KUALA LUMPUR, June 7 ― We are already at the midpoint of the year and Putrajaya has yet to hold a full Parliament sitting. To say this is highly unusual is an understatement.
The first meeting was originally slated from March 9 to April 16 but then the movement control order (MCO) started on March 18 and everything ground to a halt.
When the lockdown was relaxed under the conditional movement control order (CMCO), the Dewan Rakyat finally met, but only for one day on May 18 in accordance with Article 55(1) of the Federal Constitution, which stated that the Dewan shall convene no later than six months after its last meeting which was December 5, 2019.
Several youth groups in the country have urged the government to consider scheduling Parliament sittings to address urgent issues affecting students and young working adults.
Undi18, Challenger Malaysia and Liga Rakyat Demokraktik (LRD) have come together to initiate Parlimen Digital, a simulation of how a virtual Parliament sitting can take place in the country.
So, what is Parlimen Digital?
Parlimen Digital is a youth-led initiative which will host a virtual Parliament sitting on July 4 and 5; it will emulate an actual sitting including voting and passing of Bills.
The initiative aims to gather 222 representatives nationwide aged between 15 to 35 to engage in virtual Parliamentary debates on policy recommendations and to test the feasibility of virtual Parliamentary democracy.
Co-founder of Undi18 Tharma Pillai said it is not just about simulating a Parliament sitting, but to show that democracy can be digitised.
“It is not isolated to only Parliament sittings, but also state assemblies.
“This will show that there is a potential and possibility for us to continue our democratic practices in a healthy and safe manner,” Tharma told Malay Mail.
He added that once the proceedings are completed, a report will be generated based on the debates and outcome of the Parliamentary session.
“We will be submitting the reports to relevant government stakeholders and this will ‘force’ them to consider taking actions,” he said.
Conducted just like the physical Parliament sitting, the 222 seats will represent existing constituencies.
“We are still in the process of shortlisting the representatives and we have had quite a positive response of more than 2,500 applications.
“For marginal seats, if we are unable to find a representative in that constituency, we will pick a representative from the same state or from the closest constituency,” he added.
So what is the difference between Parlimen Digital and an actual Parliament session?
Challenger Malaysia secretary-general Jean Vaneisha explained that Parlimen Digital is run on a fully voluntary basis.
“How we’re different is that we are purely citizen-based where all 222 are independents and not politically affiliated.
“We didn’t want a partisan process because we just want it to genuinely help figure out how it would be possible for them (parliamentarians) to work from home but yet are able to debate and pass Bills,” she said.
With a digitised Parliament sitting, Jean pointed out that there need not be a food budget for 222 MPs since everyone would be working from home!
“So we were wondering what else could be stopping them? Maybe their problem is that they don’t know how to do it (to conduct Parliament online)?
“Or they are not familiar with working online? And so the aim of Parlimen Digital is to help make it accessible for groups under this category,” said Jean.
Questions about the delay
At the same time, Aisyah Hana of LRD said Parlimen Digital is also an outlet for youths to voice their concerns.
“Many youth non-governmental organisations have been asking why Parliament hasn’t resumed.
“Many of them are asking if it is because of technology challenges that Parliament sessions cannot commence.”
Other questions raised include whether the concern is of not knowing how to cram all 222 MPs in an online video conference meeting.
“If you compare procedures done online by the UK, Canada and New Zealand Parliaments, they all have simplified certain procedures in a Parliament sitting, but yet remain functional.
“So we are trying to come up with something where we can cut down on certain procedures like reading of Bills, but it does not alter the order of a Parliament sitting,” she said.
On April 28, the Canadian Parliament conducted their very first Parliament sitting via video conferencing where one of their sessions featured more than 250 MPs.
As for the European Union Parliament, it switched over to online voting from March 26.
The British Parliament also for the first time in history on April 21 approved a new measure in allowing some of the August House’s business to be done remotely.
As a step toward a completely virtual Parliament, the British Parliament started by allowing up to 120 MPs to pose questions to ministers via the Zoom video conferencing platform.
Brazil, Spain, Norway and Finland too have amended laws to allow remote sittings, while the Maldives and New Zealand have started hosting certain meetings remotely.
“So it is not an excuse (to say that Parliament cannot carry on due to Covid-19),” she added.
Aisyah also pointed out that Parlimen Digital is not a left-wing initiative; it is working with Parlimen Belia, an initiative supported by the government. The latter was even brought in as an adviser.
“We are also speaking to various youth wings of political parties and trying to get them to join us in this initiative,” she added.
One of the challenges faced by Parlimen Digital would be to ensure that all 222 MPs have adequate internet connection.
“There will be places with poor internet reception but we will be offering an aid to help these representatives. This is also something that we want to prove... that there is no reason why the government cannot overcome this when they have resource,s unlike us ― youths who are raising funds on our own,” Aisyah said.
Some questions were raised as to whether there are video conferencing platforms that could host all 222 MPs at once, and the answer is yes.
According to Parlimen Digital’s technical team, led by Eshaan Menon, the process is quite simple.
“There is an option on Zoom for video conferencing that involves up to 250 people. So only one person needs to have this account to invite all attendees of the session.
“And for ‘live’ sessions, we will be broadcasting through a third party source streaming software,” he said.
Eshaan, who is a software engineer and a Youth Advisory Council representative for Asia at the World Federation of United Nations Associations said another thing to take into account is to ensure that all meetings are secure.
“All these features are available on the platforms that we are using (Zoom and Google) such as end-to-end encryption, password protection for both meetings and voting process.
“Each participant is also tagged to the names of their respective constituencies so that we can detect if the participant is a fraud,” he said.
Other security features include voting forms that require signing in with registered e-mail accounts and OTP (one time password) for each vote generated and is provided to each constituency, Eshaan said.
“I have previously helped organise mass conferences online so this will be something similar except for certain procedures that are unique to a Parliament sitting such as the Standing Order which will be digitised as well,” he added.