One of the initiatives put in places in the wake of Pakatan Harapan’s drubbing of Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional government in the 2018 general election was to create a committee to look at possible electoral reform, which was badly needed because of gerrymandering and other misuses that had kept the Barisan in power for 70 years.
After two years of deliberations, during which the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed, the Electoral Reform Committee that the coalition implemented has delivered a report to current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The committee is reported to have made 49 recommendations on electoral laws, electoral boundary determination, public funding of political parties, political donations, and appointing international observers during elections.
However, in today’s political environment where Malay-dominated parties control the government, it is difficult to believe many of the ERC recommendations will be accepted, especially where many of them favor multiracial parties like the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Anwar Ibrahim’s multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) over ethnic Malay-dominated parties. Malaysia will continue to be doomed by the current “dead-end” politics that are keeping a small Malay-supremacy group in power.
The recommendations fall far short of looking crucially at Malaysian democratic system as a whole, even if they were to be implemented. The electoral system is biased towards the rural electorate, and the Senate is unelected and completely undemocratic.
Malaysians have been deprived of local government elections for more than three generations, while state sovereignty has been eaten up by an overzealous federal government. Even the leadership of the major Malay-dominated political parties is rigged in favor of maintaining power in the hands of Malaysia’s elite old guard. Any spirit of democracy is overpowered by the narratives and expression of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay Supremacy.
Social, economic and political systems need a massive overhaul if any spirit of democracy and diversity is to be allowed to prosper. A free democratic society would go a long way to reducing the incidence of corruption, bringing transparency and responsibility into government, optimizing the economy, recognizing that Malaysia is a multi-cultural society, and creating a healthy innovative environment that builds value and wealth within society.
Distorted Electoral System
The current Dewan Rakyat (lower house) electoral system is heavily weighted towards the rural Malay regions over more ethnically diverse urban areas. Malaysia is 77.2 percent urban, yet urban-based constituencies in parliament account for only 36.48 percent of the population. This perpetuates ultra-Malay narratives. It’s in the heartlands where elections are won or lost, even though more than three-quarters of Malaysians live in urban areas.
Malapportionment is rampant. The most extreme example of the electoral weighting towards rural areas is Igan, a federal rural constituency in Sarawak where a single vote carries the same weight as nine in the highly urban Bangi constituency in Selangor. In many other constituencies, the malapportionment ratio runs around one to six, with a rural vote worth many times an urban vote.
The first-past-the post (FPTP) voting system which elects the candidate with just a simple majority of votes is inadequate. ‘First past the post’ voting doesn’t give minority parties with general support across the country any voice in parliament at all, unless they can win a majority in a constituency.
In the 2013 general election the Barisan Nasional managed to stay in power by winning 59.91 percent of the constituencies on only 47.38 percent of the popular vote. The principle of “one vote one value” would better reflect the aggregate voting intention of the country. This would lead to political platforms based upon multi-culturalism, rather than ultra-Malay narratives. The composition of any coalition that governs the country would be very different from the political narratives of government today.
New voter enrollments are not offsetting the skewed ultra-Malay narratives of political parties, as nearly 70 percent of new voters are in malapportioned urban areas. This favors Malay-centric parties, with new voters in the Malay heartlands identifying much more with their Islamic character than previous generations, partly explaining the rise in importance of Islamic political narratives within the political environment today.
A fairer voting system would help free the country of unhealthy exclusionist narratives which pit one race against another. Hopefully this would encourage more inclusive politics rather than the current racial based political rhetoric, which is costing the country socially, culturally, and economically.
An undemocratic Senate
Electoral reform, should it ever come about, should not leave out the Malaysian Parliament’s upper house, the Dewan Negara or Senate, which is composed of 69 members, two each elected by the state assembles of the 13 states, and 43 appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or King, under the advice of the prime minister. The Senate has two major roles to play in a modern federation. The first is to safeguard state rights, and the second is to act as a house of review, a role undermined by the number of federal appointees who outnumber state appointees. As a house of review, the senate tends to be a rubber stamp for the government of the day.
The Senate is not elected by the people, even though there are provisions within the constitution for the direct election. Technically, the Senate by nature of the 43 representatives nominated by the King makes it a royal house as well. However, in reality, the government uses the Senate as a house of convenience to fast-track ministers if they require it. During the Pakatan Harapan government there were 17 vacancies. Muhyiddin used the Senate vacancies to appoint members of his cabinet, and political allies to the house. There are still four vacant seats in the house. The reform of the Senate is mandatory for Malaysia to become a full democratically elected parliament.
Party system undemocratic
Malaysian political parties are far from democratic. UMNO has traditionally suspended party elections for leader and deputy leader, allowing them tenure unopposed. Branches are often stacked with non-active members whose votes are used in branch and divisional elections to keep party warlords in their positions.
Political parties are controlled from the central leadership, who have largely won their positions through money politics. Federal party leaders make the final decisions on candidates standing for elections, disenfranchising the grassroot membership, who have little or no say on who should be endorsed to run for local political office. The federal party machine dictates policy and makes crucial party decisions over state branches, rather than play the role of a peak body and facilitator. Political power redistributed back to the grassroots of the party would prevent any one group from dominating the party machinery, and potentially create more diversity of thinking within the parliament through locally selected candidates holding public office.
Undemocratic Local Government
Local elections were suspended during the Indonesian Confrontation in 1964. They have never been reinstated. Today city, municipal and rural council members are selected by respective state governments and by the federal government in federal territories. Accountability and transparency are notoriously missing. Thus, government operating closest to the people, affecting daily lives, is totally undemocratic.
Local government should be an incubator of future leaders and a check and balance against the power of state and federal government rather than a subservient extension. The nation is desperately in need of this valuable resource. Although the Harapan manifesto advocated the democratization of local government, Mahathir as prime minister was on public record against local government elections, arguing it would lead to racial conflicts and widen the urban-rural gap. The Muhyiddin government has so far not addressed the issue.
Federalism needs to be rebalanced in favor of state sovereignty with genuine respect and acceptance of the division of powers between the states and the federal governments. This is not just about a new deal for Sabah and Sarawak, all state governments have seen their sovereignty eroded by the federal government over the decades.
State governments leaders need to put state interests before party political interests, and the dictates of any federal government, in political debate. National development and management should be a joint federal-state government effort, rather than federal governments bypassing state governments which are run by opposing political parties. This attitude by the federal government to a state run by an opposition party, shows disrespect the will of the people. There will never be any spirit of democracy in Malaysia with this attitude taken in federal-state relations.
These changes would enable a change in the national narrative away from a Malay Malaysia, towards a Malaysian Malaysia. These changes would knock away one more level of state feudalism, still lingering in Malaysian institutions.
It would be fallacy to believe that electoral reform by itself will turn Malaysia into a fair, open, and fully-fledged democracy. Much deeper reform to Malaysia’s institutions and processes is required to transform Malaysia into any form of open democracy.
Originally published in Asia Sentinel