Lawmakers need to know their role, says Dewan Negara president

Tan Sri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar is a man who has worn many hats in life.

From a police officer who fought the communists, to being a seven-term Member of Parliament (MP), Deputy Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, and Law Minister, the Sarawakian is currently the president of the Dewan Negara.

Despite his accomplishments, the 78-year-old however, believes there’s still much to be done.

The avid reader, researcher, and author, sat down with Twentytwo13’s Pearl Lee recently and shared his views on the current state of affairs in the nation concerning the law, Federal Constitution, as well as the need for reforms. He also did not mince his words, sharing that our current crop of MPs have a long way to go, as some still find it tough to understand their roles.

How do today’s lawmakers compare to those in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s?

Wan Junaidi: I don’t think anyone else is like me, where they read Parliament Hansards. I bought thick volumes of Hansards, hundreds of them, when I was writing my book. I read through all of them, from 1959. It is fantastic! I can give you actual summaries of what transpired in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

I admire the debates in Parliament in the past, from the language, to the manner of speech. They put forth very solid arguments, and parliamentary language was adhered to, and this continued throughout the 60s.

MPs back then listened to the Speaker. Even if there were disagreements with the Speaker’s rulings, it would not turn into a shouting match. They always treated the Speaker the way a Speaker ought to be treated. Speakers back then too, did not get angry. We also saw the evolution of Parliament during this period. From a unicameral Parliament, to a bicameral Parliament in 1960 (after the Dewan Negara was established on Sept 11, 1959). While the debates in Dewan Rakyat became more robust later, the attitude towards the Speaker was maintained, and it was very much like what we see in the British Parliament.

During that period, we also had opposition MPs from the DAP (after 1960). Despite the May 13, 1969 race riots, in Parliament, at least, people kept their cool, not like what we are seeing in the Dewan Rakyat, today.

What happened along the way?

Wan Junaidi: Today’s MPs are speaking based on perception all the time, not on the actual implications of the subject matter before them. MPs today should read the Hansard to reflect on the depth of the argument in terms of philosophy, understanding the subject matter before them, and the implications of the issues they raise in Parliament.

An MP’s debate ought to revolve around the implication of the laws to this nation, the people, and his or her constituency. Along the way, we (MPs) have become a bit more shallow in terms of knowledge. We tend to talk more about politics, and social issues, but little on the law itself. In fact, we have changed a lot since 2008.

How have things changed since 2008?

Wan Junaidi: In the past, those who became MPs were really ‘persons of choice’. In 1990, then Sarawak chief minister (Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud) was the first to say that there would be no MPs from Sarawak who did not have an academic qualification, and that candidates would not be selected based on popularity. In 1990 we (Sarawak candidates) were the first group who were fielded in the general election based on our academic qualifications, rather than our popularity on the ground. But this does not mean that those who are popular on the ground lacked knowledge, it’s just that the depth of knowledge is different. This is what is lacking now. Today’s MPs too, do not know the implications of laws and matters related to our Federal Constitution.

Given that you have a legal background, you may have an advantage over the rest.

Wan Junaidi: That is why Parliament is made up of a lot of people. For the Dewan Negara, if you look at Article 45 (2) of the Federal Constitution, it states that people appointed (by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong) are those who have rendered distinguished public service, or have achieved distinction in their chosen professions – commerce, industry, agriculture, cultural activities, or social service, or are representatives of racial minorities, or those capable of representing the interests of the indigenous peoples. But this was the law of 1956.

Today, technology has advanced so much, and we have things like artificial intelligence, which we did not know about in the past. And this is why the Constitution cannot remain stagnant. It has to be amended in order to accommodate new things in the future.

How did you do things during your time as a minister and MP?

Wan Junaidi: I am crazy about reading, researching and writing. When I was law minister, I didn’t get involved in politics. My focus was my ministry, to ensure I could work and make a difference. Others are often preoccupied with other things.

We need to read more, to be more accomplished, knowledgeable, and learned legislators. I can spend 12, or 15 hours of my day in my office doing my work, seven days a week. I also previously spent two years (as a minister) in the Natural Resources and Environment ministry and I helped clean up the bauxite mess in Pahang.

I also helped in dealing with the haze. In fact, I was given the title ‘Professor of Research’ for my efforts in stopping the haze (in Malaysia) in 2017.

As an MP, I spoke a lot in Parliament. I was this crazy person talking in Parliament … I spoke on every subject. The only other person whom I can say talked as much as I did was (former DAP Kepong MP) Dr Tan Seng Giaw.

I am also one of the few who answers his phone personally … ask any journalist. In Sarawak, you cannot find a minister who personally answers his phone. Because they are ‘big’ … Now, all the ministers have become bigger than themselves, and I say this all the time. In order to reach them, you need to call their personal assistants, drivers … and only then, can you get them. My phone is with me all the time. If I miss your call, I will return your call later.

The quality of the debates and the behaviour of our elected representatives are often used as a barometer to measure their capabilities. Why is constructive debate in Parliament difficult to achieve in Malaysia?

Wan Junaidi: Try asking any MP if he knows his role. Understanding their role is complex, as they need to learn, like me. You have to abandon other things, cut down on the politicking, and reduce borak-borak di kedai mamak (meet-ups at eateries). Our MPs are not updating themselves with the knowledge … they are not equipping themselves on how to become effective legislators. The Federal Constitution is very clear, Parliament is the only body that makes laws in Malaysia. So, why must MPs bring their politics inside (Parliament)?

When you were Deputy Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, was it frustrating seeing what was going on, on the floor in the Dewan Rakyat?

Wan Junaidi: My role then was not to teach people, but to guide the MPs to make sure the proceedings work. Even if the law (Bills being tabled) was against the Constitution, I couldn’t intervene. That’s not my role. Of course, people ask me, ‘When you were the deputy speaker, why didn’t you do anything?’ The fact is, I could not, because I’m not supposed to speak.

You spearheaded several initiatives previously as Law Minister. For one, you were chairman of the Special Investigation Committee on the Death of Firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim. The report was to have been tabled to the Cabinet in October 2022. We’ve not heard anything since.

Wan Junaidi: The investigation is complete and the report is there. But it (the report) is under the Official Secrets Act, so I cannot disclose it to you.

Don’t you think there are just too many things being placed under the OSA?

Wan Junaidi: The problem is, there is no independent body to study whether a particular matter should be placed under the OSA or otherwise. It’s just based on the whims and fancies of the sitting government. Of course, it should be looked into, but it’s not under my jurisdiction, it’s under the Law Minister.

Being a Sarawakian, there seems to be a lack of understanding and appreciation by those in Peninsular Malaysia on the work and culture of those in East Malaysia, except perhaps once a year, near Malaysia Day on Sept 16. Your views, please.

Wan Junaidi: Well, it goes back a long way, and the existing relationship is so. You also cannot put Sabah and Sarawak in one basket. I still remember when I was in university in England, Sabahans had always been more rebellious, not accepting, unlike us in Sarawak. Sarawakians are more ‘malleable’. We are more obedient to our leaders in the state. If our leaders show the way, we will follow.

Over the years, the issue of MA63 (Malaysia Agreement 1963) became more widespread among Sarawakians. However, some of this knowledge was real, some imagined, and some, politically fabricated. This created tensions between Sarawak and the Peninsular.

Those in West Malaysia thought we were asking for a bit too much, more than what the federal government could give, while we thought that we had been, for a lack of a better word, ‘cheated’, in the question of joining Malaysia.

All we want, is to see our state being developed, just like in West Malaysia.

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