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Monday, November 30, 2020

Budget vote: The people would always prefer to fight

 


We were all given a crash course on the legislative process of Parliament last week. The dramatic turn of events taught us the meaning of the words “bloc voting”, “policy stage” and “committee stage”.

“Bloc voting” means every parliamentarian gets to cast a vote and this vote shall be recorded, as opposed to what happened – “voice vote” – where only “aye” or “nay” were broadly heard. 

“Policy stage” is the first part of passing a bill, and this will be followed by the “committee stage”, which is more centred on details rather than the broad generalities of the “policy stage”.

We have also learned that the committee stage would have the same voting options as the policy stage, and after another round of debates, we get to vote again. In Anwar Ibrahim’s words, the “policy stage” was only the “first round”. 

After this round, there will be the final stage called the “third reading”, where matters addressed are more formal than substantive, before passing it to the Dewan Negara to run through the procedures in its respective manner.

This is complicated.

However, the reasons behind the opposition MPs’ actions were even more complicated. At the eleventh hour, Anwar has requested DAP and Amanah’s leaders, Lim Guan Eng and Mohamad Sabu, to hold back bloc voting and simply sit it out. 

Both leaders were furious and unhappy but eventually succumbed to Anwar’s request.

Why Harapan MPs chose to sit instead of standing

There are a few theories as to why this was done. The public narrative told by Anwar was that he has decided that the Budget 2021 contained enough concessions, including the expansion of EPF’s i-Sinar withdrawal programme, increased withdrawal limits, and the expansion of the automatic loan moratorium, as well as the assistance to “fishermen, the farmers, the civil servants, [and] the frontliners”. 

He said an opposition’s job is not to oppose everything, instead they should accept what is best for the people. At the same time, however, he promised that the opposition would call for bloc voting and reject the budget at the committee stage.

Later, Anwar and Lim Kit Siang claimed that all opposition MPs did, in fact, oppose the budget in the form of a “loud negative voice vote”.

To accept this incoherence, we must also comprehend the moral dilemma that Pakatan Harapan MPs were facing. They want their opinions to be heard in the budget, they do not wish to legitimise Muhyiddin Yassin’s government too readily, but they do not want to be seen as opposing government assistance for those most in need.

The second narrative is the most believable. Although Kit Siang denied that this was a factor for Harapan leaders to consider in bloc voting, the fact that there was not enough support from Umno MPs across the aisle to reject the budget vote motivated Harapan leaders to let the budget pass to the next stage.

Lim Kit Siang

There may be a few disgruntled Umno MPs who swore they disliked Muhyiddin and they would go so far as to reject the budget by voting by "conscience" and break ranks. 

But as I have argued before, Umno would not risk going against Muhyiddin if the other side is not calculatedly better and an early snap election would not be significantly advantageous.

If Harapan MPs opted for bloc voting, it would be revealed to the world that they do not have more numbers than Muhyiddin. This is a vicious cycle because the fact that bloc voting records each MP’s votes publicly further discourages any Umno MPs to break rank only for Harapan’s political mileage.

That Umno thing you cannot ignore

Most of all, if Harapan does not have enough Umno MPs’ help to reject the budget, they will most certainly fail. That means any claim for legitimacy would instantly end. The votes in favour of Muhyiddin is his most potent hand to show that he is the rightful prime minister of Malaysia.

It was this reason that Harapan MPs, despite the outrage, have decided to let the budget pass through the policy stage. By “postponing” the fight to the committee stage would buy more time for Harapan-Umno negotiations, in hopes that a few would turn the tables in Harapan’s favour.

The budget vote could never be divorced from the consideration of Muhyiddin government’s legitimacy and stability. It will always be a few factors at once. That is why the concerns were highly complicated.

Nevertheless, the Malaysian people know better. They know the most crucial facts of the entire event. The question comes down to whether the opposition leaders should try to reject Muhyiddin government’s budget, with the knowledge that the votes shall also serve as a legitimacy test for the prime minister and his government.

Piercing through the noise and strategy and anxiety, the people’s preference was to fight against Muhyiddin, even if that comes at a high risk of loss. 

The people understand that the claim of legitimacy against Muhyiddin would be weakened – to the point of absolute decimation – should the budget challenge fail.

But the common refrain across social media was that it is better to try than not try at all.

This is not a case of collective ignorance or timely coincidence; it is a fundamental moral value that Malaysians hold. 

It is what we teach our kids in school, it is the reason why we have emerged triumphant in the face of insurmountable pressure in GE14, it is the reason why we continue to push even if it seems like a lost cause.

We must keep fighting, even if we fail – even if this failure is embarrassing, conclusive, and painful. 

Because failure could hurt, but they shall never stay, as long as we keep trying. That is the least politicians could do for us. 


JAMES CHAI is a legal consultant and researcher working for Invoke, among others. He also blogs at jameschai.com.my. You may reach him at jameschai.mpuk@gmail.com. - Mkini

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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