MARCH 2 — Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about London is the city’s culture, love of knowledge, and appreciation of history, something which I wish Malaysia had more of.
When I visited London for the first time last month, I was blown away by the accessibility of the UK Parliament that allowed foreign visitors like me — without having to write a letter to Parliament’s office, unlike in Malaysia — to visit and watch a parliamentary debate up close from behind a glass screen. (It was a boring debate though, on a safety review of medical devices).
The Parliament building itself, called the Palace of Westminster, is practically a museum. It features art depicting historical scenes and statues of not just kings and queens, but also of prominent politicians over the centuries.
That way, history is not just relegated to boring textbooks in school; it comes alive in the very halls of lawmaking.
The sculptures do not just have the person’s name, but descriptive captions explaining the figure’s background. A statue of Charles James Fox (1749—1806) describes Fox as the great-grandson of Charles II who had served 20 years as leader of the opposition and had fervently defended “the rights of the individual against an increasingly coercive state.”
Although the UK Parliament preserves the old, it also makes democracy fresh and accessible to the people. It has colourful booklets explaining, in layman’s language, what is happening in Parliament and how people can find out what laws are changing and comment on draft Bills.
The brochures also explain how constituents can contact their MP and how to get one’s voice heard in Parliament.
One brochure reads: “Get involved: It’s your Parliament. Parliament makes decisions that affect you, from setting the age when you start school to deciding pensions policy. Parliament makes laws, checks and challenges the work of Government, and sets taxes. That is why there are general elections every five years so that voters can decide who should represent them as Members of Parliament and have a say in how the UK is run.”
Perhaps if the Malaysian Parliament explained what exactly its functions were and why we should go to the ballot box every five years, more people would register as voters and treat their MPs as proper lawmakers and representatives, instead of treating them as drain fixers or charity sources.
Helpful hyperlinks are listed out in the UK Parliament’s brochures. The UK Parliament website has a “Get involved” section that details how people can follow the progress of current laws and have their say on Bills that affect them.
The website also plainly states the functions of the House of Commons (makes laws and checks the work of government) and House of Lords (checking and shaping draft laws and challenging the work of government).
In contrast, Malaysia’s Parliament website does not explain what exactly the Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara do, merely saying Members of Parliament and Senators have “duties” to uphold the Constitution.
But their “duties” (ie: to make and check laws) are not described. How ordinary people can get involved in Parliament is not explained either.
The UK Parliament organises a UK Parliament Week every year, hosting events and activities to engage the people. This year, the UK Parliament has programmes celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage, since the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918 that allowed some women, and all men, to vote for the first time.
The “Vote 100” programme features videos of women sharing how laws passed by the UK Parliament have changed their lives for the better and invites people to hold a screening and discuss women’s rights.
The UK Parliament even has a toolkit for people to hold their own ”EqualiTeas“ tea parties to talk about what equality means to them over tea.
The UK Parliament offers guided tours too, with a brochure boasting of the building’s “fascinating history” and explaining how to buy tickets.
There is even a shop in the UK Parliament! It sells things from books to stationery, confectionery, children’s toys, cufflinks, and homeware. The store even sells a Speaker’s Whiskey. My partner bought me an “Honourable Lady” coaster. The back of the coaster states: “During debates in Parliament, MPs do not refer to each other by name but by a variety of formal titles according to their status. Most MPs are referred to as ‘the Honourable Member for…’ followed by the name of their constituency or as either ‘the Honourable gentleman’ or ‘the Honourable lady’.”
Even a coaster can be used to teach people about parliamentary conventions (and the absurdity of calling an MP “YB” outside the House).
When I visited Parliament, I saw three small simultaneous protests outside the building. There were hardly any police around. The biggest group comprised of highly skilled migrants protesting against the government refusing them permission to remain in the UK over mistakes made in their tax returns. Smaller groups of people beside them demonstrated against Brexit and faith schools.
I also watched The Phantom of the Opera, a passionate and wonderfully immersive musical. My partner initially wanted us to watch Les Misérables, thinking I would be drawn to the musical’s revolutionary tones. He was surprised that I preferred the story of a woman with daddy issues torn between two men (but Phantom has such great music). Tickets only cost £23 (RM124), far cheaper than in Singapore.
We also attended an Intelligence Squared debate titled ”The Left has right on its side“ that debated the merits of socialism versus conservatism. The Right — which champions free markets and free choice, my personal philosophy — won the debate.
London even has free lectures for the public organised by Gresham College. We attended one by Professor Alister McGrath, a theologian and professor of science and religion from the University of Oxford, titled: “If humans are so great, why is the world such a mess?” He essentially talked about the idea of good and evil and explored questions on whether power corrupts or if power merely reveals one’s true self.
We went for Jack the Ripper and Harry Potter tours too.
There are statues of significant people throughout British history all over London.
Malaysia, with its multicultural heritage, has lots to show the world and her own people. We need to be more imaginative and creative in displaying our country’s history and culture so that Malaysians (and foreigners) can learn about it in a fun and memorable way.
We also have so much to learn from the way UK makes democracy and Parliament accessible to people. Parliament can start by coming up with brochures, exciting events, and revamping the Parliament website so that parliamentary democracy becomes much more understandable to the layperson who doesn’t have a law or political science degree.
If the “government knows all” age has indeed passed, Malaysia must empower ordinary citizens and encourage greater public participation in the lawmaking process.