Malaysia debates controversial fixed-term law to prevent Anwar’s govt from being toppled

Talk of defections to the opposition has gathered steam in recent weeks following a revelation that opposition leaders and some backbenchers had recently gathered in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in a plot to topple PM Anwar’s administration.

Azril Annuar

Azril Annuar

The Straits Times


January 18, 2024

SINGAPORE – Allies of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, worried about the government being toppled from power through MP defections, are talking up introducing a new law that will ensure the ruling coalition can govern for the full five-year term.

The opposition and analysts have hit out at the plan as being undemocratic.

Talk of defections to the opposition has gathered steam in recent weeks following a revelation on Dec 30 by a top official of the government’s propaganda agency that opposition leaders and some backbenchers had recently gathered in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in a plot to topple Datuk Seri Anwar’s 14-month-old administration. The alleged plot is widely dubbed the Dubai Move.

To counter possible defections, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi on Jan 13 suggested that a Fixed Term Parliament Act, or FTPA, be enacted to prevent any sitting government from being changed until the next general election, or until its five-year parliamentary term is over.

De facto law minister Azalina Othman Said on Jan 15 said an in-depth study will be conducted on the proposal.

“There are many countries that practise fixed-term parliaments with an agreed timeline for elections in order to ensure political and economic stability and to prevent any coup attempt that harms the country’s parliamentary democratic system,” said Datuk Seri Azalina in a statement.

The fixed-term proposal has support from the politically weary public, who witnessed chaotic scenes between 2018 and 2022, with Malaysia led by four different prime ministers during that period. This included the appointment of Mr Anwar to head a loose coalition after the November 2022 polls, following yet another intervention by the King.

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Some quarters question the need for the new law, when current rules already allow the government to affirm its support in Parliament through a confidence vote. The government needs a minimum backing from 112 lawmakers to pass most Bills.

Professor Kartini Aboo Talib, deputy director at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said that should a no-confidence vote come to pass, Malaysia has two existing avenues to resolve this – via fresh elections or the King’s intervention.

“My point is, Malaysia does not need the FTPA; too many rules spoil democracy. It’s suffocating,” she told The Straits Times.

Opposition MP Takiyuddin Hassan said the FTPA could allow a government to remain in power despite losing the support of the majority of MPs in Parliament, the central pillar of its mandate.

He said on Jan 14 that the Constitution states that a prime minister who loses the parliamentary majority should resign along with his Cabinet. “In that situation, the King should replace the prime minister with someone who has proven to have the majority support of MPs,” he said.

Prof Kartini added that approving the FTPA is an endorsement for a weak party to stay in power.

“It defeats the purpose of democracy and denies the rights of the people. Votes of no confidence and votes of confidence are the preservation of democracy to challenge the power of the executive when the power is corrupt and no longer holds the trust of MPs,” she said.

Constitutional expert Daniel Abishegam told ST that political pragmatism cannot trump the Constitution, and described the proposed law as “one man’s pragmatism is another man’s dictatorship”.

With the proposal causing big ripples, Mr Anwar on Jan 16 carefully waded into the issue, saying it is not a “priority” for his government.

“We have not discussed this, and it is too premature for us to come to any decision on the matter,” Mr Anwar told reporters after officiating an event.

“We have not even obtained any comments from the Attorney-General. In addition, there is no consensus among the leaders of parties aligned with the unity government on the proposal.

“I think we have to wait for the due process. However, there have been suggestions, and we will look at them. Having said that, the matter is not a priority,” he said.

The apparent nervousness of government leaders belies the fact that Mr Anwar is backed by 152 lawmakers representing more than two-thirds of the 222-member Parliament.

In order for the FTPA proposal to become law, the Constitution will have to be amended. This would require backing from a minimum of two-thirds of MPs, or 148 lawmakers out of the 222.

A related debate to the fixed-term Parliament is the wide use of statutory declarations (SDs) – signed documents made under oath – by lawmakers to affirm their support or to declare they have switched sides. There have been calls for a new law to throw out the use of SDs in Malaysia’s political dramas.

Mr Abishegam, the academic director and senior lecturer at Advance Tertiary College, said a Bill to prevent SDs from being used to topple a ruling administration does not require an amendment to the Constitution.

“The issue of SDs being used for toppling a government is real. Maybe a law can be passed to ensure that a vote of no confidence in the government on the floor of the Parliament is the only way to change an administration,” he said.

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