People matter in electoral reforms

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File photograph: Malay Mail Online

Structural, technical and legislative changes are essential for holistic electoral reforms in Malaysia, but it is also crucial to change the people’s attitude towards politics, writes Khoo Ying Hooi.

In early March, I took part in an electoral reform workshop in a public university in Kuala Lumpur. The two-day workshop was extremely enriching.

But one thing I noticed: when we spoke about reforms in Malaysia, we had a tendency to ignore the role of people in general. I feel the people’s participation in providing feedback in the reform process is often neglected. 

Under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration, we witnessed the inclusion of members of the electoral reform movement Bersih 2.0 into the Electoral Reform Committee. Bersih 2.0 resource officer Zoe Randhawa was also appointed a member of the Election Commission.  

Although continual engagement is encouraged and should be applauded, other civil society groups such as groups working for women, people with disabilities and youth should also be included. The outreach should be as wide-ranging as possible.

Since the PH government came into power, the Electoral Reform Committee consulted with various groups all over the country. But it remains to be seen how many of the recommendations will be included in the final electoral reform proposals and whether they will be inclusive. 

How can civil society and the general public be included more effectively in the consultation process? There is no perfect electoral system, and existing ones can be easily manipulated. Our challenge then is to ensure that the people’s interests remain paramount and that manipulation is prevented.

As we learned from the fall of the PH government and the subsequent installation of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, the political fate of Malaysians seems to rest on 222 members of Parliament and the king. 

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In our political scenario, voters apparently only play a meaningful role every five years or so when a general election is held. So we need to explore ways to adopt a more bottom-up approach in the overall electoral process.

One clear lesson that emerged from the political fiasco was that “politicians without integrity” can, through their actions, bring down a government that was legitimately voted in. It is as if the people’s mandate does not really matter and governments can rise or fall based on the chosen alignment of elected representatives.

In view of this experience, it is crucial to promote and disseminate voter education. Voter literacy will equip voters with knowledge of their rights and entitlements. Elected representatives owe a fiduciary duty to their voters and should not be allowed to switch affiliations at their whims and fancies.

The Electoral Reform Committee should also look seriously into reintroducing local council elections, thus returning the “third vote” to Malaysians. Local government elections coupled with greater devolution of powers would decentralise the enormous powers now vested in Putrajaya.

Electoral reforms alone cannot be effective unless other institutional reforms are also addressed. We must repeal oppressive laws such as the Sedition Act and laws that allow detention without trial such as the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma). Reforms must also ensure a clear separation of powers between the three branches of government: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. And these reforms must be comprehensive to be effective.

The electoral reform process must seek greater involvement from civil society and engagement with its members. How can we move beyond consultation so that civil society can provide concrete contributions in every area of the electoral reform process, especially voter education?

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First, although we have Bersih 2.0 represented in the Electoral Reform Committee and Election Commission, there is a need to expand the scope of engagement across a broader range of civil society groups.

Civil society in Malaysia, though relatively small, comprises a myriad of groups with different interests and objectives. Bersih 2.0 alone has 56 endorsing NGOs, which are mostly urban-based with some in Sabah and Sarawak and other states around the peninsular. According to the Registrar of Societies statistics, we had over 60,000 registered societies in 2018. Some 19,000 societies fell under the category of “welfare”, followed by about 16,000 under “social”. There were also about 600 human rights societies.

The Electoral Reform Committee has held roadshows around the country to draft the recommendations. Such efforts should not stop once the recommendations are tabled in Parliament. Unfortunately, the committee’s report has not been made public. This reminds us that freedom of information is important, and reports should be made accessible to the people.

In the past, the relationship between the state and civil society has not been harmonious. It changed somewhat during the 22-month PH-rule but then, the PH government fell.

Over the longer term, the discourse of elections in Malaysian society has to be brought into the mainstream as part of the electoral reform process, which should adopt a multi-stakeholder approach.

Finally, we need to study how we can overhaul the education system, which presently does not teach students much about politics and indeed does not see politics as important.

The reality is that to facilitate more effective voter education, the government should also pay attention to what the school syllabus imparts on politics as a whole. We all know voter education takes time, but have we started it well?

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The Election Commission has begun a voter education programme in schools. But its limited financial and personnel resources means the programme will probably not advance much.

To overcome this, different stakeholders, as mentioned earlier, should be included in the whole electoral reform exercise especially in voter education. The process should rope in stakeholders ranging from academics to NGOs. Relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Youth and the Ministry of Education should coordinate among themselves to make this happen.

Under the PN government thus far, we have not heard any discussion on electoral reform and how the government is going to take it forward. Amidst this political uncertainty, let’s hope the existing space that has been opened – though not totally conducive for discussing electoral reforms – will be expanded so that Malaysians will be able to enjoy clean and fair elections in the years to come.

Khoo Ying Hooi
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
21 March 2020

Dr Khoo Ying Hooi is an Aliran executive committee member

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