Within a couple of months after Pakatan Harapan (PH) came to power in the May 2018 general election, it formed an Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) made up of academics, lawyers, and political operatives to look into issues such as the electoral system Malaysia should use in future, political funding and donations, nomination day procedures, and the construction of electoral rolls. The committee is headed by Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, who was chairman of the Electoral Commission (EC) between 2000-2008. The ERC has travelled around Malaysia on a roadshow format to canvass public views and enlisted the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme for Electoral Reform Assistance Project for their review.
The ERC is canvassing proportional representation and Mixed-Member Majoritarian (MMM), a mix between single member constituencies and party lists to make up the parliament, currently popular within the region. The final report due in the third quarter this year. However, the report will not be binding on the government. Talk within the upper circles of Mahathir Mohamed’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) is that there is hesitancy to change a system that brought PH to power, particularly if it favours multi-racial parties like the Chinese based Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) over Malay dominated parties like PPBM.
However, there is great fallacy in believing that electoral reform by itself will turn Malaysia into a fair, open, and fully fledged democracy. There is much deeper reform to Malaysia’s institutions and processes required to transform Malaysia into any form of open democracy.
There can be no real spirit of democracy without a clear sense of national purpose. The formation of Malaysia back in 1963 united peoples of distinctly different histories. Bringing them together in unity is challenging in itself. The national narratives that have evolved over the last generation over race, religion, and rights, is segregating the country, taking it further away from any sense of unity. There is no consensus on what Malaysia should aspire to be. Political parties are part of the problem, as their prime focus has been on gaining power, rather than pursuing national aspirations. Todays’ national narratives do little to encourage democracy. They oppress the rights of minority expression and alternative views. Democracy starts with narrative and the aspirations contained within them.
The type of electoral system that Malaysia finally adopts will heavily influence both the political culture and culture of governance. Maintaining single member electorates, with even correcting the malapportionment and gerrymandering will tend to maintain a racial based political party system. Some form of proportional representation system will empower more minority groupings leading to more diversity of political narrative. A well-designed electoral system will force political parties to become more inclusive in governance, at least in theory. However, as we have seen PPBM with such a small grouping within the parliament has been able to dominate the PH coalition.
The above must be accompanied by a truly independent Electoral Commission responsible to the parliament rather than the executive, and an independent commission to determine electoral constituencies, governed by strict guidelines, primarily based on the principle of one vote one value.
Electoral reform should not leave out the Malaysian Parliament’s upper house, the Dewan Negara or Senate. The Senate is made up of 69 members, two members elected by the state assembles of the 13 states, and 43 appointed by the Yang Dipertuan Agong or King, by-convention, 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. However, the Senate’s role as a house of review has been undermined by the shear weight of federal appointees outnumbering state appointees. As a house of review, the senate tends to be a rubber stamp for the government of the day.
The Senate is totally undemocratic as it is not elected by the people, even though there are provisions within the constitution for the direct election of state representatives by the people. Technically, the Senate by the nature of 43 representatives are nominated by the King, the Senate is a royal house as well. However, in reality the government of the day uses the Senate as a house of convenience to fast-track ministers, if they require. The sham of the Senate today is that there are 16 vacant seats in the house. The reform of the Senate is mandatory for Malaysia to become a full democracy.
The basic law of Malaysia is the constitution. The constitution sets out the structure and various arms of government, and respective limits to power. This document has been trampled on by successive governments, which have amended the constitution no less than 57 times since 1957. The constitution is too easy to amend, sometimes amended in haste and semi-secrecy, requiring only an amendment Act passed by two-thirds of the members of parliament. The power to amend the constitution needs to be taken away from the executive and put with the people, where a referendum would be required to mark any changes to the constitution.
The Federal Court has been traditionally reluctant to nullify federal and state legislation they deem as breaching the constitution. The court system needs to assert itself as a truly independent arm of government as custodian in upholding the constitution.
Local elections were suspended in Malaysia during the Indonesian Confrontation in 1964. They have never been reinstated since. Today under the Local Government Act 1976, 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 within local government. Thus, government operating closest to the people, affecting daily lives is totally undemocratic.
Local government should be a check and balance against the power of state and federal government rather than a subservient extension. Local government is also an incubator of future political leaders. The nation is desperately in need of this valuable resource. Although the PH manifesto advocated the democratization of local government, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed is on public record as being against local government elections because it would lead to racial conflicts and widen the urban and rural gap.
Federalism needs a rebalance. The federal government has taken too much power away from the states over the years. There needs to be a 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 had their sovereignty eroded by the federal government. State governments need to be nurtured where good leaders who put state interests before party political interests, independently of any federal government are found. National development and management need to be taken as a cooperative exercise, where governments respect the will of the people, even if a state government is ruled by an opposition party. This would another necessary paradigm change for Malaysia if democracy is to evolve further.
Not just government, but political parties have become centralized. Currently central party leaders basically have the final say on candidates standing for elections. This is disenfranchising the grassroots of political parties, who should have the major say in who are their political candidates. National party offices should be peak bodies and facilitators, where political power is distributed back to the grassroots of the party. This will help prevent any one group dominating the party and allow for much more diversity of thinking within the parliament.
The key to overhauling Malaysia’s pseudo democracy is a national debate on what Malaysia could and should become. There is an imperative urgency to this. This dialogue must be done openly through the media, schools, universities, and all possible forums. It must begin with a true retrospective review of history, so it is appreciated, with a “no holds barred” situational audit undertaken publicly on the nation’s political, social, and economic situation today. Once the past and present is honestly reflected upon, the future can be discussed in what could be called “A Charter for the Great Nation of Malaysia”.
With Malaysia’s institutions crumbling and critical consciousness needed for progress quickly disappearing, it is imperative that the hang up of Ketuanan Melayu and acceptance of corruption be abandoned to escape being locked in the past, without any hope of ever seeing a bright future of a nation that should be called ‘great’.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel