“PARLIAMENT to be dissolved tomorrow.” The statement reached me in a series of excited volleys from my friends as soon as this much awaited announcement broke a little more than just two weeks ago. Despite simultaneously coming from so many sources, I remained sceptical until it was announced via the official channels several hours later.
Caught up with this momentous breaking news, I decided to head over to the State Library in Jalan Kolam Air, Kedah the very next day to find out more about our nation’s single most important symbol of democracy.
DELVING THROUGH HISTORY
The library is packed. It’s hardly surprising as it’s the weekend here in Kedah. Finding myself searching high and low for seats in the packed reference section, jostling with many eager others, I eventually get my ‘port’ near the window.
Having secured my place, placing my folder to ‘mark’ my presence, I make a beeline towards some formidable-looking book racks, each filled with reading materials stacked nearly as high as the ceiling. Before long, I return with an armful of books and start sifting through them.
I take the next hour or so to slowly digest the mountain of information. By then, it becomes obvious to me that none of the states which are part of Malaysia had parliaments or any form resembling it prior to Independence except for Sarawak which had its Council Negri. The remaining states at that time were compliant to the British High Commissioner.
Established by James Brooke in 1863, the Council provided for local participation and representation in the state’s administration. Despite the appearance of having the ability to make executive decisions, the fact remained that the Council Negri remained subservient to Brooke who was still the supreme law maker in Sarawak.
It was only during the lead up to Merdeka in 1957 that the concept of having a Parliament became a reality. The Reid Commission, which drafted the Constitution of Malaya, modelled the Malayan system of government after the English bicameral parliament structure.
Mirroring the British House of Commons and House of Lords, the Malayan system provided for an all-powerful, directly-elected house called Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) and the other, comprising appointed members with limited powers, named Dewan Negara (Senate).
The Malayan Constitution provided for the pre-independence Federal Legislative Council to continue serving as the Federation of Malaya’s governing body until 1959, when the first post-independence general election was held and the first Parliament of Malaya was elected.
Following the first general election after Independence, the Parliament of the Federation of Malaya met for the first time on Sept 11, 1959 at Tunku Abdul Rahman Hall in Maxwell Road (now Jalan Tun Ismail).
This building was officially declared open a year earlier on Feb 24, 1958 by the first Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj. Known prior to its opening as the International Conference Hall, the venue was renamed in honour of the much loved premier when he officiated the opening.
Malaya’s first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman Ibni Almarhum Tuanku Muhammad, officiated the opening of our nation’s inaugural Parliament. This momentous event saw the pioneer group of Parliament members convene concurrently in the same building for the first time in history.
The first order of the day was the appointment of the President and Speaker of both Dewan. This was then followed by the oath-taking ceremony of 38 senators and 104 elected representatives. During their time at the Hall, the Dewan Negara occupied the ground floor while the upper level was reserved for the Dewan Rakyat.
TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN HALL
Suddenly, a binder filled with stamp magazines catches my attention. In one of them, I find a comprehensive listing of the different Parliament-themed stamps produced in our country since the institution’s inception. According to the information available, the Malayan Postal Services issued stamps of three denominations to mark this historic 1959 inauguration.
Apart from the 4 cents (red), 10 cents (red) and 25 cents (green) stamps, a plethora of official and private first day covers were also printed. Among the illustrations, I notice an attractively designed envelope addressed to a private individual at Tunku Abdul Rahman Hall.
This discovery makes me realise that the use of Tunku Abdul Rahman Hall back then wasn’t exclusive to the Parliament members. On days when the law makers didn’t meet, this building was used to host various events pertinent to the development of Malaya as a young nation.
The lack of privacy and exclusivity greatly disturbed Tunku Abdul Rahman. He felt that the Parliament, as one of the most important institutions in Malaya, should have a specially-dedicated building to call its own.
After much deliberation, Tunku Abdul Rahman finally decided on a site near the Lake Gardens (Taman Tasik Perdana today) known as West Folly Hill. This 16.2 hectare plot was chosen primarily for its strategic location and close proximity to the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
Before construction began, Malaya’s third Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Syed Putra Al-Haj Ibni Al-Marhum Syed Hassan Jamalullail laid the foundation stone for the Parliament complex on Aug 31, 1962, a date which coincided with the 5th anniversary of Merdeka.
A time capsule weighing 385kg was placed next to the foundation stone. This specially-designed marble receptacle contained a Hansard copy of the first meeting of the House of Representatives in 1958, several copies of the Straits Times and examples of various vernacular newspapers together with a representation of the Malayan currency, both in the form of banknotes and coins. Also included were samples of the main drivers of the Malayan economy at that time — tin ore and ingots, rubber sheets and paddy seeds.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE PARLIAMENT COMPLEX
Work began in September 1962 with the levelling of West Folly Hill until a plateau measuring 61 metres above sea level was obtained. Then, it took a team of dedicated workers almost an entire year to complete the project which consisted primarily of two main buildings.
The roof top of the three-storey Main Block sported a unique combination of 11 triangular-shaped structures collectively called the pinnacle. This number coincided with the number of states that made up the Federation at that time.
The entire facade of this building which housed the Dewan Rakyat was made of terrazzo. This composite material functioned to control the entry of natural light and consequently, the temperature of the building itself. In order to enhance its uniqueness, the terrazzo was precast to resemble the skin of a pineapple, an important cash crop in many parts of Malaya.
The adjacent Tower Block was connected to the Main Block by two 50-metre bridges. This iconic taller building was originally designed to accommodate the offices for the ministers and Members of Parliament. Over time, space constraint resulting from an increasing number of staff caused its conversion into administrative offices. Despite this, some key offices still remained such as those of the Prime Minister and his deputy.
The Parliament complex was also equipped with a banquet hall that could accommodate more than 500 guests at any one time. This hall was used for the first time when it hosted a large function on Sept 18, 1963, just two days after the formation of Malaysia.
Work on the grounds surrounding the two main blocks began when the two main buildings were near to completion. The surrounding area was attractively landscaped with rolling lawns, shady trees and colourful flowering shrubs. The inclusion of calming water features like pools and fountains added to the overall sense of serenity.
When completed, the Parliament complex consumed more than a million pieces of bricks, 2,200 tonnes of steel, 54,000 tonnes of concrete, 200,000 bags of cement and 300 tonnes of glass. The overall construction cost then was RM18 million.
The Members of Parliament met for the first time in this new building on Sept 16, 1963. This momentous event was made even more significant as the date coincided with the formation of Malaysia.
With the inclusion of elected representatives from Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore on that historic day, the Parliament of the Federation of Malaya became known as the Parliament of Malaysia. Singapore’s representation ended upon its separation from Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965.
Tuanku Syed Putra officially opened the Parliament complex on Nov 2, 1963. Two days later, it welcomed delegates attending the 9th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, the first of many international events held in our Parliament building’s long and illustrious history.
The sanctity of the Malaysian Parliament, which represented the democratic structure of government and reflected the people’s aspiration through its elected representatives, was marred only once in our nation’s history.
The dark episode that unfolded in the aftermath of the May 13 racial riots in 1969 led to the suspension of Parliament for two years and the formation of an emergency administrative body aimed at restoring law and order to the country. So, from 1969 to 1971, our nation was administered by the National Operations Council in lieu of the elected government.
In recognition of our first Prime Minister’s efforts in making the Parliament complex a reality, a statue of Tunku Abdul Rahman was unveiled in front of the Tower Block in 1971. Sculpted by Felix de Weldon, this imposing work of art portrayed a standing Tunku with a copy of the Federation of Malaya constitution in his left hand. This famed Austrian sculptor was also responsible for creating the Tugu Kebangsaan (National Monument) at the nearby National Monument Park.
Upon reaching the last reference book in the pile, I chance upon an article about the existence of a deer park within the Parliament grounds. It seems that the entire herd of spotted axis deer there originated from a pair presented by the former Indonesian President Suharto back in the 1980s.
It has certainly been an interesting afternoon but with so many errands to run, I reluctantly decide to call it a day. As I proceed to return the books to their rightful place, I’m overwhelmed by an overpowering sense of hope for the future. I’m certain that our greatest symbol of constitutional democracy will always be there to provide guiding light for all Malaysians and spur our nation to greater heights in the years to come.