Umno ‘exemption’ leaves minister with many questions to answer

The swiftness of the minister’s action has caught many off guard. Saifuddin must explain why he was forced to act so speedily. Was there a pressing need for it to be dealt with instantaneously?

Ibrahim M Ahmad, Free Malaysia Today

Home minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail must immediately justify to the public his decision to grant Umno an exemption from what appears to be the party’s failure to comply with the provisions of the Societies Act 1966.

On Tuesday, Saifuddin issued a statement saying that his ministry had reviewed a controversial “no contest” motion covering the posts of the president and deputy passed by the party at its general assembly in January.

The motion was intended to ensure incumbent party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and deputy Mohamad Hasan retain their posts for another term of three years without needing to contest for them at party elections beginning later this month.

In the first place, that is a rather curious exemption given that Section 13(1)(c)(iv) does not require any form of “compliance” by the party.

Instead, the provision gives the Registrar of Societies (RoS) power to cancel the registration of a society. The relevant portion of Section 13(1)(c)(iv) reads:

“Subject to subsection (2), the Registrar may, in the following cases, cancel the registration of any society … if the Registrar is satisfied … that the society has wilfully contravened any provision of this Act or of any regulation made thereunder or of any of its rules …”

So, what was the Minister exempting Umno from?

On Sunday, Zahid claimed the RoS had by a letter dated March 3 approved the party’s “no contest” resolution.

That claim, however, was disputed by party vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob almost immediately. Ismail called on Zahid to make public the RoS letter he was referring to amid “contradictory news reports” on its contents. Despite agreeing, Zahid has yet to do so.

Saifuddin’s decision to grant the exemption suggests that the RoS had actually identified a potential breach by Umno of the provisions of its constitution which ran afoul of the law.

On top of that, the minister’s actions may have been premature.

Under Section 13(2) of the Act, the RoS must – before taking action to cancel Umno’s registration – notify the party of its intention to do so. It must first allow the party an opportunity to justify why its registration ought not to be cancelled.

News reports indicate that the RoS did issue Umno a letter – presumably the letter dated March 3 which Zahid referred to.

If, as Zahid claimed, that letter conveyed the RoS’ approval, the minister would have no need to invoke his powers under the law.

However, if the letter called for the party to show cause why its registration ought not to be cancelled, then the exemption granted by Saifuddin did not even allow for that process to play out.

Interestingly, Saifuddin himself claimed not to know the contents of the RoS letter when questioned by reporters on Monday.

Despite this, by Tuesday morning, we were met with news that the exemption had been granted! Was one even applied for? Why?  When? By whom?

The swiftness of the minister’s action has caught many off guard. Saifuddin must explain why he was forced to act so speedily. Was there a pressing need for it to be dealt with instantaneously?

The minister’s lightning fast – yet premature – action has fuelled gossip within Umno circles that the exemption may have been granted for what our lawyer friends like to call “collateral” reasons.

Were there genuine and justifiable reasons for the exemption or was it done to ensure that deputy prime minister Zahid – Saifuddin’s superior in the cabinet – retains control of his party?

Did Saifuddin grant the exemption of his own accord or was it done at the behest of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim or even Zahid himself?

While it is common for written law to confer on ministers  discretionary powers in respect of certain matters, it goes without saying that such discretion is not absolute or unfettered but can only be exercised for legally justifiable reasons.

There are already suggestions that the exemption granted will be challenged in court. Will the minister’s reasons stand up to legal scrutiny if they becomes the subject of judicial review?

The exercise by the minister of his power to grant exemptions of this nature risk encouraging leaders of all political parties and societies coming under the purview of the Act to push through similar “no contest” resolutions and seek the same exemption to entrench their positions at the summit of their respective organisations.

That would be an unhealthy development. How will the RoS and the minister react when faced with such applications in the future?

What distinguishing features did Umno’s application boast to make what the party is doing the exception rather than the rule?

The minister must give clear answers now to allay fears that he may have acted in a way contrary to law and to the government’s “Madani” aspirations for the nation, especially the one which relates to good governance.