Conservatively speaking freely, 31 March 2017

After I graduated with my Master’s degree in London I did some work for a crossbench (i.e. independent) member of the House of Lords and her think tank which focused on issues relating to demographic change.  As such, I worked both in the Palace of Westminster itself as well as the think tank’s office located nearby.

On the morning of 7 July 2005 I was in that office, immersed in writing a policy research report when my phone started vibrating incessantly.  There was a torrent of messages from family and friends – including those in Malaysia – asking where I was, if I was okay, and whether I was stuck anywhere.  I did not understand the context until I looked at the news: reports initially said a power outage or crash meant that the London Underground was paralysed.  It was only later that it emerged it was a terrorist attack coordinated on London’s transport infrastructure; including a bomb that mangled a double-decker bus – that ultimate worldwide symbol of London.

Last week (on 22 March) it was my turn to message friends in London when I saw the breaking news that another of its symbols – a building that also represents a system of government adopted and adapted all over the world – was attacked.  Recalling my state of confusion in 2005, I included the context: “Just read that Parliament was attacked – are you OK?”  But in 2017, social media ensures that people receive such serious news immediately.

No one I knew was directly affected, but certainly for me and my colleagues who used to work with me in the building, it was a stark reminder of the possibility of terrorism in the places that we frequent regularly.  After working with the baroness I worked for a member of the House of Commons, and walked across Westminster Bridge and through New Palace Yard almost everyday.  In 82 seconds, Khalid Masood, born Adrian Elms, killed three and injured over fifty people on Westminster Bridge and fatally stabbed a police officer at New Palace Yard before being shot dead.

The response by the British Government and Parliament fit that archetypal British motto – “Keep Calm and Carry On” – perfectly.  Though there was a period of mourning, official statements tempered the outrage with the clear message that business was to continue as normal, and the House of Commons sat as usual.  In the end, the attacker was deemed to have acted alone, not part of a wider coordinated assault – itself an alarming fact since the sheer randomness of such attacks (without a trail of intelligence or evidence) means that they are difficult to prevent.  After the attack, our Prime Minister tweeted his sympathy, and that “Malaysia stands with the United Kingdom” against terrorism.

In the video footage that emerged, and in scenes in the chamber afterwards, it was remarkable to see political enemies coming together to defend the very essence of their democracy.  And it is important to remember how much our country’s parliamentary system was influenced by that tradition.

In its first ever sitting, our first Yang di-Pertuan Agong said that: “Centuries of thought and experience have contributed to the evolution of the parliamentary system,” before stressing the importance of the “legislature of persons elected by citizens at regular intervals by means of secret ballot”, “the executive authority must answer to the elected legislature” and “the rule of law must exist in the State”.  Four years later, the third Yang di-Pertuan Agong opened the new Parliament building, saying “There can be no grander witness than this great structure itself of the ideals and hopes that people of Malaysia share… What is profoundly important here is that this building symbolises our highest ideals of democracy.”  (P Ramlee said the same in music in his Keroncong Kuala Lumpur.)  Unfortunately, the state of our Parliament today does not always seem commensurate with these ideals: particularly the elements referred to by the first Agong.

There was once a terrorist attack on one of our symbols of freedom, on 27 August 1975 when a bomb blast removed a statue and the heads of three other statues comprising the National Monument (Tugu Negara).  At its opening in 1966, the first Prime Minister hoped the monument would be “an enduring reminder of the victory of good over evil, and serve as a constant symbol of the eternal truth – that come what may, the cause of right and justice will always triumph in the end.”

If the symbols of our democracy – most of all Parliament – lose their relevance, it won’t take an act of terror to destroy the founding principles of our country: our own failures will do that.

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