KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad nominated a former judge as the speaker of parliament on Monday, keeping the reform promise that helped the opposition coalition to an upset victory two months ago.
The 93-year-old leader attended the first day of the new session of the lower house, marking a return after 15 years to fulfill the May 9 election manifesto.
As a departure from the previous practice of stifling debates on issues deemed unfavorable to the ruling party, retired judge Mohamad Ariff Yusof took oath as the speaker of the house, promising to restore "democratic culture" in parliament. His predecessor, a politician from the previous ruling party led by scandal-tainted former Prime Minister Najib Razak was seen by the opposition as biased, especially after he disallowed discussion on the mismanagement in state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
"I pledge to work with everyone towards improving the power of the parliament to ensure the democratic culture of efficiency, fairness and justice," Ariff said in his opening remarks on Monday.
The lower house's opening with 222 lawmakers -- of which 56% is made up of the ruling alliance -- marks the beginning of a five-year term before the next poll. Former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi leads the opposition, which also consists of the Islamic Party PAS after Najib stepped down as party president of the United Malays National Organization.
The nomination of Ariff is part of the institutional reform spearheaded by Mahathir, who sought to empower the parliament with greater tasks and reduce the decision-making functions in the prime minister's department. The parliament will now oversee offices for anti-graft, elections, judicial appointments and human rights. The move was intended to ensure the competence of these offices -- some of which were seen as shielding Najib from the 1MDB scandal, and freedom from political influence.
Najib has since been charged with four criminal offences over allegations that he embezzled funds from SRC International, a unit of 1MDB.
Ariff, who started his career as a law lecturer and later became the Court of Appeal judge before his retirement in 2015, has experience in such legal matters as the constitution and banking. His nonpartisan stance is crucial in order to bring about reforms in the parliament, the Office of the Prime Minister said in a statement on the appointment.
Under Ariff's watch, the parliament is expected to repeal controversial laws passed by Najib's government, including the Anti-Fake News Act. The law, tabled and passed in usual speed before the parliament dissolved for the May 9 election, came under heavy criticism by the Mahathir-led opposition and civil society. The legislation called for punishment of up to six years imprisonment and a maximum fine of 500,000 ringgit (about $123,500), a stiff penalty that opponents said was aimed to silence opposition voices against the government.
Researcher Ying Xian Wong contributed to this article.