We refer to the verbal proposal of Arau MP Shahidan Kassim to introduce “group representation constituencies” to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in the House of Representatives.
While the issue of under-representation of certain communities and demographics are manifestations of the first-past-the-post system (FPTP), introducing a variant, group representation constituencies, will worsen the impacts of the existing FPTP.
Within the FPTP, the system favours the two largest parties or coalitions within a constituency. For the Malaysian context, in order to win, coalitions are built before the election cycle to pool the votes.
This limits the space for political parties to compete. This in turn limits the diversity of candidates (based on demographics) to fill up the constituency candidacy slots. Combined with the fact that there are no term limits on how many times the incumbent can run, space for diversity (eg women, Orang Asli, disability communities) is limited.
Moreover, within the FPTP, any communities that are too dispersed (either their views or demographics) will stand very limited chance to be represented. For example, the Orang Asli elector population is barely 1% of the total electorate in the peninsula. They are geographically concentrated in interior constituencies but they do not pass the 50% majority line. It was only in 2019 that the Orang Asli community finally received its first ever elected MP.
On top of that, sometimes smaller political parties are the ones who take bold steps to diversify the candidacy list. Unfortunately, the FPTP always favours the top two contenders of any constituency.
For example, Muda candidates are very young in the demographics. Since they opted to compete against big coalitions like Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional in the six state elections recently, the potential young diverse line-up from Muda did not stand a chance in the FPTP system.
The group representation constituencies system employs a mixture of party ticket with FPTP rules. A group representation constituency operates on a multi-member constituency, where each constituency has more than one elected MP. A group of candidates (with minority representation) from the same political party or coalition of independents contest on a single ticket. A voter is to choose a party, and in effect, a voter is sending three or four or five MPs through a single ballot. A party or coalition of independents wins on the basis of garnering the most votes under the FPTP.
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In Singapore, where the system of group representation constituencies was implemented, the racial diversity of candidates had been on a steady decline from 1955 to 1988, the year the system was implemented. With the implementation, the decline in diversity was reversed. In Singapore, one party virtually dominates the scene (without and during the period when the group representation constituencies system was implemented) and the diversity of candidates is pretty much a reflection of the winning party’s selection process.
The group representation constituencies system is known to add more barriers for smaller parties to win a seat (which is already a problem within any given FPTP). The group representation constituencies system compels smaller parties to find the right candidates list to cater to the multi-member candidacy needs of a group representation constituency.
Moreover, the group representation constituencies system pushes smaller parties to spend their little resources for high-stakes election games (when such resources could have been spread over multiple single-member constituencies). This could deter parties from contesting and result in walkovers in multiple group representation constituencies.
Group representation constituencies reduce entry barriers for the incumbent party that enable new candidates of the incumbent party to ride on the progress of senior politicians of the same party. This, in turn, disadvantages smaller opposing parties. At the same time, subject to election cycles, the opposition can win big through the group representation constituencies system. However, such breakthroughs are time-consuming.
Some even argue that the group representation constituencies in Singapore barely made a difference in ethnic minority representation. Hence, we need to ask why should we consider a wrong solution for a correctly diagnosed problem.
To strengthen and incentivise a diversity of candidates (eg ethnic minorities, women, youth, people with disabilities), a better solution would be the eventual implementation of a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system.
The Arau MP is part of the Special Select Committee on Human Rights, Elections and Institutional Reform. We, Tindak Malaysia, have briefed him and the entire select committee on how we should implement the MMP system. This system takes the best of the FPTP and proportional system in a hybrid manner which ensures geographical and thematic representations.
It is time we move on from the FPTP system and work towards the eventual implementation of the MMP system. Group representation constituencies are not the solution and ought not to be considered. Let’s work towards an electoral system that best represents the views and demographics of the country.
Danesh Prakash Chacko is director of Tindak Malaysia