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Death knoll tolls for the ailing Dewan Negara

June 3, 2013

With the latest fiasco of appointing non-elected ministers before being made Senators, the role of the Dewan Negara has come under severe scrutiny and subjected to public discussion while calls are being made for its entire abolishment. BN has been using the Dewan Negara as a back door entry for cabinet appointments and rewarding party loyalist with golden handshakes in the form of a senator’s post.

Unless the Dewan redeems its original role and purpose, such calls may become more frequent, vocal and may lead to unicameral parliament. One of the significant roles of the Dewan Negara was to give representation to the states in the federal legislature. The Senate is a federal Chamber, where the representatives of each state are elected by the elected members of the Legislative Assembly of the state. Since members of Dewan Rakyat are directly elected, the Dewan Negara was intended to be the representative forum of the states. The Senate, being the representative forum of the states, strengthens the country’s federal -state relations and promotes national integration.

Unfortunately in the 56 years of uninterrupted BN rule, the constitution was amended to systematically erode the power of states and empower the federal government, which is contrary to the spirit of the original constitution. The  Senate from being a council of states has now become Dewan Negara (chamber of the nation) 

The original constitution provides for only 16 senators to be appointed by the king on the advice of prime minister, with the intention to give the states some say over federal policy whilst state senators outnumber by 22:16. But subsequent constitutional amendments have allowed the present 26 state senators to be overwhelmed by 44 federal government appointed senators. Currently 8 senators are appointed by the 4 Pakatan Rakyat state assemblies including Kedah while the remaining 62 are BN appointments. Such an unfavorable ratio between the state elected and federal appointed Senators has degraded the esteem, dignity and purpose of the senate. The senate has become a rubber stamp and a chamber to reward the has-beens who have served their masters well. The 44 appointed senator’s’ second term renewal is at the discretion of the prime minister leading to political allies and loyalist getting reappointed. 

In India, the upper house is well regarded and remains a house of dignity for its constitutional role. It has 250 members with 12 nominated by the President of India for their contributions to art, literature, science, and social services. The remainder 238 members of the body are elected by the states and the two territorial legislatures (New Delhi and Pondicherry). The number of members from a state depends on the population of the state (e.g. 31 from Uttar Pradesh, one from Nagaland, 18 from Tamil Nadu, 3 from New Delhi and 1 from Pondicherry). Seats are allotted in proportion to the population of each state or union territory. The Vice President of India (currently, Hamid Ansari) is the ex-officio Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, who presides over its sessions.

The Dewan Negara too could emulate the population proportional representation from each state and limit the number of federal appointed senators. The federal appointments too should give the minority groups like orang asli, disabled activist, environmentalist, consumers, Artist, NGOs etc a voice. The GE 13 results clearly reflect the people’s wish to strengthen the competency, relevance and integrity of the federal institutions.