Lawyer: 80 MPs Limit in Parliament a Threat to Democracy

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A lawyer today said the move to limit Parliament to just 80 MPs at any one time from next week is a threat to democracy, as it does not offer the MPs who are left out an avenue to take part in debates.

Andrew Khoo said while the spirit of the 80-member limit in Parliament to curb the spread of Covid-19 was right, the right of the 142 other MPs to take part in the debates should not be taken away from them.

“You are denying the MPs their rights and their obligation to attend Parliament, and to be able to do their job to represent those who elected them,” he told FMT.

Khoo, who is the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee co-chair, said the UK Parliament had taken the proactive step of taking proceedings online, with just 50 MPs to be present in Chambers.

“So many other Parliaments around the world have adjusted their rules to respond to the pandemic, without compromising any MP’s role and responsibility to fully represent their constituents.

“But it should not exclude the MPs from carrying out their duties, talking, and voting in person or virtually.

“We started a Covid-19 lockdown on March 18. It is unacceptable that more than seven months later, the Standing Orders of the Dewan Rakyat cannot be modified to permit virtual sittings. What has the Rules Committee been doing all this while?” he asked.

Khoo also questioned the limiting of question time by MPs, which he said weakened the checks and balances system. It also undermines the democratic system.

He hoped the spread of MPs physically present in Parliament was even between members of the government and opposition benches.

Lawyer Lim Wei Jiet agreed that an online sitting of Parliament was the best option, saying the speaker could enable this by suspending a rule requiring all MPs to rise in their place under Standing Order 90.

He said the speaker could then come up with guidelines on the conduct of virtual hearings. He said the Maldivian Parliament made headlines for carrying out successful proceedings online.

“In fact, our Parliament can start off with hybrid proceedings first, as was done in the UK recently. Some MPs attend proceedings physically, while the rest attend virtually. There are a variety of options available to facilitate a smooth transition to a full-fledged virtual Parliament,” he said in a post on Facebook.

Earlier, the Dewan Rakyat announced that it would only allow 41 members from the government bench and 39 others from the opposition and/or independent bench. However, all 222 MPs would be allowed to come into the House to vote.

This came after seven Parliament staff members tested positive for Covid-19.

Other measures include shorter proceedings from 10am to 2pm daily, which will see minister’s question time and debates on bills being shortened.

Minister’s question time has been cut short to five minutes with answers to be posted to the MPs who had asked the questions and uploaded onto Parliament’s website. – FMT