Doing politics differently

  • All the pieces matter
  • Sunday, 05 Jul 2020

Youth-driven Parlimen Digital shows what Malaysia 2.0 might look like, when governance is about consensus building and common ground, not endless bickering.

PARLIMEN Digital is going on this weekend.

If you want to watch what our Parliament should be like, look no further.

In this initiative by Undi18 and partners, young Malaysians from all across the country were invited to apply to be one of 222 “members of parliament” for a weekend of proceedings, where they debated the motion: “Do we need an economic stimulus plan specifically for youth?”

The response thus far seems to have been overwhelmingly positive, with more than a few stating that these young Malaysians are doing a better job than our actual parliamentarians.

It’s not hard to imagine why. The debates are on point, relevant, and completely free of the toxic mudslinging and partisan politics that have polluted our august house for so long.

In its place we see enthusiasm, idealism, and genuine patriotism.

Of course, many “realists” will be quick to point out that it is easy for this collective to be that way because they do not have to go through the actual process of forming political parties like the ones we have, or participating in our existing electoral system.

Such young idealists, they might say, would never survive the “real world” of politics.

These kinds of comments inspired me to reflect on the meaning of the word “real”.

I think there are two fundamental ends of the spectrum, with regards to how to approach reality. On one end, reality is seen as something immutable that you should accept and do your best to adapt to.

On the other end, reality is something you shape – not something you are shaped by.

Accepting our “reality” and all our existing systems as something immutable that is too difficult to change is one of the most dangerous, insidious myths that has poisoned our collective imagination.

The question is not how young Malaysians should adapt to the “real world”, but how we can make the world these young Malaysians dream of real.

In place of our neverending political mire of bickering, backstabbing, and partisanship, our youth have given us a living, breathing example of what it looks and sounds like when Malaysians come together and find real solutions for the nation based on common ground.

This article has no intention of being limited to fluff or pontification. Let’s dive deep into two factors that account for the biggest differences.

I think the biggest differentiating factor is the one that receives some of the least attention: money.

There is no financial reward for participating in Parlimen Digital. Becoming a representative there is not a pathway to a cushy job in a government linked company, or a position in which one can award contracts and get kickbacks.

This very simple factor creates a day and night difference in terms of who is incentivised to participate.

If there is a lot of money at stake, then the ones most incentivised to participate are those that are the greediest.

The sincere and the pure will almost never be able to marshall the kind of resources and energy as those who see politics as a means towards fortune, wealth, and riches beyond measure.

The second factor that makes Parlimen Digital so different is that there is no partisan electoral process to select the representatives.

I will admit that the process used to select said representatives for Parlimen Digital more or less cannot be replicated on a national scale.

That said, it does highlight many key flaws in our electoral system – primarily that it is a zero-sum game, and thus one that is exceedingly oppositional and adversarial.

In other words, our electoral system incentivises people to fight each other all the time, and to constantly generate hate towards one’s opponent. What could possibly be more toxic?

Moving forward, I believe that addressing these two concerns will make the biggest difference in improving the quality of governance, and thus quality of life in Malaysia.

Describing solutions in detail requires book length exposition, but for here, perhaps I will summarise two key suggestions.

First, ensure that being elected to office is no guarantee of being able to make undue profits.

For starters, this means disqualifying elected representatives from key positions in government linked companies and other institutions with large financial resources.

It also means ensuring that no elected representative, even (or especially) ministers, are guaranteed sole decision making powers with regards to major financial decisions.

Instead, all major financial decisions (such as awarding of contracts and so on), should be made by committees, which consist at least in part of individuals selected at random – including in part from pools of qualified people.

Secondly, the smallest unit of constituency should be made much, much smaller – to the point where voters can be reasonably expected to have interacted with (or even know) candidates for election personally. This familiarity should be the overriding basis for who to vote for, instead of party affiliation.

Needless to say, suggestions sketched out as briefly as these invite more questions than answers, but for today, I only list them here as key potential systemic changes that are most likely in my view to produce a new breed of leaders – ones who behave more like those in Parlimen Digital, and less like those in our actual Parliament.

These are of course all well and good in theory, but will mean nothing unless we take tangible steps towards reforming and reshaping our reality.

Changes of this scale can only be made by a government that wants to make these changes.

Everything I have seen in over 15 years of writing about Malaysian politics tells me that none of the existing political players are incentivised to push for reforms of this type or scale.

More and more, what I am seeing around me every day though, is that Malaysians are no longer willing to wait for politicians or anyone else to do the dirty work for them.

More and more, we are starting to realise that they are causing the problem, and they do not have the solutions. We have the solutions. We have the responsibility. We have the ability.

If we truly want the Malaysia we deserve, we must realise that no one will give it to us. We have to work hard. We have to make it happen. We, and no one else.

NATHANIEL TAN realises we are fast reaching the point where we have to put our money where our mouth is. He can be reached at

The views expressed here are solely his own. Parlimen Digital is streaming on from 9am to 1pm today.

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