Friday, February 09, 2007

Snow, Parliament and Kiasu

Woke up yesterday and found London covered in snow again. The precipitation volume this time was heavier than the first dusting two weeks ago, but part of it fell in the form of sleet and rain later in the day. By the evening, the white blanket was mostly gone, leaving behind memories of happy smiles as well as weary frowns, given the inevitable problems the snow caused to transportation within the city. Despite the freezing weather, I had to head out early for a visit to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. A few us of from my British Government and Politics course were there to witness a live session in the House of Commons. I last toured the place in the summer of 2003, when both the chambers of the Commons and the Lords were opened up during the legislative recess. This time round, however, I was up on the visitors' gallery.

I’m still struck by how small the chamber actually is. It makes for perfect close-quarter political combat. Despite that, the sitting was only sparsely attended. We saw one devoted to Business Questions – a regular session in which the Leader of the Commons, a ministerial position currently held by Jack Straw, introduced the coming business agenda for the House.

But that served merely as the prelude for an hour long debate which came across as a near equivalent of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Members from both sides of the aisle were able to raise any question – so long as they presented it something requiring a parliamentary debate. It’s an elaborate and open pretense. The government would never really agree to schedule a debate based purely on calls from individual MPs. In turn, they don’t seriously expect to have their requests heeded.

Instead, the point of the wayang is political theatre. Individual members use this regular forum as a means of getting something onto the parliamentary and public record, to get a mention in the local paper, to raise their profile, and sometimes also to embarrass the government. We heard questions on local issues, on the weather, on proposed reforms to the House of Lords. That’s the whole purpose of Business Questions. It’s not really to discuss the business of Parliament.

We left the chamber and headed to a nearby committee room – the Wellington Room – where we were met by Chris Bryant, a Labour MP from the Rhondda in Wales who was first elected in 2001. He was on hand to field questions on parliamentary procedures. It was quite informative session. Chris Bryant was a pretty open and engaging speaker, and is renowned to be one of the few MPs who have gone public with their homosexuality.


Dinner finally at Kiasu – the new Singapore restaurant on Queensway. We had a chye tow kueh as a starter. The two ladies then had bak chor mee and mee siam, while I went for the Hokkien prawn noodles. Dessert was bubur hitam and bobo chacha. The food at Kiasu is not earth-shatteringly good, but it will do. On the walls were big murals spelling out all the possible fears out there – Kia Mata (scared of policeman), Kia Boo (scared of wife), Kia Si (scared of death), Kia Lor Hor (scared of the rain), Kia Cheng Hu (scared of government) and more. It was all quite ridiculous. And I don't think that Kiasu is a die die must go back kind of place.


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