Malaysia needs more town hall meetings

MARCH 31 ― Malaysians are a funny lot. We complain a lot about the government but we rarely take the time to tell our elected representatives what kind of policies or laws we want them to advocate.

Of course, it’s also unfortunate that our lawmakers themselves rarely organise town hall meetings.

I don’t know when my MP ever organised a town hall meeting. I haven’t attended any since he was elected in the 2013 general elections.

It seems to be a chicken-and-egg situation. A few MPs say constituents often go to them for issues like drain blockages that come under the purview of the local council. Kelana Jaya MP Wong Chen said he stopped organising town hall meetings last year due to poor attendance.

On the other hand, American constituents shame lawmakers who skip town hall meetings and do things like post “Missing” ads on milk cartons and in newspapers.

Facebook even recently released a “town hall” function that enables users in the US to find out who their elected representatives are, to follow their Facebook pages, and to call/ message/ email the representative.

I recently attended a town hall meeting organised by Senator Khairul Azwan Harun from Umno Youth at Publika, dragging my reluctant apolitical friend along. The town hall meeting was about issues Khairul Azwan wanted to raise at the Senate.

When my (Chinese) friend and I arrived at the café, it was a little awkward at first because the long table was filled with mostly young Malay men. They fell silent upon seeing us. There was an instant flicker of doubt and a momentary feeling of “are we intruding on some secret Umno meeting?”

But, the senator and his team were very welcoming.

The ice-breaker was a discussion on the “Beauty and the Beast” ban. The small group of about a dozen people at the town hall meeting was surprisingly liberal, saying they didn’t see why a big fuss should be made over the movie that supposedly featured a gay scene.

We also talked about youth unemployment, which led to a discussion on the employability of young people and their lack of English language proficiency.

Some felt teaching methods should be improved or that a “finishing” school of sorts should be introduced to teach graduates how to apply for jobs.

I said the government should make the English subject a compulsory pass in the SPM examination. This plan was postponed last year, supposedly because teachers and students were not prepared.

Khairul Azwan promised to bring up what we discussed to the Senate.

It was a good session. Besides being able to channel my concerns to a representative who will (hopefully) address them, it was nice to have a civil discussion with people of different opinions.

Malaysian voters need to be able to express to elected lawmakers their opinions on legislations and issues that affect them. Even if the general electorate may seem apathetic, that shouldn’t stop lawmakers from making themselves available.

During a campaign I organised against RUU355, I found that many MPs were inaccessible. Emails sent to their email addresses provided on the Parliament website bounced. Many did not have Facebook or Twitter accounts either.

If politicians are afraid of being contactable or of meeting their constituents face to face in town hall meetings, they should not be in public office. Malaysians need lawmakers who can advocate on their behalf.

But if we can’t even call or see you in person, what’s the point of calling yourself a people’s representative?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.