The State of the Nation: Budget 2021 still ‘on’ even under an emergency

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 26, 2020 - November 01, 2020.
The State of the Nation: Budget 2021 still ‘on’ even under an emergency
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WITH stories and pictures circulating on the web on Friday on the possibility of an emergency being declared by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, one of the concerns raised is whether Budget 2021 will be tabled on Nov 6.

In an emergency, there is no need for parliament to convene.

In such a case, how will the necessary expenditure for the functioning of the civil service, development of the nation and recovery of the economy continue amid a raging pandemic?

According to lawyer and former law professor Gurdial Singh Nijar, in a commentary on Malaysiakini, in the absence of parliament, the King can enact laws or what is known as ordinances.

“As he acts on the advice of the cabinet, this means that in reality, the executive rules,” he writes, noting that under the 1969 emergency proclamation, some 92 ordinances were created.

“The suspension of parliament does not mean there would not be a 2021 Budget. It would just mean that the budget would not need parliamentary approval,” a source says, adding that the entity that assumes emergency powers to run the government alone will decide on the budget.

This would mean that Budget 2021 can be taken as passed without going through a vote in parliament, if indeed the speculated state of “partial emergency” is declared to maintain political order amid a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases.

The PM did not speak to the media after his two-hour audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah at Istana Abdulaziz in Kuantan late Friday evening. He arrived at the palace at 4.40pm and was seen leaving at 7.10pm, according to a Bernama report.

Muhyiddin had chaired a special cabinet meeting in Putrajaya prior to his audience with the King.

The first national budget since the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the first under the 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025), Budget 2021 is expected to be expansionary to ensure the country’s recovery from the pandemic.

Prior to the development last Friday (Oct 23), there was speculation of Budget 2021 being turned into a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin, who assumed office in March this year.

An economist says the budget will still “go on” as the PM or whoever is put in charge is empowered to formulate policies for the safety and health of the nation as well as to preserve the health of the economy.

“It doesn’t have to go through parliament,” he says, adding that the main thing is to restore stability in the country.

Another observer says an emergency decree may be the option chosen by the PM at this time given the rise in Covid-19 cases and ongoing political instability with the many motions for a no-confidence vote being filed. If a snap election were called at this time, it could lead to a worsening health crisis as the situation in Sabah has shown.

Late last month, Sabah held state elections, which saw the Perikatan Nasional coalition winning 38 seats, giving it a simple majority over the Warisan and Pakatan Harapan coalition.

However, following the elections, Covid-19 infections and deaths rose in Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia. This led to a Conditional Movement Control Order being implemented in Sabah, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya in mid-October for two weeks.

“This government would not want to kill the budget. It’s needed for the recovery of the economy and saving people’s lives. Don’t forget, it can also be used to garner support later on if an election is held,” says the observer, adding that he believes the government will be transparent with the budget.

Christopher Leong, lawyer and past president of the Malaysian Bar, says for a state of emergency to be declared, if it is purely a question of addressing the pandemic, then the National Security Council (NSC) Act and Prevention of Infectious Diseases Act are sufficient to deal with it. These laws would give the government sufficient power to deal with the situation.

“But if it is more than a health issue, for instance, a political issue, then the NSC Act and Prevention of Infectious Diseases Act will not be adequate or suitable. The only other provision is Article 150 of the Federal Constitution,” he says.

The Constitution authorises the declaration of an emergency through Article 150.

“And even in that case, I’m of the view that it would be an abuse of this constitutional provision as it is not intended to address the (current) political dilemma. It was intended to address national security concerns such as a terrorist situation or widespread public disorder situation. Article 150 does refer to economic life, but logic would dictate that it does not include self-inflicted economic crises,” he adds.

If there should be a declaration of emergency under Article 150 of the Federal Constitution, there should be a national operations committee, comprising various political representatives from the government and opposition, to take over. “This can be the de facto interim government,” Leong explains.

Meanwhile, lawyer and human rights activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan is of the view that an emergency is not warranted and sets a dangerous precedent.

“This emergency can be averted. Either by an agreement to allow the budget to pass (as suggested by Bersih) or by exploring a national-type government, at least until the pandemic is over,” she says.

Ragunath Kesavan, past president of the Malaysian Bar, says there must be accountability, especially in a situation where the government rules with a very slim majority.

He believes an alternative to an emergency would be a unity government.

“... Invite the leader of the opposition for discussion for a moratorium so that there could be a six-month period perhaps, without compromising democracy and the pillars of government to achieve what they want.

“In the country’s interest, its supreme objective should be the nation and its people,” he says.

The country has been through the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960, which was declared after an attempt by the Malayan Communist Party to overthrow the British colonial government in Malaya.

Following the racial riots of May 13, 1969, a state of emergency was announced.

Parliamentary rule was re-established in February 1971.



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