The Star Malaysia - Star2
First port of call
The Parliament House in Canberra played host to a group of young Malaysian diplomats.
WITH the shared history of Australia and Malaysia stretching back to World War II, it is hardly coincidental that 16 young Malaysian diplomats were sent for an educational visit to Australia as they complete the last leg of their studies at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR).
Parliament House in Canberra has recently witnessed many occasions that demonstrate the close cooperation between the two nations.
Indeed, Parliament House has hosted many significant events relating to Malaysia in the last few months, in response to the tragedies that have beset the two Malaysia Airlines planes.
When the 2014 batch arrived at the veranda of Australia’s most famous building, Carol Mills, Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services, gave them nothing short of a grand tour.
As for this group of young diplomats, this trip would be their first in a future destined to be filled with tours of duty.
Their first port of call was Australia’s national icon of democracy – one of the world’s few Parliament Houses that are open and accessible to the public.
Mills said: “This building expresses Australia’s Federal Government political process, and is the first permanent home of the national Parliament. It also tells Australian stories through its art collections and the very fabric of the building.”
Parliament House is a working building, with many Parliamentarians and staff busily going about their business daily. When Parliament is sitting, there are approximately 5,000 people working in the building.
“The architecture, art collection and gardens make this place one of Australia’s most culturally rich environments, for both occupants and visitors,” said Mills, an accomplished administrator who as the custodian of the building oversees a yearly budget of over A$187mil (RM541mil).
The Parliament House art collection contains over 6,000 works of Australian art worth over A$80mil (RM232mil), and is an integral part of the building environment.
Paintings by Australian artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, and Rosalie Gascoigne adorn the walls of the building. A range of works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are integrated into a complete design that was planned for the building.
“Nothing is superfluous; everything has been carefully considered. Even the choice of timbers, fabrics and colours is meant to represent Australia and Australians,” said Mills.
“We are delighted to share our experiences in managing our cultural heritage with Malaysia’s upcoming diplomats,” she said, adding that the group of 16 joins an approximately one million visitors that come through the doors each year, including 125,000 school students.
This is an open House – a place to showcase the Australian concept of open democracy. This means that the building that has 4,700 rooms and a 32-hectare site that hosts thousands of public servants, journalists and other staff – including those of the House of Representatives and the Senate – is open every day except Christmas Day.
“Parliament House, opened in 1988, was built to last 200 years and our challenge is to keep it in its original condition for future generations,” Mills added. “To give you a bit of a sense of the building, in addition to our 4,700 rooms we also have 43 elevators, about 2,500 clocks, 36,000 fire sprinklers, 40,000 lights and 900 microphones – all of which need to be well-functioning in order for Parliament to operate effectively.”
Mills shared with the young diplomats not only an explanation of the Australian system, but also the intricacies of managing a fully secure building housing the nation’s political leaders while also balancing that task with the original vision – for it to be accessible.
Managing the building is not just about its maintenance. It is to do with the whole complex: the fabric of the building, and its art, furniture, fixtures, fittings, and the landscaped grounds.
There are security, landscaping, ICT, visitor services, building maintenance, cleaning, catering, broadcasting, library, exhibitions and photography.
“As the custodians of this building, our job is to look after the building so that it can be used and appreciated for future generations,” explained Mills.”
There are 150 members of the Australian House of Representatives. Each represents one geographic area and is elected for a three year term. The Upper House, the Senate, consists of 76 senators. In short, it shares the power to make laws with the House of Representatives.
Built inside Capital Hill, Parliament House is at the apex of Walter Burley Griffin’s design for Canberra – one can walk up onto the roof of Parliament House – symbolically to articulate that the people are above parliament.
The building took eight years to build and involved more than 10,000 workers on site.
“Of the materials used in the building construction, 90% were Australian. The two curved walls that define the central design are covered with 24,000 Australian Granite slabs.
“These slabs of granite – if laid end to end – would extend a distance of over 46km. The building occupies about 15% of the 32 hectare site,” added Mills.
“This visit is a continuation of the long history between the two countries,” said Malaysian High Commissioner Datuk Zainal Abidin Ahmad, who hosted this new generation of diplomats in Australia.
“Bilaterally, Australia is a significant partner in trade and investment, education and defence, and we have a strong people-to-people connections, so there are many things that these young diplomats can take away from this trip.
“Diplomacy isn’t always easy. But honing the skills and the science of diplomacy is integral to ensuring these young representatives of the nation survive different cultures and all the challenges that will come their way, and thrive in representing Malaysia abroad.”
Zainal said that the visit is part of an attachment program at the Malaysian High Commission in Australia. This is designed to give the young diplomats exposure and better understanding on roles and functions of our diplomatic missions abroad.
“They need to have an understanding of the roles and functions of international organisation and agencies, such as Parliament House.”
For one of the young diplomats, Abdilbar Abdul Rashid, the Marble Foyer gave a “grandiose” feeling of a meeting place.
The sheer size of the Marble Foyer, not to mention the site and its well thought out fittings and fixtures, impressed him.
Educated in economics at an American university, Abdilbar, 27, was a student leader who considers himself lucky to be able to serve the nation.
For Abdilbar, the symbolism of people walking on Parliament House roof is significant – that the parliamentarians are there at the service of the people. He is deeply committed to serve; the meaning of his name is “the servant of god” and he is keen to serve the people and to represent their best interests.
For Delfina Jane Aloysius Dris, 31, the visit evoked patriotic feelings.
“So many Australian stories are incorporated into this building. It shows how important history is to Australia – much of the values are the same for the two countries,” she said. “This is something that I will remember when I execute my job – the story of ordinary Malaysians.”
Priscilla Ann Yap, 29, a former radio broadcaster with RTM with a science degree, ended up as a diplomat serendipitously. She has interviewed many High Commissioners in her job.
It was not long before she herself joined Wisma Putra and was assigned to the Australian, New Zealand and Pacific desk. She is now in the inspectorate division, that manages all matters pertaining to the needs for all Malaysia’s missions abroad.
The point that impressed Yap during this visit is the incorporation of the symbolism into the building – from the land axis which begins at Mount Ainslie in the North to the wall panelling depicting Australia’s flora and fauna. “The axis is not just a visual architectural expression but it has a deeper meaning – that every decision made here has consequences to the wider public,” said Penang-born Yap.
So to the rest of the world – ready your houses, open your doors and say “Selamat datang (Welcome)!” to Malaysia’s newest diplomats.