Voters in the Johor state election should note two upcoming dates: nomination day on 26 February and polling day on 12 March.
The latter date is crucial as the state’s 2.6 million eligible voters will have the chance to elect candidates to represent them in the 56-seat Johor State Legislative Assembly.
But 26 February is also important as Johor voters will then know the candidates vying for hotly contested seats.
Even though nomination day is still more than a week away, negotiations for seats among political parties have been vigorous.
After the recent state elections in Sarawak and Malacca, the Barisan Nasional coalition, Umno in particular, is keen to use the Johor poll outcome as a bellwether for the looming general election, which is likely to be held later this year.
If Umno-BN performs well in Johor, its leaders will definitely apply pressure on Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob to hold the general election quickly.
Johor voters shoulder a heavy responsibility on 12 March. Between nomination and polling days, they should scrutinise the list of accepted candidates and decide wisely whom they want to vote for. That’s a tough challenge: chances are, many voters may be forced to choose the ‘lesser evil’ rather than the ‘better choice’.
After the Sheraton Move in February 2020 rudely shattered the euphoria of the 2018 general election, many voters seem disillusioned with politicians. The trust deficit towards politicians – ruling politicians, in particular – is at an all-time high.
So, voter fatigue and despondency may rule the day in Johor and, with the Covid threat still looming over our heads, voter turnout may be low.
Let’s hope this will not be the case. We hope voters, adhering closely to Covid protocols, will fulfil their electoral duty and turn up to vote on polling day.
Let’s hope they also do some homework and choose their candidates wisely. We recommend that voters opt for candidates who:
- Have no history of party defections and have declared publicly their stand against defections
- Have no history of corruption and have declared publicly their anti-corruption stand
- Support unity in diversity and believe in inclusivity, ie they must not be racist or bigoted
- Respect and honour all people of all ethnicities and religions
- Believe in justice and fairness and support the poor, downtrodden and marginalised
- Are service-oriented with a genuine concern for the welfare of their constituents
- Are concerned about environmental issues, especially the impact of global warming
This list is not exhaustive: we can look for many other strengths and qualities in our elected representatives.
Sadly, even with such a short list, many of the present elected representatives are unlikely to meet many of the above criteria.
So, it is all the more crucial for Johor voters to scrutinise the election campaign material that the candidates will distribute.
In this age of easy digital communications, voters should demand that candidates publicly declare their position on key issues such as party defections, corruption, racial unity and religious freedom. The candidates’ political parties should be of less consequence and importance than the principles and values that the candidates uphold.
Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj provides an excellent account of the eight attributes of the election candidates our nation needs. A key takeaway from his piece is that the “Malaysian Malaysia” and the “ketuanan Melayu” formulations stray in opposite directions and may even clash. People must realise it cannot be just one or the other, ie it should not be a zero-sum game.
Instead, all concerned voters must work together to develop and agree on a winning formula. Elected candidates should be courageous enough to kickstart and promote this conversation.
An apt place to start would be by reaching out to all, based on need and regardless of race or religion. Whether it is in education, employment opportunities or basic roti-and-nasi (bread-and-rice) issues, focus on the needy and the deserving. Empower the segment of society that needs the most help.
Sadly, the dominant socio-political narrative in Malaysia is based on ethno-religious divisions. The tendency to play up Malay vs non-Malay and Muslim vs non-Muslim sentiment is common. Many politicians shamelessly exploit this narrative for personal gain and enrichment.
The ethno-religious narrative is deeply rooted and, therefore, enduring and not easily replaced. We need politicians and people in power who subscribe to the belief that there is a place for everyone under the Malaysian sun. Such leaders have to chip away at these roots and remove the divisive ethno-religious tree.
In its place, we need to sow the seeds of acceptance, harmony, compassion and concern for one another.
But trying to replace the dominant ethno-religious narrative will be tough. The resistance will be strong, as many among the political elite thrive and prosper by exploiting the people’s fears.
Analyst Murray Hunter points out that many politicians and leaders crave power for their own enrichment and glory. “Malay elites have pretended to be the guardians and defenders of the Malays and robbed them blind through the misappropriation and corruption of public funds. The elite have created fictional enemies to create fear and keep them in power.”
The Machiavellian tendencies of people in power have resonated throughout Malaysian history.
We also have ethnic minority leaders willing to exploit race and use fear-mongering tactics to retain power and exploit it for their own gain.
If only such selfish leaders would subscribe to the dictum “The world has enough for everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed”….
A unique feature of the looming Johor election is the inclusion of over 750,000 new voters in the state due to an automatic registration exercise, newly implemented late last year.
Nationwide, the country saw 5.8 million new voters added to the roll due to the automatic registration of citizens aged 18 and above. Out of these 5.8 million, 1.2 million are Malaysians aged between 18 and 20 and the other 4.6 million are those who were not previously registered. Between 40,000 and 50,000 Malaysians are expected to turn 18 every month and they too will be automatically registered and added to the electoral roll.
All political aspirants should learn to cope with this new reality and seek ways to convince these young voters to support them.
Young aspirants, such as those from the newly registered Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), may lack experience but they appear to be filled with ideals for a better Malaysia. They may not have any proven track record, but then they carry little or no baggage.
Voters should therefore evaluate each candidate, applying selected criteria before making an informed decision when voting.
Dr Mustafa K Anuar advises young voters to use the “power of their vote” by thinking of the ideal state and nation they would like to live in and then voting for those who will help realise this.
In any contest, all opposing parties will try their best to win. Sometimes the desire to win is so strong that contestants are prepared to employ unfair means and tactics to gain an advantage over their opponents.
In electoral races, we have long heard of accusations of vote-buying, abuse of government machinery and facilities by the ruling parties, voter intimidation and threats to withhold development funds.
To ensure free and fair elections, the ‘referee’ plays a crucial role, and this role is assigned to the Election Commission, established in 1957. Tasked with ensuring free and fair elections, the commission is an important bastion of democracy.
However, the Election Commission has not always been viewed as fair. NGOs have periodically called for a revamp of the commission, as it is often perceived to be subservient to the government of the day.
A glaring point is that despite the Election Commission having institutional autonomy, the commission is administratively housed under the Prime Minister’s Department. Various groups have repeatedly called for the commission to be placed directly under Parliament so that it can be free from real or perceived executive control.
We also need to review the way election commissioners are appointed. Currently, when a vacancy arises, the PM will receive nominations and then advise the Agong on the choice of candidate.
It would be much fairer and more transparent if Parliament sets up an independent nominations committee – comprising individuals of impeccable credibility and integrity – to nominate, interview and recommend candidates as election commissioners. Retired judges, eminent academics, respected community leaders could be roped in to sit on this committee.
Basically, the Election Commission requires greater autonomy and financial independence to become fully independent and neutral.
But we cannot expect the powers that be to push for such reforms.
So, it falls upon civil society groups and concerned folk to lobby for these changes.
New voters, especially the young, should add their voices to these calls for reforms. After all, the recommended changes will help create a stronger, vibrant and more resilient democracy for all of us in Malaysia.Henry Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
18 February 2022