Parliament of Malaysia

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The Malaysian Houses of Parliament in Kuala Lumpur.
The Malaysian Houses of Parliament in Kuala Lumpur.

The Parliament of Malaysia is the national legislature of Malaysia, based on the Westminster system of Parliament. It consists of the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives or literally People's Hall, in Malay) and the Dewan Negara (Nation's Hall in Malay; however, it is commonly referred to as the Senate). Members of the Dewan Rakyat are known as members of Parliament (MPs) while members of the Dewan Negara are called senators.

A general election is held every four or five years to elect representatives to the Dewan Rakyat; members of the Dewan Negara, like those of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, are appointed. Members of Parliament are commonly referred to as MPs.

The Parliament assembles in the Malaysian Houses of Parliament, located in the national capital city of Kuala Lumpur.


Historically, none of the states forming the Federation of Malaysia had parliaments before independence. Although the British colonial government had permitted the forming of legislative councils for Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, these were not the supreme makers of law, and remained subordinate to the British High Commissioner. The Reid Commission, which drafted the Constitution of Malaya — Malaya gained independence in 1957, ahead of the other states that would later form Malaysia — modelled the Malayan system of government after that of Britain's, with a bicameral parliament, one house being directly elected, and the other being appointed by the King — just like the British House of Commons and House of Lords. Originally Parliament had no specific place to convene until with the completion of Parliament House in 1962, which comprises a three-storey main building for the two houses of Parliament to meet, and an 18-storey tower for the offices of Ministers and members of Parliament.

In 1963, when Malaya merged with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia, the Malayan Parliament became the Parliament of Malaysia, following the same system as before. Originally under the 1957 Constitution, most Senators were elected by the state assemblies in order to provide representation of state interests; changes to the Constitution in 1963 saw each state receiving two members, with the rest (including members for federal territories) being appointed by the King on the advice of the Cabinet. When Singapore seceded from Malaysia in 1965, its Legislative Assembly became Parliament, and it ceased to be represented in the Parliament of Malaysia.

Parliament has been suspended only once in the history of Malaysia, in the aftermath of the May 13 racial riots in 1969. From 1969 to 1971 — when Parliament reconvened — the nation was run by the National Operations Council (NOC).

Debates in Parliament are broadcast on radio and television occasionally, such as during the tabling of a budget. Proposals from the opposition to broadcast all debates live have been repeatedly rejected by the government; in one instance, a Minister said that the government was concerned over the poor conduct of the opposition as being inappropriate for broadcasting. The prohibitive cost ( RM100,000 per sitting) was also cited as a reason.


As the ultimate legislative body in Malaysia, Parliament is responsible for passing, amending and repealing acts of law. It is subordinate to the Head of State, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King), under Article 39 of the Constitution.

Parliament's members are permitted to speak on any subject without fear of censure outside Parliament; the only body that can censure an MP is the House Committee of Privileges. Such " Parliamentary immunity" takes effect from the moment a member of Parliament is sworn in, and only applies when that member has the floor; it does not apply to statements made outside the House. An exception to this rule are portions of the constitution related to the social contract, such as the Articles governing citizenship, Bumiputra (Malays and indigenous people) privileges, the Malay language, etc. — all public questioning of these provisions is illegal under the 1971 amendments to the Sedition Act, which Parliament passed in the wake of the 1969 May 13 racial riots. Members of Parliament are also forbidden from criticising the King and judges. Parliamentary immunity and other such privileges are set out by Article 63 of the Constitution; as such, the specific exceptions to such immunity had to be included in the Constitution by amendment after the May 13 incident.

The executive government, comprising the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, is usually drawn from members of Parliament; most of its members are typically members of the Dewan Rakyat. After a general election or the resignation or death of a Prime Minister, the King selects the Prime Minister, who is the Head of Government but constitutionally subordinate to him, from the Dewan Rakyat. In practice, this is usually the leader of the largest party in Parliament. The Prime Minister then submits a list containing the names of members of his Cabinet, who will then be appointed as Ministers by the King. Members of the Cabinet must also be members of Parliament. If the Prime Minister loses the confidence of the Dewan Rakyat, whether by losing a no-confidence vote or failing to pass a budget, he must submit his resignation to the King, who will then appoint a new Prime Minister. The Cabinet formulates government policy and drafts bills, meeting in private. Its members must accept "collective responsibility" for the decisions the Cabinet makes, even if some members disagree with it; if they do not wish to be held responsible for Cabinet decisions, they must resign. Although the Constitution makes no provision for it, there is also a Deputy Prime Minister, who is the de facto successor of the Prime Minister should he die or be otherwise incapacitated.

Although the judiciary is constitutionally an independent branch of the government, after the 1988 constitutional crisis, the judiciary was made subject to Parliament; judicial powers are held by Parliament, and vested by it in the courts, instead of being directly held by the judiciary as before. The Attorney-General was also conferred the power to instruct the courts on what cases to hear, where they would be heard, and whether to discontinue a particular case.


Parliament meets from Monday to Thursday when it is in session, as Friday is part of the weekend in certain states such as Kelantan.

A proposed act of law begins its life when a particular government minister or ministry prepares a first draft with the assistance of the Attorney-General's Department. The draft, known as a bill, is then discussed by the Cabinet. If it is agreed to be submitted to Parliament, the bill is distributed to all MPs. It then goes through three readings before the Dewan Rakyat. The first reading is where the minister or his deputy submits it to Parliament. At the second reading, the bill is discussed and debated by MPs. Until the mid-1970s, both English and Malay (the national language) were used for debates, but henceforth, only Malay was permitted, unless permission was obtained from the Speaker of the House. At the third reading, the minister or his deputy formally submit it to a vote for approval. A 2/3rds majority is usually required to pass the bill, but in certain cases, a simple majority suffices. Should the bill pass, it is sent to the Dewan Negara, where the three readings are carried out again. The Dewan Negara may choose not to pass the bill, but this only delays its passage by a month, or in some cases, a year; once this period expires, the bill is considered to have been passed by the house.

If the bill passes, it is presented to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King), who has 30 days to consider the bill. Should he disagree with it, he returns it to Parliament with a list of suggested amendments. Parliament must then reconsider the bill and its proposed amendments and return it to the King within 30 days if they pass it again. The King then has another 30 days to give the royal assent; otherwise, it passes into law. The law does not take effect until it is published in the Government Gazette.

The government attempts to maintain top secrecy regarding bills debated; MPs generally receive copies of bills only a few days before they are debated, and newspapers are rarely provided with copies of the bills before they are debated. In some cases, such as a 1968 amendment to the Constitution, an MP may be presented with a bill to be debated on the same day it is tabled, and all three readings may be carried out that day itself. In rare circumstances, the government may release a White paper containing particular proposals that will eventually be incorporated into a bill; this has been done for legislation such as the Universities and University Colleges Act.

Although the process above assumes only the government can propose bills, there also exists a process for Private Member's Bills. However, as in most other legislatures following the Westminster System, few members of Parliament actually introduce bills. To present a Private Member's Bill, the member in question must seek the leave of the House in question to debate the bill before it is moved. Originally, it was allowed to debate the bill in the process of seeking leave, but this process was discontinued by an amendment to the Standing Orders of Parliament. It is also possible for members of the Dewan Negara (Senate) to initiate bills; however, only cabinet ministers are permitted to move finance-related bills, which must be tabled in the Dewan Rakyat.

It is often alleged that legislation proposed by the opposition parties, which must naturally be in the form of a Private Member's Bill, is not seriously considered by Parliament. Some have gone as far as to claim that the rights of members of Parliament to debate proposed bills have been severely curtailed by incidents such as an amendment of the Standing Orders that permitted the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat to amend written copies of MPs' speeches before they were made. Nevertheless, it is admitted by some of these critics that "Government officials often face sharp questioning in Parliament, although this is not always reported in detail in the press."

Relationship with the government

In theory, based on the Constitution of Malaysia, the government is accountable to Parliament. However, there has been substantial controversy over the independence of the Malaysian Parliament, with many viewing it simply as a rubber stamp, approving the executive branch's decisions. Constitutional scholar Shad Saleem Faruqi has calculated that 80% of all bills the government introduced from 1991 to 1995 were passed without a single amendment. According to him, another 15% were withdrawn due to pressure from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other countries, while only 5% were amended or otherwise altered by Parliament. Shad concludes that "the legislative process is basically an executive process, not a parliamentary process."

Checks and balances

Theoretically, the executive branch of the government is held in check by the legislative and judiciary branches. Parliament largely exerts control on the government through question time, where MPs question members of the cabinet on government policy, and through Select Committees that are formed to look into a particular issue.

Formally, Parliament exercises control over legislation and financial affairs. However, the legislature has been condemned as having a "tendency to confer wide powers on ministers to enact delegated legislation", and a substantial portion of the government's revenue is not under Parliament's purview; government-linked companies, such as Petronas, are generally not accountable to Parliament. In his 1970 book The Malay Dilemma, future Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad stated: "In the main, Parliamentary sittings were regarded as a pleasant formality which afforded members opportunities to be heard and quoted, but which would have absolutely no effect on the course of the Government. ... The sittings were a concession to a superfluous democratic practice. Its main value lay in the opportunity to flaunt Government strength." Critics have regarded Parliament as a "safe outlet for the grievances of backbenchers or opposition members," and meant largely to "endorse government or ruling party proposals" rather than act as a check on them.

There have been only six Select Committees formed since 1970, when Parliament reconvened after the May 13 Incident. Of these, three were formed between 2002 and 2005. Although question time exists for Parliament to check the power of the executive, it has been argued that the question time allotted for MPs to question the government on its policies is insufficient or ineffective. Shad has calculated that as each question time session lasts only an hour, at the most, twelve questions can be asked. Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) calculated that over the space of three days (from 10 October to 13 October 2005), only 32 questions were answered orally. Of these 32 questions, only nine or 28% percent were answered by the Ministers concerned. The rest were answered either by Deputy Ministers (41%) or Parliamentary Secretaries (31%).

However, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department in charge of Parliamentary Affairs Nazri Aziz stated in 2006 that question time would be expanded to 90 minutes later in the year. He also proposed televising question time; opposition lawmakers have proposed televising whole Parliamentary sessions on a regular basis before, but their suggestions were rejected by the Cabinet. It remains to be seen if Nazri's suggestion will be taken up.

Time is allocated for discussion of the annual budget after it is tabled by the government's representative (usually the Prime Minister); however, most MPs spend much of the time questioning the government on other issues. Shad contends that although about 20 days are given for discussion of the budget, "the budget debate is used to hit the government on the head about everything else other than the budget. From potholes to education policy to illegal immigrants."

If Parliament votes to reject the budget, it is taken as a vote of no-confidence, forcing the government out of office. The government will then either have to reform itself with a new cabinet and possibly new Prime Minister, or call for a general election. As a result, Shad states that "MPs may criticise, they may have their say but the government will have its way" when it comes to the budget.

With the judiciary, it is possible for the courts to declare a particular act of Parliament unconstitutional. However, this has never occurred. Parliament is not involved in the process of judicial appointments.

Department of Parliament controversy

In early October of 2005 the Minister in the Prime Minister's Department in charge of parliamentary affairs, Nazri Aziz, announced the formation of a Department of Parliament to oversee its day-to-day running. The leader of the Opposition, Lim Kit Siang, immediately announced a "Save Parliament" campaign to "ensure that Parliament does not become a victim in the second most serious assault on the doctrine of separation of powers in the 48-year history of the nation".

Nazri soon backed down, saying he had meant an office (although he stated jabatan, which means department; pejabat is the Malay word for office) and not Department (Jabatan) of Parliament. The New Straits Times, a newspaper owned by the United Malays National Organisation (a key member of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition) wrote in an editorial that "ministerial authority was established over Parliament the building" and not Parliament the institution and that "[i]f the new 'department' and its management and staff do their jobs well, the rakyat (people) would have even more of a right to expect their MPs to do theirs by turning up for Dewan sessions, preserving that quaint tradition of the quorum, on behalf of their constituencies."

Lim was dissatisfied with such a response and went ahead with a "Save Parliament" roundtable attended by several MPs (including Nazri) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Although Lim thanked Nazri (the only Barisan Nasional MP in attendance), he stated that the proposed department remained a threat to Parliament's independence, and had to be "seen in the context of the relentless erosion and diminution of parliamentary powers and functions by the Executive". In a statement, the roundtable found that "Nazri’s explanations were not convincing" and urged "Nazri to halt all implementation of the Cabinet decision to establish a Department or Office of Parliament until MPs and the civil society could approve and support the proposal".

On October 13 in the Dewan Rakyat, Ahmad Shabery Cheek (BN MP for Kemaman) tabled a motion to reinstate the Parliamentary Services Act 1963 (which would provide for a parliamentary service independent of the Public Service Department currently handling parliamentary affairs) that had been repealed (upon the unilateral suggestion of then Speaker of the House, Zahir Ismail) in 1992. Ahmad Shabery demanded to know if the government would make the status of parliament as an independent institution clear, and stated that "Aside from nice flooring, chairs and walls, we don’t even have a library that can make us proud, no in-house outlet selling copies of different Acts that are passed in Parliament itself and no proper information centre."

Nazri responded that the motion would have to be referred to the House Committee for review. Shahrir Abdul Samad, chairman of the Barisan Nasional Backbenchers' Club, then insisted that the Act be immediately restored without being referred to the Committee, and called on all MPs who supported the motion to stand. Several immediately stood, with some Opposition MPs shouting "bangun, bangun" (stand up, stand up). Following Shahrir's lead, a majority of the BN MPs also stood, including some frontbenchers. However, several ministers, including Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar (who had supported repealing the Act in 1992) remained seated. Nazri then stated that the matter would remain with the Committee, as he did not want it dealt with in a slipshod manner.

The following day, Lim called on Kamaruddin Mohd Baria, who would have taken the post of Parliament Head of Administration, not to report for duty in his new post. Meanwhile, the Dewan Negara House Committee held a specially-convened meeting, which called on the government to revive the Act and to call off all moves to change the administrative structure of Parliament. The President of the Dewan Negara, Abdul Hamid Pawanteh, also stated that he had not been informed "at all" by the government regarding the new department or office of Parliament. Later the same day, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Radzi Sheikh Ahmad stated that the government had agreed to revive the Act.

However, on October 17, Nazri refused to budge on the issue of the new post of "Parliament Head of Administration" (which would make the current Parliamentary Secretary, who is accountable to Parliament and not the executive, redundant). He also stated that the Parliamentary Service Act would have to go through the Dewan Rakyat House Committee and endorsed by the Dewan Rakyat before being sent to the cabinet for approval. In his blog, Lim slammed Nazri for overlooking "the fact that when the Parliamentary Privilege Act was repealed in 1992, it was not at the recommendation of the Dewan Rakyat House Committee but merely at the unilateral request of the Speaker."

Current composition

Summary of the 21 March 2004 Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) election results
Votes % of vote Seats +/-
National Front (Barisan Nasional): 4,420,452 63.9 198 +51
    United Malays National Organization (Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu, UMNO) 2,483,249 35.9 109 +38
    Malaysian Chinese Association (Persatuan China Malaysia, MCA) 1,074,230 15.5 31 +2
    Malaysian Indian Congress (Kongres India Se-Malaysia, MIC) 221,546 3.2 9 +2
    Malaysian People's Movement Party (Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, Gerakan) 257,763 3.7 10 +4
    United Traditional Bumiputera Party (Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, PBB) 383,664 5.5 11 +5
    Sarawak United People's Party (Parti Rakyat Bersatu Sarawak, SUPP) 6
    Sarawak United People's Party (Parti Rakyat Bersatu Sarawak, SUPP) 6
    Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (Parti Demokratik Progresif Sarawak, SAPP) 4
    United Sabah Party (Parti Bersatu Sabah, PBS) 4
    United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Pertubuhan Pasok Momogun Kadazandusun Bersatu, UPKO) 4
    Sabah Progressive Party (Parti Maju Sabah, SAPP) 2
    United Sabah People's Party (Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah) 1
    People's Progressive Party (Parti Progresif Penduduk Malaysia, PPP) 1
    Liberal Democratic Party (Parti Liberal Demokratik, LDP) -
Democratic Action Party (Parti Tindakan Demokratik, DAP) 687,340 9.9 12 +2
Alternative Front (Barisan Alternatif) coalition: 1,668,998 24.1 8 -24
    Islamic Party of Malaysia (Parti Islam SeMalaysia, PAS) 1,051,480 15.2 7 -20
    People's Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PKR) 617,518 8.9 1 -4
Non partisans (and others) 139,438 2.1 1 -2
Overall total 6,916,138 100.0 219 +26
Source: The Star, Kuala Lumpur
Dewan Negara
Mode of Appointment Seats
By King 44
By State Rep. 26
Total 70

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