Call for Parliament to be declared an essential service and for ten days of “virtual” Parliamentary meeting after the Yang di Pertuan Agong’s opening on May 18

Regardless of the government’s decision on the movement control order (MCO) on the expiry of its third phase on April 28, Parliament should be declared an essential service so that it could play its important role of scrutiny of the government’s efforts to successfully combat the twin public health and economic crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic and to galvanise national unity and solidarity in the crisis.

The Standing Orders Committee of Dewan Rakyat should meet urgently to prepare Parliament and the various Select Committees to enter the Internet era by holding “virtual” meetings.

In London later today, the House of Commons will launch its first “virtual” digital Parliament proceedings during question time.

This was after United Kingdom Members of Parliament agreed yesterday to plans to set up a digital debating chamber with 120 MPs able to take part remotely using Zoom video conferencing software and a maximum of 50 allowed to be physically present.

The UK House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has urged as many MPs as possible to take advantage of the digital 'hybrid' being offered and to 'stay at home' in order to protect against the spread of coronavirus.

Any MPs who do insist on physically attending will be required to adhere to strict social distancing rules and to sit at least two metres away from colleagues.

The passing of notes will be banned and the Commons doors will be kept open to reduce the risk of infection.

Sir Lindsay has insisted that all MPs - whether virtual or physically present - will be treated exactly the same.

The British Parliament has been in recess since March 25 and many MPs had called for an early return so they could demand answers from ministers on the government's approach to the current outbreak.

When the Multimedia Super Corridor was launched 25 years ago, it was to ensure that Malaysia is on the cutting edge of the new information technology and to leapfrog into the information age.

If we had accomplished this objective, Malaysia will be leading the world in digital Parliament instead of being a laggard in the information age.

There is no reason why the Malaysian Parliament cannot be on the cutting edge of information technology, and this is why the Standing Orders Committee should ensure that the Malaysian Parliament be a trail-blazer in digital parliamentary proceedings in the world.

In the past two years, the opening session of Parliament by the Yang di Pertuan Agong lasted five weeks with 20 days of Parliamentary meeting, not only for a policy debate on the government’s plans for the coming year, but also to deal with other parliamentary business like government bills, etc.

The idea that Parliament will meet for one day on May 18 for the delivery of the Royal Address just to comply with the constitutional requirement that Parliament must meet at least once in six months and then adjourn to July without any debate, including the traditional Motion of Thanks of the Royal Address, is most shocking and undemocratic, as it can only stem from people who have no notion, regard or respect for the democratic idea and the importance and role of parliamentary democracy.

In fact, any self-respecting Minister assigned the responsibility of Parliamentary affairs would have resigned in protest at such contempt and disregard of the proper role of Parliament. Unfortunately this is not the case.

In the United Kingdom in the last 24 hours, there was an increase of 4,301 Covid-19 confirmed cases and 828 Covid-19 deaths – twice the number of 2,133 active cases in Malaysia and nine times the total death toll of 92 in Malaysia.

With the shocking increase of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the United Kingdom, can the Prime Minister, the Minister in charge of parliamentary affairs or any Cabinet Minister for that matter explain why Parliament in Malaysia, with 5,425 Covid-19 cases and 92 deaths is meeting for only one day on May 18, when the Parliament in UK, which has now 129,044 Covid-19 cases (about 24 times more than that of Malaysia) and 17,337 deaths (188 times more than that of Malaysia) and have not reached the peak of the curve, is in active session with digital parliamentary proceedings to carry out the important task of government scrutiny?

It is time that the government should meet parliamentary opposition leaders to reach an agreement for virtual parliamentary proceedings to be held for at least 10 days in May following the Yang di Pertuan Agong’s royal address on May 18.

Lim Kit Siang MP for Iskandar Puteri