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It was a surreal experience sitting in the visitors gallery of the Dewan Rakyat the other day watching members of the 14th Parliament take their oath of office. It was like sitting in on history as it unfolded.

A moment to remember

There was the redoubtable Dr Mahathir once again in his old seat with the wife of his one-time nemesis sitting beside him in the capacity of deputy prime minister. And all the familiar faces that were long associated with the term “opposition” now ensconced comfortably in the government benches.

What an awesome feeling it must have been for all these former opposition stalwarts to be  sitting on the right side of the House and of history.

The indomitable Lim Kit Siang was there as well clearly savouring the moment. Perhaps no other politician in our history fought so long and sacrificed so much for the changes now unfolding in our nation. They say it’s hard to keep a good man down; he’s the proof of it.

And how in keeping with the times to see Judge Mohamad Ariff Yusof, a man of sterling character and integrity, take the speaker’s chair. His presence in the chair is itself proof enough of the new government’s respect for the role of parliament in our democracy.

His appointment may not have met the letter of Pakatan’s pledge to appoint an MP as speaker but it far surpasses it in spirit.

A parliament worthy of our nation

I have been a civil servant and ambassador for a long time. Over the years I have had to watch in silent dismay the antics of so many of our parliamentarians – their lavish junkets abroad, their boorish behaviour, their own sense of entitlement. Their disdain for the people who elected them was always evident.

They shamefully trampled on the fine parliamentary traditions that underpinned our democracy, stifling debate and rubber-stamping the ill-conceived and malicious actions of an overbearing executive. They looked the other way in the face of some of the worst excesses our nation has seen, dishonouring in the process the very institution that was meant to give expression to our democracy.

Some were such poor representatives of our nation that I confess there were times when I felt ashamed to claim them as my own. But those days are behind us now. Looking around the chamber on that first day of Parliament, I couldn’t help thinking that we finally have a parliament we can be proud of, a parliament worthy of our nation.

Passionate & committed

To be sure, many of the newbie MPs are  inexperienced in parliamentary procedure but there’s no doubting, however, their passion and commitment to building a better Malaysia. Many of them know what it is like to be tear-gassed, arrested, imprisoned, and harassed for their convictions. It’s hard not to believe that they will not be more tolerant of dissent, more respectful of human rights or more sensitive to the hopes and aspirations of our people.

Together – seasoned hands and newcomers, idealists and pragmatists, dreamers and realists, religious and secularists, young and old, graduates from renowned institutions and certificate holders from the school of hard knocks – they constitute, arguably, the most formidable team ever assembled on the government benches.

To survive as a government, they will have to learn to give and take, negotiate and accommodate as our diversity demands. There’ll be challenges, of course, but if anyone can do it, it is this team of parliamentarians.

Heads in the sand

And it is just as well given that so many of those who sit in the opposition benches appear to still have their heads in the sand, unable to rise to the demands of a nation reborn. Perhaps they’ve fed on their own bile for so long that they are no longer capable of providing the kind of credible opposition we had hoped for.

Even as Parliament got down to work, UMNO minions were outside Parliament doing their utmost to stoke fears of impending doom and spewing their usual racism and bigotry. They had earlier announced that they would march with hands bound and mouths taped to symbolize the loss of Malay power but apparently thought better of it. It would have been more appropriate for them to have taped their eyes instead to symbolize their own lack of vision.

People are watching

Whatever it is, members of the 14th Parliament should know that the citizens who elected them will be watching them closely.  While the people understand the challenges ahead, and will certainly give them some leeway, the honeymoon will not last forever.

Promises were made; promises must be kept. We’ve come too far and fought too hard to accept anything less than genuine transformation and real change. There is an expectation too that they’ll put principle ahead of party in the interests of the people. The people have rediscovered the power of their vote and will use it to hold them accountable.

As well, they’d better be prepared to leave the ivory tower that parliament can sometimes be and walk among the lesser mortals in whose name they govern. All too many of the MPs whose seats they now occupy were just too full of themselves, their honorifics, their entitlements; and they paid the price for it.

Repository of our hopes

Five years is a short time in politics but it’s all the time they will get to fulfil their promises to reform our nation, banish corruption, rebuild our economy and forge a new national consensus on the issues that have long divided us.

It’s a tall order for sure but they have the support of the people and the parliamentary majority to get things done. All that is needed now is the political will, courage and wisdom to do right by our nation.

In a very real sense, these members of parliament have become the repository of all our hopes and dreams for a better, more inclusive nation. Our future is now in their hands. May Almighty God give them the grace to rise to the occasion.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 19th July 2018]