agong has overstepped his constitutional role by advising the House to pass the budget. Of course they packaged this in a propagandistic diatribe replete with falsehoods and misleading information suggesting that the government is without mandate.
To start with, let me point out to William Leong and Gerard Lourdesamy that monarchs and constitutional heads of state do in fact weigh in on nationally loaded political questions. It is also not uncommon for the Prime Minister to seek support from the constitutional head of state on issues of grave national interest. The manner in which this is done is usually oblique and crafted as a matter of general advice. In the UK, Queen Elizabeth II has in fact done so twice in recent time, first on the issue of Scottish Independence and secondly on the issue of Brexit.
David Cameron, the former UK Prime Minister had explicitly said that he did seek to get an intervention from the Queen on the issue of Scottish independence
(see https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jan/24/queens-speech-calling-for-common-ground-seen-as-brexit-allusion?CMP=share_btn_tw) and
The bottom line is of course that the Agong is entitled to offer his advice to the House and to His Majesty’s government. In doing so, the Agong has not overstepped his constitutional bounds. He has simply asked the politicians to come together for the greater good. That advice, while not binding, is very much worth following when we consider the circumstances Malaysia finds herself in.
We should consider first, that the recent manufactured constitutional crisis is one that started with Anwar Ibrahim’s declaration on September 22 that he had the confidence of the majority of the members in Parliament. Where did it come from? A letter of support from UMNO was sent to Anwar Ibrahim. Then UMNO itself suggested that unless it could renegotiate its terms with Bersatu it would pull its support from the PN government.
What then is the evidence that was presented to the Agong? A letter of support which did not name the MPs that were supposedly providing the “strong and convincing” majority. There is nothing “strong and convincing” about anonymous support.
While this manufactured support ostensibly came from a faction of UMNO politicians, it is clear that the crony cluster in UMNO used the selection of the Chief Minister of Sabah as a ruse to destabilize the government with a view to securing the release of their leaders from criminal prosecution.
This fact needs to be made clear. It is of national importance that the Budget 2021 be passed. It is critical for the economic survival of the country. If a vote of no confidence is passed or the budget is defeated in Parliament, Muhyiddin’s government will have to resign and Parliament will be dissolved. If Parliament is dissolved, under Art. 55(4) of the Federal Constitution, a general election must be held. Can we afford a general election now? The effect of the Sabah election is proof enough of what could happen if a national election is held.
The statistics show that between February to August (6 months), the number of infections was 10,000. Between end September to 30th October (barely 1 month), the number of infections jumped by more than 20,000 to 30,889. As of today, 12,000 police personnel are under quarantine. The front liners are suffering from fatigue. Can the Election Commission secure enough volunteers from the other state and federal government departments to conduct a general election? What about the cost of the election?
The coming Batu Sapi by-election is an example of how strictly Art. 54(1) of the Federal Constitution will have to be applied upon the demise of an MP. By the Sarawak State Constitution, the 12th Sarawak State Election will have to be held as soon as November 2020. Do we want to risk another unwarranted spread of Covid-19 infections?
With all these considerations, the Prime Minister proposed an emergency. This would ensure that the budget is passed and no fresh elections are forced on the people thereby putting the nation at risk.
The Agong in his wisdom, and facing the prospect of an emergency or fresh elections which may bring the country to ruin, has advised the politicians to cease bickering, pass the budget and avoid the need to call for an emergency. It is worthwhile to read His Majesty’s statement of 25.10.2020. His Majesty used the word ‘berpendapat’ and not ‘memutuskan’. The Agong was of the ‘opinion’ that there was no need for an emergency at that time and His Majesty has not decided either against or for the declaration of an ‘emergency’.
The opposition and anti-government factions promptly hailed this as a rejection of emergency and also a rejection of the leadership of the Prime Minister. They played it up as the Agong having lost confidence of the Prime Minister and called for his resignation. For 3 days, they hailed the Agong as the saviour of the country’s democracy.
Upon seeing that His Majesty’s October 25th announcement had been misinterpreted and misrepresented, the Agong issued fresh statements on 28.10.2020 to clarify the earlier announcement. This time around, the Agong made it clear that His Majesty has full confidence in the Prime Minister and called for all MPs to support the passing of the budget to ensure that the country does not suffer an economic disaster.
The Agong is clearly advising the House to put aside politics and to pass a budget for the sake of the people. This is an entirely reasonable and apolitical position to take.
And yet, when this happened, the Agong who was just a few days ago hailed as a saviour was suddenly accused of being an interferer descending into politics. They created a legal fiction that the Prime Minister does not enjoy the confidence of the House and has to resign.
It is worth remembering that before this recent round of political drama, the PN Government had already demonstrated its majority support in Parliament. It had passed 10 bills as of Parliament’s last sitting as at 28 August 2020. This included two supply bills, the Supply (Reallocation of Appropriated Expenditure) Bill 2020 and the Supplementary Supply Bill (2019) 2020. If the passage of a supply bill is a proxy for the confidence of the House (as suggested by Gerard Lourdesamy), then it is absolutely crystal clear that the PN Government and the Prime Minister has the majority support. There is no question then that as at the date of Parliament’s last sitting, the PN Government and the Prime Minister commanded the confidence of the House.
The choices facing the Agong and the Malay rulers were stark, unforgiving and terrible. Allow the politicking to continue and risk a forced election which may cost real lives and irreversible economic damage or try and shepherd the country through a difficult decision by guidance and advice. I for one am glad they choose the latter.
In any democracy, it is the right of political parties to form coalitions with other political parties. In a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model, this is a common occurrence globally and is in fact a sign of a healthy democracy. It has happened in Japan (post 1993 when the LDP lost its hold on the Japanese parliament), in India (when the BJP withdrew support in 1989 or when DMK withdrew its support in 2013) and it happened most recently in England when the DUP refused to support the Conservative government on the Brexit vote.
The Sabah election was another bell weather for the national mood. It showed that the PN coalition had the support of the people of Sabah.
It cannot by any measure be said that the PN Government is a ‘backdoor’ or ‘coup’ government. There is simply no such thing. These labels are used to support feeble logic and pure political rhetoric. It is unbecoming and it is particularly so when deployed with an unwarranted attack against the monarchy.
In closing, I am grateful for the advice of the Agong. It provides much needed guidance to the politicians who seek to take advantage of a dangerous situation for self-gain. It is time we come together for Malaysia.