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PARLIAMENT sits today, two days after its 62nd anniversary. The first meeting of the fourth session of the 14th Parliament will last for 17 days until October 12 and is the first under the government led by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
While it is set to debate issues relating to the country’s recovery from the Covid-19 outbreak, including aid packages to provide relief to the people, the focus will also be the election of a new Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker to replace Azalina Othman Said who has resigned.
Pontian MP Ahmad Maslan, the candidate from the government bloc, and Teluk Intan MP Nga Kor Ming, the Pakatan Harapan candidate, are said to be vying for the vacant post.
While the offices of the Dewan Rakyat speaker and deputy speakers are created by the Federal Constitution (article 57), the office of parliamentary speaker is ancient and centuries old. It traces its origins back to the British Parliament and is central to the battle for supremacy between Parliament and the monarchy.
For that reason alone, the office of the speaker is a chequered one. History records a number of speakers who died violent deaths by way of execution or murder while others were imprisoned, impeached or expelled from office.
That explains why historically the office has not been an envied one. Who would want to be elected the representative of a body of lawmakers who would assert supremacy over the monarch who wielded great power and influence?
Philip Laundy recorded an occasion in 1629 when the House of Commons expressed its wish not to comply with a royal command to adjourn. The king then still wielded great influence and power and the speaker was supposed to be “the king’s man”. Yet he was also a servant of the House. It was a dangerous vocation.
There was therefore a “genuine reluctance with which early Speakers accepted the office” – if at all. (see Philip Laundy, The Office of Speaker in the Parliaments of the Commonwealth (London: Quiller, 1984)
But perhaps not speaker William Lenthall. In 1642, King Charles I, accompanied by an armed escort, stormed into the House, sat in the speaker’s chair and demanded the surrender of five parliamentary leaders on a charge of treason. Before the king, Lenthall customarily fell on his knees. But his words to the king have been recorded for perpetuity and have since defined the speaker’s role vis-a-vis Parliament and the monarch. Those famous words were:
“May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.”
Lenthall’s words heralded the end of the monarch’s influence over the office. But they also marked the beginning of the government’s authority over it. The office of parliamentary Speaker was no longer unenvied. There was no longer the “genuine reluctance” to accept it. It became an appointment “much coveted by members of the party in power and used to advance its policies.” (see “The Speaker and Other Presiding Officers of the House”)