Ong Kian Ming: To continue or not to continue the MoU, this should not be the question

Ong: I cannot help but think that PH’s supporters are confused about the MoU.

Ong: I cannot help but think that PH’s supporters are confused about the MoU.

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Below is a media statement by Dr Ong Kian Ming, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Bangi and assistant political education director for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) on Dec 6, 2021. 

To continue with the memorandum of understanding (MoU) or not, this should not be the question. 

The year is 2024. It has been more than a year since the 15th general election (GE15) in Malaysia which took place in February 2023, just after the Chinese New Year holidays and before the start of Ramadan. There has been no defections of MPs and state assemblyman (ADUNs) since the anti-hopping law was passed in June 2022. Equal constituency allocations are given to MPs in Parliament regardless of whether they are part of the ruling coalition or in the opposition. The same practice is observed in all states including Sabah and Sarawak. These factors reduce the incentives for MPs or ADUNs to change parties and political stability is more assured at the federal and state levels.

In Parliament, half of the special select committees are chaired by MPs from the opposition bench. The proceedings are streamed live for public viewing and journalists to report on. The days for parliamentary sittings have been increased so that there is enough time to debate the laws which are being passed. The second chamber has been enhanced, so that the debates at the committee stage of each parliamentary bill take place here and more technical amendments can be proposed and deliberated before going back to the main chamber for the final reading. A Parliamentary Services Act was passed in the second half of 2022 to create an independent parliamentary staff that is separate from the government service but with the same benefits including pension schemes. The research and outreach capabilities of Parliament have been increased with more research programmes and collaborations with local and foreign think tanks and universities. Each MP has also been allocated an additional budget to hire a full-time parliamentary researcher.

The implementation of Undi18 just prior to GE15 also gave momentum for the reform of the Election Commission of Malaysia to make it more independent of the executive, similar to Parliament. The increase in the number of voters owing to Undi18 also led to a cross-partisan agreement to conduct a fresh delimitation exercise and a review of the 13th Schedule of the Federal Constitution so that the delineation of constituencies at the federal and state levels can be done in a more equitable and transparent manner, with inputs being given by academics and civil society organisations such as Bersih and the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). 

Public backlash from the dropping of corruption cases against several high-profile politicians in 2022 also gave the impetus for a cross-partisan push for more substantive reforms to be introduced to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the judicial process.

The passing of the constitutional amendments relating to the Malaysia Agreement 1963 at end-2021 resulted in the devolution of more policy and budget responsibilities to Sabah and Sarawak, starting with education and health in 2022 and public works and infrastructure in 2023.

Finally, a constitutional amendment was passed at end-2022 to limit the tenure of a prime minister to two consecutive terms.

The situation described above is not a dream but a distinct possibility — but only if all parties work together to stick to and give momentum to the MoU that was signed by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) component parties and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s Keluarga Malaysia (KM) government on Sept 13, 2021. We have already seen some of the reform promises delivered as a result of the MoU including the formation of more parliamentary special select committees, a pro-rated allocation for opposition MPs for the final three months of the year (with the promise of an equal allocation for 2022), the establishment of a 10-person steering committee to oversee the implementation of the MoU and cross-partisan discussions on what the anti-hopping law to be passed in the first half of 2022 will look like.

Efforts to push for these reforms, which will bring about long-term institutional improvements in the democratic process of the country, will collapse if PH reacts to past and upcoming political events with short-term thinking. For example, there will be a huge outcry if on Dec 8, 2021, the Court of Appeal rules in favour of Datuk Seri Najib Razak and overturns his corruption and abuse of power conviction in the High Court over the SRC International Sdn Bhd case. There will be inevitable public pressure on PH to revoke the MoU with Ismail Sabri’s government. This will be a mistake as it will be playing straight into the hands of some leaders in Umno who want to trigger a collapse in the federal government and call for GE15 in the next three months. The proposed reforms in the MoU will be left by the wayside, especially if Umno regains its dominance in GE15 and Najib comes back with a vengeance. There will be no need for a dominant Barisan Nasional/Umno to negotiate with the opposition over any of these reforms. The opportunity for long-term institutional reform will be lost. Such an opportunity may not return in the next 10 years or so, especially if BN/Umno were to use its levers of power to repress and weaken the opposition.

We have seen the result of knee-jerk reactions that were driven by public sentiments very recently. When ex-prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin proposed a confidence and supply agreement (CSA) that was very similar in substance to the PH-KM MoU just before the collapse of his government in the middle of August this year, PH leaders chose to reject the CSA just hours after the offer was made publicly. This led directly to the return of an Umno prime minister which was and still is not in the strategic interest of PH. The PH-KM MoU has given some breathing room for PH to recover after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim failed to get the numbers (once again) to be appointed as the premier following Muhyiddin’s resignation as the prime minister in August 2021. The result of the Melaka state election last month is already a clear sign that it is not in PH’s interest to trigger GE15 in the next year or so but, but instead spend this time pushing for the promised reforms in the MoU and to find a new narrative and game plan for GE15.

I cannot help but think that PH’s supporters are confused about the MoU because: i) we have not taken the effort to explain, over and over again, in easily understood language, the rationale for signing the MoU; and ii) they are using the MoU to express their frustrations at PH over a number of issues such as the perceived lack of direction on the part of the PH leadership, PH’s poor electoral showing in Melaka and the perceived infighting within PH. Rather than blaming the MoU, PH leaders (including myself) should look within and find a way to turn the MoU into our advantage rather than using it as an excuse for our supporters losing confidence and hope in us as an opposition coalition. This is not the right time to walk away from the MoU regardless of the Court of Appeal’s decision on Najib’s SRC case.