Thursday, August 13

A digital parliament of ideals and hopes

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EVER since the Yang di-Pertuan Agong opened the current sitting of Parliament on May 18, I have repeatedly lamented the lack of opportunity given to parliamentarians to debate thereafter.

As much as the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been praised internationally, and though policies to help us emerge from the Movement Control Order and rehabilitate the economy have been welcomed, these could be further improved if elected representatives had a chance to scrutinise them. Indeed, many legislatures around the world implemented partially or fully online mechanisms for proceedings in the main chamber as well as committees, and no plausible justification was given for us not to do the same.

Last weekend, the Parlimen Digital initiative jointly organised by Undi18, Challenger Malaysia, Liga Demokratik Malaysia, and the United Nations Association of Malaysia (Unam) Youth proved beyond doubt that an online parliamentary sitting can work in Malaysia, as 222 young Malaysians participated in debates on the economy and education. The technological feat was hardly the main achievement though.

Much more importantly, the proceedings (at least the parts I caught) were refreshing, articulate, and at times mesmerising. Armed with well-researched arguments, MPs (referred to as Yang Berkhidmat) spoke on issues encompassing disparities in infrastructure, unemployment, skills, minimum wage, digital literacy, access to education, and nutrition alongside broader aspirations for a united Malaysia. The role played by the two Speakers was key in keeping the debate going, with an efficient system in place for questions.

Free from the taint of corruption allegations or alignment to discredited political parties, there was no shouting, no swearing, and no sucking up to leaders.  Furthermore, the make-up of this digital house – selected by the organisers from thousands who applied to represent their constituencies – was more representative of Malaysia’s population than our actual Dewan Rakyat (excepting age): with 30 per cent being women, and inclusion of people with disabilities, and members from Orang Asli communities.

Although the Parlimen Digital MPs were impressive (apparently more so than the official Youth Parliament under the auspices of the Ministry of Youth and Sport), I’m not suggesting that our actual MPs should similarly be selected by a committee. The unrepresentativeness of our current Dewan Rakyat (in which the proportion of women is under 15 per cent) is an indictment on our political parties who have failed to reflect Malaysia’s diversity. Some might advocate the imposition of quotas, but for me the key is in opening and democratising candidate selection within parties, so that more people can attempt to become a candidate, and local branches can help decide who that should be. Of course, parties defined explicitly by race and religion have specific constraints, but coalition-building can mitigate this.

Also, I thought the organisers of Parlimen Digital could theoretically have been more provocative (though the workload would be enormous): rather than use existing constituencies, perhaps they could have taken the ‘Principles relating to the Delimitation of Constituencies’ from the 13th Schedule of the Federal Constitution and drawn an entirely new electoral map instead. Certainly, civil society is watching closely the developments that may soon affect the Election Commission.

After the conclusion of Parlimen Digital, it was reported that some participants were called by the police, lambasted as a form of intimidation. However, this was news even to the Inspector General of Police, who instead assured that freedom of speech would be respected by police. Equally encouragingly, support for the initiative came from the Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Ariff Yusof and Deputy Speaker Datuk Rashid Hasnon.

I too join many in civil society in congratulating the organisers of Parlimen Digital: simultaneously radical (by giving young people an unprecedented platform to air their views in an organised fashion) and conservative (by elevating the stature of one of our nation’s most august institutions). I hope there will be more iterations that may help keep the spirit of reform alive, continuing initiatives such as select committees and greater interaction with non-parliamentarians (including the Speaker’s Lecture Series of which I was the inaugural speaker).

When declaring open Malaysia’s Parliament in 1963, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Syed Putra said, “There can be no grander witness than this great structure itself of the ideals and hopes that people of Malaysia share – no finer gesture to the future of the faith and confidence they have in the continuing peace and happiness of Malaysia.”

Last weekend, all those involved in Parlimen Digital proved that those ideals and hopes can survive outside that great structure. Since there is now no constitutional (in both senses of the word) reason for Parliament to delay any further, let us see how our MPs now convey their voters’ ideals and hopes.

 

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.