Caretaker governments and their attendant challenges are universal to parliamentary democracies. The government’s mandate to exercise its executive powers stems from its ability to command the confidence of parliament. However, there are points in every parliament’s lifecycle when no government can lay claim to such support—between parliamentary dissolution and a general election; after a general election and before the new government is formed; or when an incumbent government loses the confidence of parliament. During such periods a government must be in place. But in the absence of parliamentary confidence these cabinets lack democratic legitimacy, which can pose significant problems when they are called upon to make controversial and consequential decisions. For this reason, most parliamentary democracies have developed rules to govern these situations, often in the form of constitutional laws.
In Malaysia, there are no constitutional laws governing the situation of a caretaker government. Just like the Westminster parliamentary system, the concept of a caretaker government is essentially a parliamentary or constitutional convention which is not legally binding. As long as elections produced single party parliamentary majorities, this posed no particular problems because government formation did not typically require complex coalition negotiations. Transition periods were short: on average anywhere between one to two months.
However, inadequate caretaker conventions are wholly dependent on the interpretation of what a caretaker government can or cannot do which gives rise to considerable costs and risks. It is widely accepted that caretaker governments should not make new policy, new expenditure commitments, new public appointments which are binding and enter into significant government contracts. These restrictions keep the machinery of government functional, in a routine way, until the people elect the future government.
Selangor strives to uphold the conventions of caretaker governments to keep the machinery of government functional until the future government is elected. What this means is to keep a distance from the public service to ensure that the public service remains neutral. In practice, this is particularly hard to achieve because of the legacy of the previous government administration. The reason for this convention is to prevent questionable conduct on the part of the public service which is appointed to serve the people and not the political party in power.
What this translates into practice was when the Selangor State Legislative Assembly was dissolved on April 9, 2018, Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali after getting consent from Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah at Istana Alam Shah in Klang, together with the State Executive Councilors returned their official vehicles to refrain from using public resources to further their political campaign objectives.