Policy and Social Change

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Text by Susan Tam
Photo by Darshini Sitharam

The thought of being in a Parliament session may not excite the average young person, but for Darshini Sitharam, her eyes lit up with excitement when she discusses policies and legislation.

“Being a youth parliamentarian gives me the opportunity to access government agencies and speed up the process in getting support for charitable causes,” shares this 28-year old.

Darshini is one of 133 members of Malaysia’s Youth Parliament set up in 2015. As a government project, the Youth Parliament aims to expose young people to the workings of governments, policymaking and processes faced by parliamentarians as representatives of their constituents.

“I am appreciative of my role as a Youth Member of Parliament (YMP), because I believe I can make an impact through discussions and debates, while learning from the sittings we have at the actual Parliament gallery,” she adds.

The Youth and Sports Ministry of Malaysia rolled out this project to allow young Malaysians a space to have their say, whether it is on public transport, healthcare and gender equality as well as disaster relief, two topics that Darshini is passionate about.

The young woman is no stranger to social issues. She was an intern at SME Corp, a corporation that works with small and medium enterprises, and served at the Penang’s Women Development Corporation for a year. At the Penang-based organisation, she worked with teams to develop policies that touch on child rights and women’s rights. “This was the time I realised that there is poor awareness amongst the underserved communities about the importance of education, and they need the help. I felt I had to do something.”

One of her first ventures in empowering the underserved was to encourage single mothers to start their own small businesses. She worked with these women to market their handmade products at markets, mainly at the Upper Penang Road Sunday Market. The response was good, and encouraged these mothers to carry on running their booths for the subsequent months, while generating enough income to cover the business, as well as support themselves and their families.

“Another social enterprise idea I came up with was to buy home made souvenirs from orphanages or charities, helping them to earn some income rather than purchasing these items from commercial vendors.” She adds that this idea came from a need to purchase door gifts for events she organises under her event management firm.

To qualify as a Youth MP, the members go through rigorous selection and nominations, similar to the first-past-the-post system practiced in a Malaysian election, and other democracies in the region. Darshini and her peers have had to campaign in their selected constituencies and face elections late last year, championing their chosen manifesto. In Darshini’s case she pushed for more equality for women at the workforce and access to education.

“I received a strong nomination but unfortunately I did not win my seat,” she reveals.

Minister Khairy Jamaluddin then made an executive decision to appoint Darshini and 14 others to the Youth Parliament seeing that there was an under-representation of Indian women, to ensure fair representation of Malaysia’s multi-racial society. On the whole, the Youth MPs are made up of actual members of ruling and opposition parties, to ensure rich and meaningful debates. Darshini herself is a member of the opposition party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or the People’s Justice Party.

Youth MPs are essentially volunteers, but are offered similar opportunities as full-fledged MPs, such as transport allowance and more importantly, a grant of RM2,000. “We have to apply for this grant that can be used to to finance our social projects that helps the groups we serve.”

The Youth MPs sit for three sessions in a year, and have brought up issues such as discount public transport cards for young people, and lowering the age of youth to own one of these cards from 18 to 15 years. “This motion is being now being discussed at Cabinet level and the relevant transport agencies, and soon it will materialise,” Darshini explains.

Their opinions count as Darshini recalls the various meetings Youth MPs have had with government ministers who provided positive feedback on their suggestions. These motions raised include pay rises for civil servants and compulsory marriage counselling for all couples to address high divorce rates.

And it this sort of reach towards government bodies Darshini wants to leverage on when raising funds and awareness for her second passion, supporting disaster relief efforts.

Through her non-profit organisation, The People’s Foundation, Darshini and 50 other volunteers are hoping to raise RM100,000 through fundraisers and charity events for victims of Nepal’s deadly earthquake in April.

“We have experience working on disaster relief, having raised RM20,000 worth of goods and cash with Malaysians and Singaporeans last year for the East Coast flood victims.”

This Johor Baru resident says that a group of Singaporean single mothers and ordinary individuals were compelled to help the Kelantanese communities, so Darshini worked with them to transport goods to affected areas.

Feeling energised by such charitable acts, this Film and Broadcasting graduate is spurred to do more for Malaysia as well as countries like Nepal. The foundation intends to set up a storage centre to house goods that can be distributed speedily to communities or areas that are hit by disasters such as floods. Darshini believes this work can support the efforts of Mercy Malaysia, an organisation which is active in humanitarian work all over the world.

It seems like Darshini’s got a lot on her plate, but she is driven and is not stopping anytime soon.

“We are confident to make a change through policies and legislation, and we want to use our role as Youth MPs to push for those changes, as well as channelling help where it is needed the most.”

But, she doesn’t intend to hold on to her Youth seat for more than the permitted two-year term. Instead, Darshini wants to be part of an alumni that supports the younger candidates who have fresh ideas. And, for her, she says, “I want to run as a political candidate in Malaysia’s future elections, where I believe I can make more of an impact for the people.”

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