RECENTLY, we organised the first ever, civil-society initiated Digital Parliament in the world. This initiative was organised by four youth organisations; Undi18, Challenger Malaysia, Liga Rakyat Demokratik and UNAM Youth. It was for the youth, by the youth.
We brought together 222 youths from across Malaysia to represent their constituencies, similar to how a real Parliamentary seating would. Apart from intending to prove the feasibility of a virtual Parliamentary sitting, Parlimen Digital’s objectives also included the desire to platform the voices of the Malaysian youth, and increase awareness of parliamentary proceedings among the younger demographic of Malaysia. The incredible response to Parlimen Digital has been a true litmus test with undeniable results with regards to youth political participation in the county.
During the two weeks leading up to the July 4 -5 virtual mock sittings, the representatives organised themselves into caucuses and blocks, lobbied each other, initiated meetings with elected representatives, conducted surveys, focus groups and mock proceedings, and all in all, went above and beyond in their efforts and participation.
This could be seen as a strong indicator that the Constitutional amendment for 18-year-olds to vote – which while passed, has not yet been gazetted – is not only overdue; it is also insufficient. Should entrance and involvement in politics become more accessible, there would be a sudden and great influx in extraordinarily capable youth actively and passionately taking part in public policy and nation-building conversations.
Policy, not Politics
The secretariat of Parlimen Digital served as a non-partisan and wholly independent body which lent to the curation of a fair and just platform. While personal biases and leanings inevitably may exist, all efforts and considerations were taken to promote an equitable and unprejudiced line-up of 222 independent representatives who could debate calmly and efficiently in the virtual “Dewan Rakyat”. The choosing of the Tuan and Puan “Yang di-Pertua” from neutral, non-partisan backgrounds was also an important factor in the creation of a non-divisive atmosphere.
The secretariat encouraged our young YBs (Young Berkhidmat) to reach out to parliamentarians and state representatives in their constituency, regardless of political leanings. The Parlimen Digital representatives had meetings with politicians across the political spectrum such as Datuk Sri Nancy Shukri, Datuk Sri Mustapa Mohamed and Syed Saddiq. We even managed to have a meeting with Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Mohamad Ariff.
Even among the representatives we had a diversity of perspectives and political leanings. Some were conservative, some were liberal. We even had card-carrying Umno and DAP members debating together on youth issues. The proceedings, which lasted for four hours each day, showed a total of 47 representatives delivering thoughtful, impactful and well-researched speeches on two topics: a youth-specific economic response to Covid-19 on July 4, and a plan to close the gaps in the education sector due to the pandemic on July 5. As everything was issues-based, the debates were conducted in an amicable, mature and efficient fashion, with few interruptions. When voting was carried out, representatives could vote by conscience, instead of having to toe party lines.
What’s next for Parlimen Digital?
The recommendation from the Parlimen Digital sessions will be compiled into a report to highlight the perspectives of the Malaysian youth. This report will then be published to the public and it will also be submitted to relevant stakeholders, such as the Prime Minister’s Office, the Youth and Sports Ministry and to select Members of Parliament.
We are also collaborating with Unicef Malaysia to carry out capacity building programs for the 222 Digital Parliamentarians, as well as the almost 2000 youth who have applied to join the programme, but were not accepted.
Beyond that, who knows? We have been approached by a few state governments who want to experiment on how Parlimen Digital can be replicated on a state-level, so that they can empower local youth to debate state-based issues and be more connected to the local communities.
Is democracy limited to the four walls of the Dewan Rakyat? Or the posh meeting rooms of political parties? Is it merely about placing a piece of paper in a ballot box every five years?
We believe that democracy is about you and me. It is about the citizens of a country continuing to have a say over the direction of national policy and governance. In a nation state, we only lend authority to the government of the day, which means that real power should belong with the people, not the politicians or un-elected bureaucrats. We often forget that.
By dismissing governance as “just politics”, we stop engaging with the most important part of government: creating good policies for the country. Parlimen Digital shows that if you put a group of normal citizens in a (virtual) room together, there is room for genuine, vibrant, evidence-based policy making.
Democratic empowerment begins with the youth. When national politics feels disheartening, do not give up, do not fret. Be brave enough to reimagine democracy. And invest in the youth.
Tharmelinggem Pillai is co-founder of Undi18 while Alicia Nicolle is a member of Challenger Malaysia. The views expressed here are their own.