On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Limited access to our wakil rakyat

ONE would have expected that  with all
the promises of more  transparency during
the recent  general election that the
Fourth Estate would at least have greater access to information. This
appears  not to be the case.

Beginning June 12, reporters will  not be
allowed to mingle with the  newly elected
wakil rakyat in the  hallowed lobby of
Parliament  House.

Their movements will be restricted to the Dewan Rakyat,
the  press room, a room next to the
the  banquet hall on the second floor
for  interviews, and, of course, the
always-crowded canteen.

Up to late Friday afternoon,  there was
no official announcement of the new ruling. It was only  Saturday morning that the Information
Ministry issued a two-page  press release
on the matter.

It is not clear whether reporters  can
still make their way to the Dewan Rakyat office to pick up copies  of the seating arrangement and any  Bills tabled for debate.

Also, the press will now have to  use the
rear entrance to the building  reserved
for tradesmen in  the tradition of

Although the Dewan Rakyat and  Dewan
Negara are the designated  areas for
serious public business  what is
witnessed, more often than  not, is the
art of sandiwara.

It is in the lobby that the exchange of information between  government and opposition MPs  takes place 
under the watchful  eyes of the
media if not within their  earshot.

The new ruling has caught almost all MPs and reporters by surprise, and initial
inquries to former  Dewan Rakyat speaker
Tan Sri Zahir Ismail and his deputy, Ong Tee 
Keat, drew a blank.

Zahir only commented on the  new ruling
after The Star went  back to him with
more details on  Friday.

Apart from the canteen, the lobby has always been the favourite  meeting place for MPs, government officials,
and the press during  the debate

Most MPs head for the lobby or  canteen
immediately after "question time'' is over and only go back  after half or one hour's break.

In the past, MPs, pressmen and  even
ministers exchanged information openly in the corridors, the  canteen and at the lobby.

The lobby is where MPs congregate as they enter and leave Dewan  Rakyat.It is in the lobby that reporters get
access to ministers,  deputy ministers,
and government  officials who are
otherwise inaccessible.

The Prime Minister's Department and the Home Ministry, for  example, have very tight security,  and a reporter cannot just walk in  to meet a minister or an official for  informal chats.

The new ruling is also going to  make it
hard for reporters inside  the Dewan to
clarify points raised  by ministers,
deputy ministers,  parliamentary
secretaries, and  MPs during the
question-and-answer session or the debate.

Zahir said that reporters could  make
known their desire to meet  any minister
or MP by sending him  a note through the

This is being done already. But  what
happens if the MP walks out  soon after
his speech or before the  usher is able
to pass him or her the  note?

And like other Commonwealth  parliament
practices, whenever  government or
opposition MPs  stage a walkout, it is
the lobby they  head for. Or what happens
when  the sitting is adjourned for a few  minutes to allow MPs embroiled in  a heated exchange to cool off?

If the argument spills out, as has 
happened before, into the lobby 
during the "cooling-off period,'' it 
will remain a well-kept secret because this exchange will not be
recorded in the Hansard.

TV stations will lose its spontaneity edge of recording a fight in progress if
limited to showing an interview with an MP who witnessed the  verbal or physical exchange.

Former DAP MPLeeLam Thye  and former
deputy labour minister  Datuk K.
Pathmanaban once continued their heated argument at the  lobby after they had thrown challenges to
each other inside the Dewan.

As fellow MPs rushed to the lobby, with some heckling Pathmanaban, then law
minister Datuk Syed  Hamid Albar tried to
pacifyLee  and Pathmanaban, both usually
noted for their moderation and cool.

It is such drama and excitement  that
makes Dewan Rakyat a lively  place for
Malaysian politics.

More recently, Kota Melaka MP  Lim Guan
Eng brought to the lobby  the grandmother
of the schoolgirl  involved in a
political controversy.

It is unclear whether reporters  will be
given a reprieve during the  year-end
tabling of the Budget  where they have
historically been  able to seek the
reactions of MPs,  particularly heads of
parties, on  the Budget.

No one, including Zahir, is prepared to say how this ruling came  about and why was it necessary.  The press release by the Information Ministry
does not give any reasons either.

In his six years as the MP for  Ampang
Jaya, former Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker Ong said he  had not come across a situation  where a reporter had caused trouble in the

Asked whether it is perhaps to  prevent
the harassment of MPs,  Ong said: "Harassment for an MP  happens anywhere,
even in a washroom.''

Asked whether the wakil rakyat  should be
protected from the press,  seeing as the
public have to apply  for permission to
attend the meetings and are restricted to the gallery and the canteen, he said: "As  far as I'm concerned, the
public  and reporters should have
access  to the MPs even if a question
posed  is not palatable.''

Other MPs have speculated that  the move
is to discourage certain  lobbyists who
take the opportunity  to seek favours
from ministers at  the lobby.

Zahir said that one of the objections by certain MPs to the presence of
reporters in the lobby was  that they
were often seen sitting on  the sofas
meant for MPs.

If reporters have occupied the  sofas,
they have ventured into the  area
specifically marked "For MPs  Only''
where the sofas are hidden  behind
screens and telephones are  provided for
the use of the MPs.

They only enter that hallowed  ground if
invited by an MP.

It is a sad day when MPs can  "buttonhole'' reporters in the restricted zones, but the Executive  and other wakil rakyat can dodge  questions in turn.