The former top constitutional judge who served as Dewan Rakyat speaker under the previous government has defended his decision not to call for a parliamentary sitting at the height of the political crisis last year, following criticism against him by former attorney-general Tommy Thomas in his new autobiography.
Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof said he disagreed with Thomas’ argument that the decision to reject Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s request to convene a confidence vote so that MPs could elect a new prime minister in February last year had allowed the top post to be decided outside of parliamentary democracy.
Ariff, a former appeals court judge, said Thomas’ stand was not accurate as matters of the constitution must be interpreted based on contexts and current facts.
“I have explained the general contexts, also in general terms, in the last chapter of my book,” he told MalaysiaNow, adding that he did not want to get involved in the “polemic”.
He was referring to the book “Law, Principles and Practice in the Dewan Rakyat of Malaysia”, where he specifically dealt with the political crisis last year that saw Mahathir resigning as prime minister, bringing down Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) 22-month rule.
Thomas, in his book “My Story: Justice in the Wilderness”, had questioned Ariff’s decision not to call for a vote by MPs to decide on a new prime minister.
He said it allowed the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to pick Muhyiddin Yassin for the top post, after being convinced that the Bersatu president had the confidence of the majority following a series of audiences with the 222 MPs in February 2020.
Thomas said Ariff’s decision was driven by “purely technical reasons”, adding that nothing was “cast in stone” in the Standing Orders about summoning Parliament to convene while in recess.
“It is not the business of the speaker to veto it,” he said.
“In my opinion, speaker Ariff Yusof was wrong in rejecting the letter from the prime minister. Surely, Ariff knew the spirit of the request and the times we were living in,” said Thomas, who resigned four days after the PH government crumbled.
Thomas also said the legitimacy of the prime minister would not be challenged if he was appointed through Parliament.
“For a constitutional scholar and practitioner of Ariff’s standing, he could not feign ignorance. Yet he did not summon the Dewan Rakyat.
“By his decision, parliament was denied a role at the time the new prime minister was selected by the monarch.”
Ariff: My responsibility to be impartial
But in his book, Ariff said it was “very wrong constitutionally” to suggest that the Dewan Rakyat, which follows the Westminster system, had the jurisdiction to decide who should be prime minister.
“It lies within the prerogative of the head of state to appoint a prime minister who is a member of the elected legislature who, in the judgement of the head of state, is a member likely to command the confidence of a majority of the members of the legislature,” Ariff wrote in his book.
He said the selection of a prime minister through Parliament was straightforward in normal circumstances: by naming the leader of the majority party.
“The matter becomes difficult when a general election fails to produce a clear majority party or when the prime minister resigns in between general elections or, in the case of Malaysia, when there are crossovers from the government benches to the opposition and the political realignments may not produce a clear majority government,” Ariff added.
“In these scenarios, there is no question that the appointing authority resides in the head of state, not the legislature.”
Ariff also defended his decision not to summon Parliament.
“This event is illustrative of the functions and powers of the speaker as an impartial representative of the House on whom is placed the responsibility to ensure the Standing Orders are upheld.”
Fazreen Kamal contributed to this report.