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Malaysia-UK Partnership Dialogue

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Meg gave the following remarks at a seminar organised jointly by the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute and the British Malaysian Society on the topic of Malaysia-UK Partnership Dialogue.


My thanks to the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) and the British Malaysian Society (BMS) for inviting me to speak today.


In the summer of 2007 as Foreign Office Minister responsible for South-East Asia, I had the pleasure of celebrating with many of you the 50th anniversary of Malaysian independence and of UK-Malaysian relations. It’s a great delight for me to be here this afternoon to further celebrate the links between our two countries, and help to further strengthen them.


For over 50 years, Malaysia and the UK have collaborated closely in the fields of education, defence and security, business, trade and investments. In the future we have further opportunities for collaboration, in new technology and innovation, progressive governance including civil service reforms, reducing poverty, as well as the global challenge of climate change.


Successfully exploiting these opportunities will only happen when securely based in a democratic supportive framework. I want to examine in my short address the benefits and successes of and the challenges for good governance and democracy today.


I speak not as a government minister, but as a United Kingdom parliamentarian and as Chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, an organisation which supports the development of democracy in countries which are new or developing democracies. This is done through a wide range of programmes some of them provided directly by the Westminster political parties and some by project staff.


There is no doubt that good governance is a key ingredient of successful societies societies able to tackle global challenges, develop successful economies and provide for their citizens. Good governance comes from a political and civil structure which allows for scrutiny, and which can change, elected governments and for this to happen without the country descending into chaos, economic collapse and widespread violence. 


There has to be a mechanism where elected members who are not in government can ask questions, criticise and form alternative opinions on government policies without negative consequences. Key institutions are political parties they play an important role in any thriving civil society. Here in the UK, every week the Prime Minister is questioned by fellow parliamentarians, and every week a number of government departments are questioned on government policy and practice. All sessions are open to the public and screened on TV.


The organisation I chair, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, works in a number of countries helping to establish and embed democratic institutions. The Foundation’s great successes have often been in bringing together politicians from across the political spectrum to examine important issues for the country particularly in situations where the tradition of dialogue with opposition parties is weak.


Last year I visited Malaysia not too long after its last general election. Both government and opposition politicians were considering how best to respond to the changes that had arisen. The need to look at ways of handling scrutiny and holding the government to account were strong themes. At times of significant change it can be helpful to change the way parliament operates. Westminster Foundation for Democracy is experienced at supporting the development not just of parliamentarians to handle these situations but also in helping parliaments and staff adapt to new circumstances. The development of new ways of communicating with the electorate was also a theme.


Having strong democratic institutions in a country also gives government the legitimacy and therefore credibility in international relations. We have a number of well-known supranational institutions established through democratic governance; the United Nations, as well as the European Union and ASEAN. These institutions have grown in reach and significance, from just trading unions to increasingly important political unions which act to address issues such as climate change and the current world economic crisis. ASEAN’s development in the last 18 months is an excellent example of how these organisations change and develop to take on a wider role.  


I know from my working relationships with ASEAN members the important role they can have within the region, such as following the devastation of Burma following Cyclone Nargis just a year ago. Food and aid was donated by the international community but was delivered successfully by ASEAN to those who desperately needed it. A recent example of how these institutions can work with a good degree of success.


Finally, perhaps the hardest thing for any democracy is evolving along with the society it represents. UK democracy has running debates on the types of electoral systems it should have, and at what level of government. We have longstanding arguments about the role of the second parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords. But the key point to this is that these debates can be had freely by its citizens, and their representatives. Democracies change as societies evolve but as Winston Churchill once said:


Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


Democracy has brought peace, economic prosperity and the beginning of the end of widespread poverty. It is something that should be championed and the continued dialogue between the UK and Malaysia will add strength to its success. 

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