Parliamentary scrutiny in the digital age

It has always been clear that politics and the youth don’t match. Most young people are only exposed to politics through snappy news headlines or viral videos.

In this, we all understand. But to the youth, politics means boring procedures, unending conflicts and uppity politicians seeking popularity.

Not to mention the vast fog of ignorance about legislature and the judiciary, compared to the familiar embrace of the executive. So, we tried to make Parliament more open and accessible.

This was when the Institute for R&D of Policy (IRDP) gave us an internship and task to analyse parliamentary proceedings. We were told to find out what was being asked in Parliament, and whether the members of parliament (MPs) were giving relevant answers.

With this in mind, we delved into the chore of reading the Hansard, or better yet, writing a code to read it for us. As physics students in Universiti Malaya, we have learned coding in the Python system.

In writing a code to read the Hansard and additional documents, we encountered our first problem, that was the inconsistent format.

MPs were mentioned sometimes by title, other times by name. There was also double spacing in one sentence and single spacing in the next.

Even the apostrophes were typed in different fonts. Nevertheless, this didn’t prepare us for the worst — the constant interruption by other MPs.

Once we have finally categorised all into either a question or an answer, we tried to find the relevance between them.

The first thing we found was that the human brain has an instinctive knowledge on what is relevant or not, and transcribing that instinct into a rigid logical code was not going to be a task that we could do.

We found the solution in matching keywords in questions to keywords in answers. The greater the match, the more relevance is given. We called it keyword analysis.

It was not the smartest idea and it seemed a bit rudimentary, but a bit of polishing and integrating webs of words made us more confident of the results.

And with those results, we were excited. Not only could we find out whether ministers were serious in answering questions, but we could also identify whether the MPs’ questions were unique or just a repeat of other questions.

What if it is a repeat? Are each of the answers given consistent, or do ministers flip-flop their answers when asked repeatedly?

This kind of digital scrutiny, we hope, will not stop at the federal level. Even state assembly proceedings, which do not receive wide public attention, may be checked.

Are these representatives of the people really representing local issues or are they just muddling in national politics, kicking a fuss outside their jurisdiction?

And we can finally ascertain whether these politicians are talking policy or playing politics.

Should this be successfully used, we expect MPs, members of the administration and their officers to use our results to come up with effective questions and be more responsible in giving answers.

This “system” may have an impact larger than what we hoped for.

Delightedly, we are imagining a new Malaysia where politicians are no longer adjudicated on catchy talking points and made-for-media rhetoric, but to be objectively judged by the contents of their debates and character.

It is our hope that our efforts can be used to unveil the people in power and their speeches, so much so that fellow Malaysians can easily and accurately follow and judge the actions of those who represent the people.

EMIL IRFAN AND HARITH ZULFAIZAL

Institute for R&D of Policy (IRDP), Kuala Lumpur

Also published at:

https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/letters/2020/08/618109/parliamentary-scrutiny-digital-age

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