08 March, 2009

Parliamentary Immunity An Abused Privilege?

The reminder by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, for Members of Parliament to display exemplary behaviour in the Dewan Rakyat seems to have gone unheeded, at least by some of the MPs.

Hardly a week after the caution by the king when opening the current session of Parliament, words regarded as abusive including "celaka" (damn) were uttered in the Dewan Rakyat.

The same words, if used outside the august House, would have surely invited legal suits against the perpetrators.

However, the MPs who utter such words and statements are shielded from any legal action because they have immunity as provided for under Article 63 of the Constitution.

Perhaps a large section of the people in the country have become familiar with the demeanour of these MPs.

However, is it right for them to make use of their immunity to utter unparliamentary language, more so in the highest law-making council of the nation and in these times when technology can convey their action for the whole world to see at an instant?

There have been rumblings among the people irked by the behaviour of some of these MPs, with some suggesting that the immunity be clipped.

Foreign Minister and MP for Jelebu Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, who agrees with the suggestion, said the demeanor could have been "inspired" by the live telecast of some of the proceedings in the Dewan Rakyat.

"They may want to portray their stature when debating on certain issues," he said.

The demeanour of some of the MPs gives the picture that they have unlimited immunity but the fact is, according to Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker Datuk Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, there are restrictions.

"The objective of the immunity is to give as much leeway as possible to the MPs to debate on any issue without fear or worry of legal action by the targeted party in the course of the MPs discharging their duty in the House or its vicinity or even outside the House in relation to his/her duty as an MP.

"(But) the immunity is conditional. One of the conditions is related to the Sedition Act, a law which is associated with matters of national security such as treason. Then the immunity is not applicable," he told Bernama.

Wan Junaidi, who is the MP for Santubong, went on to say that an MP could not touch on several matters when speaking in Parliament.

"For example, matters which are pending in the courts, matters associated with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the Malay Rulers, the Yang Dipertuas Negeri, judges and their commission and members of the commission, the armed forces council, and any commission established by the government under the constitution," he said.

He said that normally the MP who strayed beyond the boundary of the immunity would be reprimanded by the speaker or deputy speaker chairing the sitting then.

"Some say I am not firm enough for not taking other action on the basis of the powers vested in me but I hold to many references and views considering that the conditions providing for such action are tight," he said.

Wan Junaidi cited the example of "confusing the House" which has been raised many times by MPs under Standing Order 36(12).

"Before action can be taken, the speaker has to verify that the individual who made the statement knew that it was wrong and it was intentionally made with the purpose of confusing the House," he said.

If these conditions were fulfilled, then the MP can be referred to the Rights and Privileges Committee, he said, adding that the Dewan Rakyat had the authority to send a person to jail.

"In accordance with Section 9 of the House of Parliament (Privileges and Powers) Act 1952, the Dewan Rakyat has the authority to send a person to jail or impose a custodial sentence. Under Section 9, a person who is found to have committed contempt of the House can be fined RM1,000 and if he cannot pay the fine, he can be detained until the fine is paid or the House is dissolved," he said.

Wan Junaidi said similar powers were provided for in the Standing Orders.

"The powers are wide but we rarely use them because we feel the spirit of democracy in the House must be safeguarded," he said.

Acknowledging that the situation in the Dewan Rakyat had not reached the extreme, Wan Junaidi said much of the unparliamentary language was hurled at one another by the MPs.

"It is most important to ensure that they do not insult the speaker. In other countries, it is prohibited to defy the speaker. In England, if the speaker stands up, every member will become silent no matter how noisy they had been.

"Here, unfortunately, no matter how high the speaker raises his voice, they still do not listen. But that does not matter, so long as things do not go to the extreme," he said.

In the history of Dewan Rakyat sessions, several MPs have been suspended for insulting the House and Speaker.

Among them are Bukit Gelugor MP and DAP chairman Karpal Singh who was suspended for six months in 2004 for refusing to abide by the decision of the then speaker, the late Tun Dr Mohamed Zahir Ismail.

Several Barisan Nasional (BN) MPs have also sparked off controversy by issuing statements degrading women. They include Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Moktar Radin.

Arguably, the demeanour of this MP tickles people in the public gallery but then MPs are not elected to be comedians and to turn the august House into a comedy theatre.

"Such people should not be given another chance. They should be removed at the next elections. The people have to act or such a situation will linger," said Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim.

The academic said the people should act because the MPs seem to have forgotten their fundamental duty, which was to take care of the people's welfare and not trade insults.

"My advice is for the people to be prudent and understand a candidate before giving him or her their vote," he said.

Dr Khoo said that based on the political situation in the country, the people required elected representatives of integrity who could ensure that their welfare was given priority.

"It would be pointless to clip their immunity because of importance is their integrity. If there is no integrity, the situation will remain unchanged," he said.

Undeniably, given the "chaos" in the House, the elected representatives do discharge their function as law-makers.

2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Malaysia

Excerpts :

The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in some areas. The government abridged citizens' right to change their government. Some deaths occurred during police apprehensions and while in police custody. Reported abuses by members of the People's Volunteer Corps (RELA) included rape, beatings, extortion, theft, pilfering homes, destroying UN High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR) and other status documents, and pillaging refugee settlements. Other problems included police abuse of detainees, overcrowded immigration detention centers, use of arbitrary arrest and detention using the Internal Security Act (ISA) and three other statutes that allow detention without trial, and persistent questions about the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. The government arrested a prominent opposition leader on politically motivated charges of consensual sodomy. The government also arrested other opposition leaders, journalists, and Internet bloggers apparently for political reasons. The government continued to detain without trial five leaders of an ethnic Indian civil rights group. The civil courts continued to allow the Shari'a (Islamic law) courts to exercise jurisdiction in cases involving families that included non-Muslims. The government continued to restrict freedom of press, association, assembly, speech, and religion. Trafficking in persons remained a problem. There were credible allegations of immigration officials' involvement in the trafficking of Burmese refugees. Longstanding government policies gave preferences to ethnic Malays in many areas. Some employers exploited through forced labor migrant workers and ethnic Indian-Malaysians. Some child labor occurred in plantations.

( More here )



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