Malaysian Parliament's first sitting this year leaves little room for debate

Session unlikely to feature ministerial questions or voting on Bills and so will not test PM Muhyiddin's majority

Malaysia's Parliament meets for the first time this year today, amid scepticism that the five-day special sitting will yield any substantial debates on the country's health crisis or ailing economy.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin earlier this month agreed to convene Parliament after pressure from the King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, as the Covid-19 situation worsened.

Parliament had been effectively suspended since a state of emergency was declared in January, purportedly to tackle surging Covid-19 infections. But the numbers of cases and deaths have climbed steeply since then.

The five-day session looks unlikely to feature any debates, ministerial question time or, more importantly, voting on any Bills, meaning Tan Sri Muhyiddin's wafer-thin parliamentary majority will remain untested.

According to the two-page order paper published on the Parliament website last Friday, the sitting will feature briefings by several senior ministers in charge of key aspects of Malaysia's Covid-19 response.

This will be followed by the presentation of 12 emergency declaration ordinances. These declarations had already come into effect without parliamentary approval during the emergency, which is set to end on Aug 1.

The ministerial briefings will kick off with Mr Muhyiddin speaking about the national recovery plan, which sets out how the government intends to exit the Covid-19 crisis.

Five ministers, including the Prime Minister, will cover subjects such as fiscal relief, vaccination and healthcare. MPs will be allowed to pose questions to the relevant ministers.

"There is growing scepticism over the session, amid fears that it will be a procedural briefing of sorts," said Mr Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, associate director at Vriens & Partners, a political-risk, public policy and government affairs consultancy.

The last time Mr Muhyiddin's majority was tested in Parliament was in December, when his Perikatan Nasional administration narrowly managed to pass the 2021 federal budget. He garnered 111 votes to pass the budget, with 108 voting against, and one MP abstaining.

Since then, however, Umno - the biggest party in the ruling alliance - has said that it no longer backs Mr Muhyiddin as Prime Minister.

Several senior Umno MPs, though - mainly those serving in Mr Muhyiddin's Cabinet - have continued to publicly support him.

Mr Shazwan said Mr Muhyiddin is likely to remain Prime Minister under the circumstances.

"No party has enough political support to mount an offensive against the PM at this point in time. While Muhyiddin's support base is questionable, he will likely remain PM for the time being," he told The Straits Times.

BowerGroupAsia director Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani told ST that the main focus during the session will be on whether Umno can push through a motion of no confidence against Mr Muhyiddin.

However, no motions have been approved by House Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun ahead of the special sitting. Datuk Azhar had already rejected a motion by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to debate the emergency ordinances, and turned down a motion by another opposition lawmaker, Democratic Action Party's (DAP) Ngeh Koo Ham, to annul the emergency ordinances.

Last Saturday, Mr Azhar said that the order of business for the special sitting is decided by Mr Muhyiddin, with the agenda set by the government.

Also last Saturday, veteran DAP lawmaker Lim Kit Siang said that the decision not to feature votes or debates during the sitting was "most improper", adding: "A special meeting of Parliament does not mean that the parliamentary standing orders, parliamentary practices and conventions can be violated."

Citing Covid-19 protocols, the parliamentary authorities have capped the number of media members who can attend the sitting.

Most MPs are expected to attend the in-person session, subject to Covid-19 screening processes.

Malaysia has 222 Parliament seats, but only 220 seats are filled after two lawmakers passed away last year.

By-elections to replace them have not been called, owing to the state of emergency.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2021, with the headline 'Malaysian Parliament's first sitting this year leaves little room for debate'. Subscribe