Party-hopping for the public's benefit?
* This article was originally published in Free Malaysia Today, dated 13th May 2022.
From Farah Ilyana Mohd Anuar, Simraatraj Kaur Dhillon & Benedict Weerasena
Recently, a statement by a prominent politician claimed that the act of party-hopping is for the public’s benefit, not for the individual politician. It was also said that the act of party-hopping has been a norm for years in the political landscape.
These claims made by the politician go against the integrity of our democratic process and undermines the mandate of the people.
In fact, the politician failed to explain how the act of party-hopping is in the interest of the people, when it goes against the voters’ trust and erodes the confidence of the voters towards the democratic process.
The act of party-hopping in the eyes of the people is tied to allegations of money politics or selfish calculations such as for power, position and personal interest, which are certainly not for the public’s benefit.
Members of Parliament represent the voice of the people. When voters’ cast their votes, the candidate becomes the repository of trust for the voters. In a fair democracy, the trust of the voters must be preserved and the principle of democracy upheld.
Looking back, Malaysian politics have been in turmoil since 2020, and the continuation of this concerning trend poses a serious threat to our democracy. Voted MPs switching political allegiances have considerably contributed to the political upheaval, and Malaysia cannot afford another federal or state government collapse due to party defection.
More instances of part hopping have emerged over the last few years, with the practice reaching new heights following the 14th general election, with as many as 39 MPs switching sides. Ultimately, rampant party hopping resulted in the infamous Sheraton Move in 2020, which led to the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government after only 22 months in power.
Where ethics has failed to deter such nefarious acts of betrayal, the law has to step in for the sake of political stability. Hence, we published a policy paper outlining the crucial need for several constitutional amendments to prevent party-hopping, based on the advice of Emeritus Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi, constitutional expert and holder of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Chair at the Faculty of Law, Universiti Malaya.
With the aim of balancing the freedom to associate with the need to honour the trust and mandate of the people, we recommend the following main constitutional amendments, among other recommendations in our paper:
Insert after the word “Parliament”, the words, “and, for the purpose of an anti-defection law, the State Assemblies” in Article 10 (2)(a) to allow the state assemblies autonomy to craft and construct their own anti-defection laws, nullifying the Nordin Salleh decision on this point;
Amend Article 10(2)(c) to redefine the term “morality”. Insert after the word “morality”, the words including “political morality” to bypass the verdict of the Federal Court in Nordin Salleh that confined “morality” to only “sex morality”. A betrayal of trust by switching to another political party after being voted in must be considered a form of “political morality” under the Federal Constitution;
Amend Article 48(1) by inserting after clause (f) a new clause (g) “that having been a candidate of a political party or coalition or using the symbol of a political party or coalition and elected to the House of Representatives as a candidate of the political party or coalition, he resigns from that political party or coalition or crosses the floor” to disqualify a member of either House of Parliament if an act of defection from his political party takes place, or acts in betrayal of the party and coalition symbol which he stood for, or if an independent candidate decides to join a political party or coalition after being elected. This is because it is a betrayal of the voters’ mandate, who associate their vote with that particular party or coalition logo. Also, this will remove any ambiguity in determining the MP’s party affiliation whether as members of a coalition or party;
Amend Article 48(6) to remove the five-year disqualification from members who resign from their seats. Party hoppers should be required to resign but allowed to recontest at a by-election to seek renewal of their mandate. This will achieve a balance between the freedom to associate and the need to honour the mandate of the voters; and
Mandate the state assemblies to have an anti-defection law through a federally-enabled system which empowers the states to choose its form and mechanism. Imposing the same federal anti-defection law on all states is not optimal, as the state cannot change track without another amendment to the Federal Constitution if the imposed anti-defection law does not work at the state level for whatever reason. In other words, state legislative assemblies should be given the autonomy to fashion their own anti-defection laws to better suit the context and needs of the state.
Nevertheless, these constitutional amendments cannot singlehandedly restore morality to our political processes. Beyond the anti-defection law, we also need additional mechanisms to be put in place for greater political stability and accountability, which include:
Legislating an Equal or Equitable Constituency Development Fund Act;
Tabling and passing the Political Financing Act;
Limiting the number of Cabinet posts;
Preventing the use of remunerative posts as an incentive for party hopping; and
Addressing the allegations of selective persecution through institutional reform of the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and Inland Revenue Department.
We hope that these legislative and institutional reforms will be considered and implemented as soon as possible, as there is no better time to address the political instability that we are facing.
Though we may not see the fruits of all these reforms in our lifetimes, let us continue to advocate for greater political stability and enhanced accountability for future Malaysian generations. We should never settle for the notion that party-hopping by irresponsible politicians is for our benefit as Malaysians.
Simraatraj Kaur Dhillon and Farah Ilyana Mohd Anuar are research & advocacy analysts, while Benedict Weerasena is the research director of Bait Al Amanah (House of Trust).