Malaysia bear an imprint of the British constitutional monarchy and parliamentary politics. The highest public official of the Federation of Malaysia is the paramount ruler, or king, but his constitutional role is more symbolic than substantive. The actual, day-to-day process of policymaking, supervision, and implementation with regard to the affairs of the nation is in the hands of the prime minister, who is concurrently the country's dominant political leader. Malaysia practices a system of government based on Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy at two levels, Federal and State levels. At the state level the head (Ruler) of State is either the Sultan, Raja, or Yang di-Pertuan Besar, and the Yang di-Pertua Negeri is the head of State where there are no Rulers: the Chief Ministers (Menteri Besar/Ketua Menteri) are the heads of government.
Over the years power increasingly has been concentrated in the prime minister, and Parliament's function as a deliberative body has deteriorated. Parliament rarely amended or rejected government proposed legislation and did not give legislation proposed by the opposition serious consideration. Parliamentary procedures allow the speaker of parliament to suspend members, establish restrictions on tabling questions, edit written copies of members' speeches before delivery, and severely restrict members' opportunities to question and debate government policies. With the increased number of opposition MPs, government officials often faced sharp questioning in Parliament, and the press reported in greater detail than in the past. For example, during 2008 the government initiated 30-minute live telecasts of parliament's daily question-and-answer period.
Malaysia has several bodies that can exercise executive power. The Conference of Rulers (Majlis Raja-Raja) is the supreme institution that is constitutionally empowered to select the king (Yang di-Pertuan Agong), approve appointed judges, rule on administrative policy changes, and deliberate on national policy questions. The king is the head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces, and he may authorize requests to dissolve parliament and approve parliamentary bills. However, the king actually has limited executive powers and may act only under the advice of the prime minister and cabinet.
Executive power is vested in the cabinet led by the prime minister. The Malaysian constitution stipulates that the prime minister must be a member of the lower house of parliament who, in the opinion of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, commands a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives (lower house of parliament). The prime minister appoints cabinet members with the king’s consent. The cabinet is chosen from among members of both houses of parliament and is responsible to that body.
The legislature consists of the king and a bicameral parliament with an upper house (Senate, or Dewan Negara) and a lower house (House of Representatives, or Dewan Rakyat). The Senate is a permanent body consisting of 70 members; each of the 13 State Legislative Assemblies elects two members; and the king appoints 44 members following the prime minister's recommendation, four of whom are from the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur (2), Labuan, and Putrajaya. The Senate elects its president and deputy president from among its own members. All 70 Senate members sit for 3-year terms, which are normally extended for an additional 3 years.
The House of Representatives consists of 219 members who are popularly elected for five years from single-member constituencies. The Senate may initiate legislation, but only the House of Representatives can initiate legislation that involves the granting of funds. Both houses of parliament and the king must approve legislation for it to be enacted into law. The king has few other legislative powers, but he may dissolve the House of Representatives on the prime minister’s advice.
The constitution states that parliamentary constituencies should have approximately equal numbers of eligible voters; however, in practice the numbers varied significantly. For example, the Putra Jaya constituency had 6,606 voters, while in Kuala Lumpur, the Seputih constituency had 76, 891 voters. In Perak, Gopeng had 74,344 voters compared with Lenggong, with only 23,223 voters.
The bicameral parliament consists of the Senate (Dewan Negara) and the House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat). Representatives of the House are elected from single-member districts by universal adult suffrage. The 222 members of the House of Representatives are elected to parliamentary terms lasting up to 5 years. Legislative power is divided between federal and state legislatures.
Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and three federal territories. The states are Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Pulau Pinang, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor, and Terengganu. The federal territories are Kuala Lumpur, Labuan, and Putrajaya. Peninsular states are divided into a total of 137 administrative districts, Sabah is divided into four residences, and Sarawak is divided into five residences. The Ministry of Federal Territories administers federal territories, but states have their own governments and constitutions. State governments are composed of a legislative assembly, a speaker of the house, and a head of state. Legislative assembly members are elected by single-member constituencies, and assembly members in turn elect the speaker. Legislative assemblies may make or enact laws not reserved for the federal legislature and on subjects under the concurrent purview of federal and state governments. Heads of state are hereditary rulers, except in Melaka, Pulau Pinang, Sabah, and Sarawak, which have governors appointed by the king upon the chief minister’s advice.
The head of state appoints a chief minister from among legislative members, may dissolve assemblies on the chief minister’s advice, and must approve all legislation. The head of state is the chief executive, subject to advice from an executive council headed by the chief minister. However, chief ministers actually handle state administrative matters, assisted by a cabinet of ministers. State-level agencies enforce and administer state laws, just as federal agencies do for federal laws. District and municipal councils handle policy matters at those respective levels.
The federal constitution of Malaysia is the supreme law of the land, and the legal system is based on English common law. The judiciary is a recently established and evolving institution. Until 1985 the highest court of appeal was the Privy Court, located in the United Kingdom. Malaysia has a death penalty and no trial by jury. Critics and jurists contend that the system is beset by many problems, such as case backlogs, corruption, poor legal representation, and a changing institutional structure.
Malaysia has an independent judiciary and two court systems. The sharia system, which issues rulings under Islamic law, is composed of a high court and courts in each state. A system of superior and subordinate courts handles civil and criminal law. Superior courts include the Federal Court, the Court of Appeals, and two High Courts. The Federal Court is the highest judicial authority and final court of appeal. It has original, referral, and advisory jurisdiction as well as jurisdiction over disputes involving states and the federal government. The Federal Court has a chief justice and 10 judges; the number of judges needed for rulings varies according to the type of case. The Court of Appeals acts as an appeals court between the Federal Court and the High Courts. The High Courts — one each for eastern and western Malaysia—have original, appellate, and revisionary jurisdiction. A Special Court hears civil and criminal cases involving state rulers and the supreme ruler. The attorney general, as the principal legal officer and public prosecutor, provides legal advice to the executive branch and may draft bills for deliberation and enactment by parliament.
Subordinate courts include 60 sessions courts, 151 magistrate courts, and the Court for Children, which hears juvenile cases. Subordinate courts have jurisdiction over criminal cases not subject to the death penalty. Sessions courts can hear civil cases valued up to US$65,693, and magistrate courts have jurisdiction over civil cases valued up to US$6,596. Native courts in Sabah and Sarawak and penghulu (village headman) courts in the peninsula handle misdemeanors and civil disputes according to traditional customs, but under state jurisdiction.
The federal government has authority over external affairs, defense, internal security, justice (except civil law cases among Malays or other Muslims and other indigenous peoples, adjudicated under Islamic and traditional law), federal citizenship, finance, commerce, industry, communications, transportation, and other matters.
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