Malaysia has not held a proper parliamentary session since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak and youths are trying to prove that it is still possible to do so virtually.
Parliamentary sessions have been disrupted for three months due to COVID-19 restrictions and the unexpected change in government. The shortest parliamentary sitting in Malaysia’s history took place for two hours on May 18 when the king delivered a speech warning members against another political crisis.
Due to the delay, several bills including the COVID-19 bill meant to minimize the economic and social impacts of the pandemic have yet to pass. This concerned a number of Malaysia’s youths who had gathered to evaluate the “government’s performances” with regard to the health crisis.
“I think the delay of parliament sets a dangerous precedence because parliamentary sittings are one of the opportunities for Malaysians to hold their leaders accountable. Especially now with so much uncertainty and instability, it’s important for us to uphold democratic practices,” Qyira Yusri, the co-founder and education director of the Undi18 collective, told Coconuts KL in a recent interview.
Undi18 joined two other political collectives Challenger Malaysia and the People’s League for Democracy (Liga Rakyat Demokraktik) to simulate a two-day virtual parliamentary sitting called Digital Parliament (Parlimen Digital).
Undi18 once fought for the democratic voting age to be lowered from 21 to 18. The bill was passed last July, with unanimous approval from all 211 members of parliament at the time.
The 25-year-old later added: “What’s really holding back the government from gathering together digitally? Because there are countries that have done it, like the UK and Maldives. A lot of people are trying to find ways to make sure that democracy goes on, yet in Malaysia, we did not want to entertain the idea.”
The first parliament sitting of the year was originally slated for March 9 to April 16 but it was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The second parliament sitting is slated to be held from July 13 to Aug 27.
Neither of Malaysia’s 222 parliamentary members have so far entertained the idea of holding sittings virtually. However, former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq and Selangor rep Lim Yi Wei have shown their support for the Parlimen Digital independent initiative, with Lim suggesting that youths also discuss issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and equal pay.
Nearly 6,000 applications
Parlimen Digital will be held on July 4 and 5 and participants are expected to discuss potential policies addressing the effects of COVID-19 in Malaysia. Nearly 6,000 youths aged 15 to 35 have registered their interest to participate since applications opened on June 1.
Only 222 will take part after they go through three rounds of selections.
“The objective of Parlimen Digital is to prove that an online gathering of 222 people [is] possible,” Qyira said. “It’s not impossible to gather our parliamentarians virtually for 4 to 5 hours, and it’s better than not sitting for a parliament at all.”
Of course, the virtual parliament would be different from regular parliament meetings, she said. She hopes that the two sessions, which will each run from 9am to 1pm, would be focused, concise, and productive.
“You can’t expect someone to sit in front of a computer for twelve hours straight, just like in a real parliament where you may be debating for ten, twelve hours,” she said.
Parlimen Digital received around 5,700 applications from Malaysians all over the country who mostly share a common cause to represent their respective districts and have their voices heard. Applications closed last week.
“It’s very interesting to see them talk about not just national-level issues and policies, but they also included issues about their community, friends, and families, in hopes that Parlimen Digital will shed light on those issues,” Qyira said.
The collectives will pick the candidates based on three rounds of selections – the first one will be based on their geographical location, followed by the quality of their applications and diverse representations. Applicants are required to answer a few short-essay questions.
“So if there are not many people applying for your state, there are higher chances that you’ll be getting it,” she said.
She added: “We want to ensure that voices of minority communities, women, OKU (differently-abled), orang asli (natives) are heard (at Parlimen Digital).”
Qyira hopes that someone from the Malaysian government would sign up as an observer too.
“Even if they don’t tune in, we are putting together a process report of us creating Parlimen Digital which we will release it to the public, as well as send it to the Prime Minister’s office and parliamentarians,” she said.
Other stories to check out:
Youths speak up on student welfare, education in Malaysia’s first virtual parliament
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