by Dr, Helmy Haja Mydin. First published in The Sun 11 May 2012

I have always been fascinated with Iceland. As a child, I spent a good few months absorbing anything and everything about volcanoes (this occurred shortly after my ‘dinosaur phase’). That led me to fall in love with Iceland, a country that is quite literally rising out of the ocean due to vast amounts of volcanic activity that recently brought most of Western Europe to a standstill with the eruption of the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I recently had the opportunity to visit Iceland. I was not disappointed by the smorgasbord of natural attractions – the ethereal aurora borealis, explosive geysers, vast deserts of pristine snow, gushing waterfalls, magnificent glaciers, the deafening silence of isolation – to name but a few.

However, the island’s inhabitants are just as interesting as nature’s offerings, if not more so.

The first settler in Iceland is thought to be a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson. Legend has it that he threw two carved pillars overboard, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found – settling in the ninth century in a place he named Reykjavík (Cove of Smoke), so named due to the rising geothermal steam.

Over the next decades, more settlers arrived and as their numbers grew, a formal system of government was deemed necessary. When I stood at the Thingvellir National Park, staring at the dramatic fissure of the North American and European tectonic plates, I was surprised to find out that the area was also the site of the Althing, the world’s very first parliament. This laid the foundation of the Icelandic Commonwealth, where a general assembly was formed out of various district assemblies.

The Icelanders have since been through very trying times. For example, the Danish colonial masters instituted a very expensive trade monopoly for more than 200 years, effectively cutting off the island from contact with the rest of the world. In 1783, the Laki volcano erupted, killing 9000 people and 80% of the livestock. The ensuing starvation killed a quarter of the population.

More recently, Iceland came to the world’s attention as a result of the global financial crisis in 2008. The easy access to credit during the early half of the noughties had led to the three main Icelandic banks holding foreign debt in excess of €50 billion, which is a ridiculous amount when you bear in mind that Iceland’s gross domestic product was €8.5 billion. In fact, the difficulty in refinancing their short-term debt led to the largest banking collapse by any country in economic history.

Many believe that the collapse stemmed primarily from a lack of transparency, corruption and nepotism. Unsurprisingly, various protests were organised in the immediate aftermath that eventually led to a change of government as well as the sacking of the central bank governor and the head of the financial authority. In fact, the prime minister of the time, Geir Haarde, was recently brought to court to answer charges of financial negligence during his tenure.

The country underwent profound changes in the years following the economic collapse, the most radical of which is the decision to rewrite the constitution and the manner in which it has been done. It was decided that the constitution should not be based on Denmark’s, but rather should be an original concept by the citizen’s of the country.
Twenty-give assembly members were elected from 522 ordinary candidates (including journalists, lawyers, academics etc). They, in turn, opened the process up to the public in an unprecedented manner – actively soliciting comments and suggestions for the new government on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. If the Althing ratifies the new constitution, it will arguably be the world’s most inclusive and modern constitution. From the election of ordinary citizens to the use of social media, great efforts have been painstakingly taken to allow citizens to actively shape the future of their country.

The new constitution is merely part of an overarching aim to encourage a more direct form of democracy. Other less far-reaching but equally important measures have been taking place. For example, Reykjavík launched a direct democracy platform – a community forum allowing anyone to make suggestions about things they want done in the city. More importantly, the city council is obliged to take the top five suggestions and process them every month.
Icelanders are justifiably proud of their country, but even more so of their citizen activism. It is relatively easy for Iceland to enact these changes as it has a population that only numbers slightly over 300 000. However, the lessons from Iceland’s financial mismanagement and the raison d’etre of its political paradigm shift (i.e. to facilitate greater decentralisation to allow better representation of the people) should not be lost upon us in Malaysia.

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Dr. Helmy Haja Mydin is a Fellow at IDEAS

Image Credit: European Commission

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