Re-Opening the Debate on Malaysian Elections

Sharaad Kuttan, Norani Othman, Mavis C. Puthucheary, & Ibrahim Suffian

The following essays are based on the analyses and findings of the IKMAS Electoral System Research Project (Phase I) and the Phase II survey of “Voters’s Perceptions on National Issues, Economic Optimism, Education Corruption and Political Participation” carried out in late December 2003. Findings were first made public on 24 February 2004. The IKMAS project aimed to analyze the electoral system in Malaysia and make recommendations on how the system might be improved to achieve free and fair elections.

Why Elections Matter

One has only to reflect on recent struggles in the Islamic Republic of Iran to get a clear sense of “why elections matter.” In his 2003 statement to the Majlis (parliament) upon the mass resignation of some 124 of its 290 members, Reformist lawmaker Rajab Ali Mazrouie said, “An election whose result is clear beforehand is a treason to the rights and ideals of the nation.” The battle of the elected Reformist movement in the Majlis against the unelected Guardian Council had been on the boil for several weeks, with these two key institutions appealing to very different sources of legitimacy – one to “the people” and the other to “the will of God.”

The Council’s role is to keep the democratic impulses of the enfranchised populace in line with the Islamic character of Iran’s Constitution. This role has come under pressure in recent years due, among other factors, to a generation born after the revolution with very different expectations. Instead of negotiating these tensions – acting as a mechanism of checks and balances – the Council decided to change the rules of the game. Having the power to approve or disqualify candidates for the elections, the Council chose to eliminate its perceived opponents, thus precipitating a crisis. Why participate in a game in which the rules are designed to defeat you and the referees are not neutral? In the end, the Reformists boycotted the polls, leading to victory for conservative candidates.

Whatever criticism one might have of the democratic nature of Iranian society today, it is undeniable that popular elections have over recent years produced a very different Majlis than that which came after the Revolution. Iran is a just one example of how modern political systems can become unstuck when they tamper with their system of “free and fair” elections.

Elections are conducted in most countries in the international community, many that might not be considered “democratic.” Whether colonial governments, one-party Communist states, military juntas, or liberal democracies, elections confer “legitimacy” on governments, without which they have only coercive means to rule. Indeed Malaysians might ask themselves why the National Operations Council, which took control from Parliament in the aftermath of “May 13th” [1969] and governed by martial law, re-instituted democratic elections in 1974.

Organizing a mass casting of votes might be easy enough; making it meaningful to the participants is another thing altogether. While the formal structures of an election are important, the quality of its conduct is a significant marker of the democratic character of that system. Scholars like to distinguish between what they call “procedural democracy” and “substantive democracy” to avoid being blinded by the presence of formal institutional structures in analyzing a country’s democratic system. Questions of culture and society can then be factored into an overall understanding of how the system creates governance that is genuinely popular and representative.

While universal standards for the conduct of “free and fair” elections have been developed, issues of representation and democratic governance are open-ended notions that require constant debate. Re-opening that debate in Malaysia is an urgent task.

Let’s begin with a reported fact: 1.2 million eligible voters – ten percent of all eligible citizens – did not registered to participate in the next general elections. Is this a reflection of public indifference, a cumbersome registration process, lack of information, or a protest against the system?

While Malaysia’s elections have generally been marked by high voter turnout by international standards, much of public life and policy making does not involve democratic participation. Apart from voting every five years for members of Parliament and State Assemblies, citizens have few opportunities to voice their concerns collectively to those who govern. Indeed, those who rule often assume that the vote cast for them in the general elections is a mandate to govern unencumbered in the intervening years. While in some countries referendums are routine and elections are held at many more levels of government, we seem to have developed democracy in a very narrow band.

Does this mean that Malaysia’s democratic system scores high points for procedure but low marks for substance? What of the representative character of the system – how far does it deviate from the principle of one person, one vote? Indeed, has gerrymandering (a word coined in the USA) based on ethnicity and party affiliation dented the score on even the procedural aspects of the system?

The Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections had this to say about our system: “Malaysia is a country which possesses a number of characteristics that appear promising for the conduct of free and fair elections. Its impressive human resources and infrastructure, the enthusiasm and interests of the Malaysian people to participate in the politics of their country, developments in information technology and its effective integration into the election process, are but some examples in this regard. Yet the promise of such elections is defeated by the current system of law and politics in Malaysia. This system has been developed and implemented in a manner which provides a distinct advantage to the ruling coalition” (July 2000).

This conclusion does not have to be definitive, however, and requires more debate. Investing resources and thinking about our democratic system – both procedural and substantive – is vital if we are to make the system genuinely responsive to the population it purports to serve. To this end, scholars and activists have attempted to point out problems in the system so that reforms might be instituted before a crisis of legitimacy develops.

At Institut Kajian Malaysia dan Antarabangsa (IKMAS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, one such study is being conducted. Under its ambit a range of institutions, practices, and ways of thinking about democracy have come under scrutiny: the process of voter registration, the accuracy of the electoral roll, limited access to information, practices that undermine voter secrecy, the absence of a genuine caretaker government to conduct elections, pressures on federalism, the diminishing independence of the Election Commission, the less than full participation of women, the loss of local government elections, the politicization of the re-delineation exercise, the limits placed on NGOs and civil society engagement, limited democracy within political parties, the need for legal reform, and a host of other concerns are on the agenda for discussion.

Restricted to a handful of scholars thus far, the discussion needs to be put to a wider audience. For it is a concerned and informed public whose demands for change will eventually deepen democratic life in Malaysia. In the next four essays, we introduce a range of issues under four broad topics: first, the development of the political system; second, the importance of an informed citizenry; third, the workings of the Election Commission; and last, electoral reform and the prospects for greater democratization of Malaysian life. This is but the opening gambit for what must be a larger debate.


The Historical Legacy and Development of the Political System

Political reforms to bring about greater democratic participation often come in response to political crisis. In Britain, for example, a series of civil wars resulted in the Bill of Rights that set down the respective rights of the people and the monarch. In countries moving from colonial status to democratic self-government, the development of the political system during the period preceding the transition to democracy often crucially shapes what comes after it.

In the historical development of our electoral system, the year 1955 – two years before Independence – marks an important milestone because national-level elections were held for the first time. It is therefore a good starting point in understanding the electoral process, but it is important to note that political parties had existed long before that date. Parties had been formed before the Second World War mainly as protest movements against British colonial rule. Although these early parties tended to attract members from a single ethnic group, they were ideologically based and often socialist in commitment. After the war, in contrast, several ethnic-based political parties were established, ostensibly to protect and champion the interests of particular “communities.” UMNO, for example, was formed largely in response to proposed constitutional changes in 1945 that were seen as against Malay interests, rather than to protest colonial rule.

For a while, both types of political parties co-existed. However, the politicization of ethnicity, combined with coercive actions taken by the British authorities against left-wing forces, resulted in the eclipse of ideologically-based parties and the emergence of an ethnically-based party system, an essential feature of our political system today.

A second feature of our system is the dominance of the multi-party coalition, beginning as the Alliance Party and later renamed the Barisan Nasional (BN). This dominance can also be traced to the pre-independence period. Despite the different and even conflicting political views held by the parties, the British introduction of municipal council elections in the early 1950s provided incentives for inter-ethnic cooperation. This was because urban electorates were ethnically mixed. In order for candidates from ethnic-based parties to obtain at least some votes from the other ethnic groups, an electoral pact was necessary. The ethnic-based parties agreed not to compete against each other and persuaded their supporters to vote for their coalition allies. This practice of “vote-pooling” across ethnic lines worked, and what was initially an ad-hoc electoral pact became institutionalized with the formation of the Alliance coalition.

The success of the Alliance in local government elections encouraged its leaders to believe they had found the winning formula to take political power from the British. They therefore spearheaded a nation-wide nationalist movement demanding an end to colonial rule. Participating in and winning the national-level elections in 1955 – to what was then only a partially elected assembly – was crucial for two reasons. It symbolized that the country was moving from colonial to self-governing status. And it conferred legitimacy and authority on a new political elite as it negotiated the transfer of power. This election was not conducted on the basis of universal suffrage, for the electorate was largely rural and Malay in composition. But despite the reduced incentive for cooperation among ethnic elites, the leaders continued the practice of “inter-ethnic alliance.”

The success of its candidates in 1955 clinched the Alliance’s place as the premier party in the country. Over time the Alliance expanded its base of support by co-opting several opposition parties. This not only ensured continued victory at the polls, but also convinced the British that power would be transferred to a government representing all major ethnic groups and not just the Malays.

Over the years, Malaysia’s democratic system has been shaped by the BN’s dominance. Penang-based scholar Khoo Boo Teik makes the point that the BN “is not only the historical product of the political system but the most successful competitor in the electoral process. The converse is also true: the BN has been able to use its uninterrupted rule at all levels (with significant but rare exceptions among state and local governments) since 1957 to shape the political system and the electoral process according to the ruling coalition’s ideas and requirements (although not without contestation).”

A third evolved feature of the political system was that although some political participation was clearly allowed – seen especially in the holding of regular elections – the scope and depth of political participation was severely limited. An explanation for this can again be traced to the 1955 elections. 

The logo of theBarisan Nasional party who over the years has shaped Malaysia's democratic system.
The logo of the Barisan Nasional Party (BN) who over the years has shaped Malaysia’s democratic system.

One marker of citizenship in a democracy is voting rights. In the 1955 elections, large proportions of the Chinese and Indian adult populations were denied voting rights because their citizenship status was not yet settled. After the withdrawal of the constitutional proposals to give equal political rights to all those born in the country irrespective of race, the British had decided this matter was best renegotiated by local leaders. But while Alliance leaders reached agreement on a number of other issues, the citizenship question was left in abeyance until after the elections. 

The exclusion of many Chinese and Indians from voting in the 1955 elections had important consequences in setting limits on political participation. Although the franchise was eventually extended to most Chinese and Indian adults, the earlier enfranchisement of Malays enabled UMNO to play a dominant role in establishing the bases of the political system. Once UMNO’s dominant position in the ruling coalition was established, it used its control over the state to ensure that this dominance continued, even after voting rights were extended to non-Malays. This was done through a form of gerrymandering based on the ethnic composition of the population. The creation of a large number of small-sized constituencies in the rural areas (where most Malays lived), and a smaller number of larger-sized constituencies in the urban areas (where most Chinese lived) resulted in more Malay-majority constituencies than the proportion of Malays in the electorate. As the leading Malay party, UMNO’s political dominance continues through a system that imposes severe limits on the depth and scope of political participation.

What impact have these structural biases – developed in the colonial period and built upon by the political elite – had on the concept and practice of democracy in Malaysia? Traditional representative democratic theory rests on two tenets. First, the duty of a member of parliament (MP) of any party is to represent independently his or her whole constituency and to further the public interest broadly rather than the interest of the Member’s party narrowly. Second, the government ought to be answerable to the whole community as represented in Parliament. How do these two tenets operate in Malaysia?  

In practice, in the party systems of many countries, including Malaysia, backbench MPs in both ruling and opposition parties are expected to support their leaders policies. Strict intra-party discipline ensures that they say nothing which may be construed as contrary to their party’s views. In Britain, this concentration of policy-making responsibility on the parliamentary front bench has been criticised for its non-participatory consequences. For example, the Labour government has been under pressure to allow backbenchers to vote according to their conscience on Britain’s support for the US attack on Iraq.

In Malaysia, too, strict party discipline ensures that backbenchers toe the party line. And the fact that the ruling party has won all general elections (except that held in 1969) with a two-thirds majority has rendered the opposition in Parliament weak and its views often ignored. As a consequence, Parliament as an institution has become ineffective, as reflected in the quality of parliamentary debates. As popular participation is minimized both in and outside Parliament, an oligarchic, elitist, and authoritarian style of government has been able to evolve.  

In these circumstances, an informed electorate is key to increasing the scope and depth of political participation.

The Malaysian Voter: A Profile

A knowledgeable electorate is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, said James Madison, author of the US constitution and fourth president of the United States of America. “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy … a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

The choices made by Malaysian voters are shaped by their thoughts, motivations, and concerns. They also depend on how voters process the information they receive, the diversity of their sources of information, and the myriad social filters through which information passes. Needless to say, the quantity and quality of information will color perceptions and therefore the nature of participation in the political process.

How do we understand this complex process? The Merdeka Center, a nascent social research firm working in conjunction with IKMAS, conducted quantitative and qualitative surveys to shed some light on the Malaysian voter. Following are some results from the survey.

It was found that the vast majority of registered voters in the Peninsula cite the mainstream media (which includes the free-to-air television networks, radio stations, and major vernacular newspapers) as their primary source of information for politics and current events. However, the “believability rating” of the mainstream media is relatively low. Most respondents accorded fairly mediocre credibility scores to reports on political events or about politicians. Repeated exposure apparently does not guarantee receptiveness on the part of newspaper readers and television viewers.

Interviews with voters, particularly those aged 30 and below, also yielded perceptive insights about the structure of information, especially political news. It was found that voters did not simply read such items at face value, but in many cases reflected on the manner in which a story was written and on what they suspected was omitted from the piece. Anecdotal feedback from respondents provided the view that information generated by mainstream sources was generally “predictable” and “one-dimensional” – that they provided insufficient countervailing views to enhance their audiences’ reading of a particular issue.

The need for balanced news reporting is especially important to help voters participate meaningfully in the political process. These survey results show that people can and do make judgments, in spite of the paucity of balanced information they receive, albeit in a manner that frustrates and confuses them.

The findings also suggest that in order to overcome insufficiencies in obtaining information, a plurality of voters relied on word-of-mouth “news” relayed by close friends, colleagues, and relatives. This was followed by alternative sources of information, such as political party newsletters, leaflets, or speeches. The role of the Internet as a medium for disseminating news remains relatively small against the broader canvas of the voting populace, but detailed examination showed strong potential for growth, particularly among younger voters. Almost one in five of these confirms using the Web to learn more about political goings on. The survey also showed that political parties play a minor role in disseminating information – only 16 percent of those who joined or supported political parties said they did so “to know more” about politics and what happens around them.

We found that most voters are content to “leave politics to the politicians.” Almost two of every three people interviewed claimed they were “not really or not at all interested” in politics. These numbers generally correspond with those reporting that they do not belong to any political party. Nevertheless, closer examination reveals that the level of political interest differs according to the demographic profile.

The survey revealed that Malays were twice as likely to be interested in politics and six times as likely to join or identify themselves with a political party as members of other ethnic groups. It was found that men were twice as likely to become active political party members as women, although proportionally more women saw themselves as supporters of a particular political party. And voters living in higher income households tended to be more interested in politics but at the same time less likely to join political parties. Contrary to expectations, the survey did not detect a particularly strong relationship between age and interest in politics. The findings show that those under 30 were just as likely to be interested in politics as were their seniors.

Whatever voters’ perspectives on political participation or their level of trust in sources of information, the survey bore out the conventional wisdom that voters remain most concerned about the basic and practical aspects of living. Their concerns include: a growing economy that translates into jobs, improved incomes, and meeting routine household commitments; a safe and secure environment free from criminals and corrupt officials; and a progressive and competitive education system that lays the tracks for the future.

Although these concerns appear somewhat basic, there is a general feeling that many of them have not been fairly addressed. The voters we spoke to perceived that the array of mass communications has, to a certain degree, distorted, sensationalized or made emotive, the information that passes to them. This in turn affects their perception of the accountability and trust-worthiness of information outlets. These findings suggest that political parties have not been effective in translating the private concerns of voters into public issues and instead have tacitly allowed debates to focus on personalities and rhetoric.

It is perhaps time to ponder and begin to address the gaps between the reality of today’s political process and the ideals espoused in the founding principles of the nation – particularly in providing voters with reliable and impartial knowledge about policies, candidates, and the government that they elect.



Assessing the Election Commission

 Sometimes a historical moment comes to define an institution. The Malaysian media had the Utusan Melayu Strike of 1961, and it’s possible to argue that the Election Commision (EC) had its Waterloo during the tenure of its first Chairman, Haji Mustaffa Albakri

The EC was established at the founding moment of the nation itself, along with other fundamental tenets of political life, such as the Federal Constitution. Simply put, it was established to conduct “free and fair” elections. By ensuring that all citizens can elect a representative freely, and that all those who desire to stand as candidates can present themselves to the voting public unencumbered, the EC is meant to create a “level playing field.” Even granting that the EC exists under certain political constraints, it is still possible to assess its performance both in what it does and what it chooses not to do. 

The principal laws relating to elections in Malaysia are embodied in Part VIII (Articles 113-120, together with the Thirteenth Schedule) of the Federal Constitution of 1957. Articles 113 and 114 provide for the existence of an Election Commission for the purpose of conducting elections, keeping electoral rolls, and reviewing the division of the country into constituencies. Consisting of a Chairman plus three (now six) other members appointed by the Yang Di Pertuan Agong, the EC was intended to be a completely impartial and independent body.

To guarantee its impartiality in the conduct of elections, the Commission was required to be honest, competent, and non-partisan. To guarantee its autonomy from the Executive, the Constitution provided safeguards such as protecting Commission members from arbitrary dismissal. EC members can be removed from office only through the action of a Supreme Court judge, members’ salaries cannot be reduced during their term of office, and all remuneration of election commissioners is charged to the Consolidated Fund, and thus removed from annual debate and approval by Parliament.

Haji Mustaffa Albakri was a former deputy chief minister of the state of Perak. As the first chairman of the EC, his first task was to prepare for the 1959 elections with 104 new constituencies drawn from the 52 used to conduct the 1955 pre-independence elections. The Constitution stipulated that, in contrast to the weighting of the original constituencies, the rural-urban weighting of the 1959 constituencies be reduced from 50 to 15 percent. This adjustment resulted in the doubling of non-Malay votes, and although the Alliance coalition subsequently won 74 out of the 104 seats, it saw its majority reduced, compared to the 51 out of 52 seats it had won in 1955.

After the 1959 elections, the EC, as required by the Constitution, once again undertook to redraw the constituencies. Its delineation was done with a scrupulous concern for fairness, and its Delineation Report of 1960 was almost perfectly equitable to electors in urban and rural locales. However, this fairness was viewed with alarm by the Alliance, which expected its future electoral fortunes to be further affected.

In 1960, an unsuccessful attempt was made to remove Albakri from the Commission. In 1962, the government rejected the 1960 Delineation Report and passed the Constitution Amendment Act 1962, reducing both the powers and independence of the Commission. The EC’s power to change constituency boundaries was reduced to making “recommendations” to Parliament, which under the 1962 amendment became the final arbiter by means of a simple parliamentary majority. Rural-urban weightage was also restored to the pre-independence 50 percent. And other new principles were introduced in Part I of a new Thirteenth Schedule to the Constitution.

Some may regard this transfer of power from the EC to Parliament as in keeping with orthodox constitutional doctrine. But in Malaysia, the Executive has dominated Parliament for so long that the constitutional doctrines of separation of powers and autonomy of certain independent bodies, including the EC, have become highly problematic. Essentially, there are severe limits to the extent to which the Election Commission can be protected by a Constitution that is subject to constant amendment by the Executive. The successful functioning of an electoral system depends on substantive democracy and the existence of certain facilitating conditions, many of which are still absent in Malaysia.

No less important is the electoral system itself and the basic rules by which it is defined. These and other rules constitute the conditions and constraints within which the EC must function. However, the EC still retains broad and important functions, as well as considerable discretion and initiative, and its performance can have a significant impact on public confidence in the electoral system.

How, then, should the Election Commission be assessed? The EC must satisfactorily fulfill two dimensions of performance, or functional requisites. One is competence in carrying out its functions. The other is impartiality. That is to say, the EC must be widely perceived to be impartial and fair to all contestants. (Here we can see the relevance of the EC’s autonomy, which is widely believed to be essential for ensuring impartiality.) Unfortunately, both the competence and the impartiality of the EC have been publicly questioned.

Some of the more serious expressions of doubt are complaints about the Commission’s preparation of accurate and clean electoral rolls, one of its basic functions. Allegations of irregularities in the rolls have been made with increasing frequency since 1957. The alleged irregularities include the presence on the rolls of “phantom voters” (names of persons who do not qualify to vote) and “imported voters” (names of persons not resident in a constituency).

Although the EC is ultimately responsible for the electoral rolls, it depends on various government agencies to provide information concerning the eligibility of persons to be placed on the rolls. According to Article 119 of the Federal Constitution, every citizen who, on the qualifying date, has attained the age of 21 years and is resident in a constituency or, if not so resident, is an absent voter, is entitled to vote in that constituency in any election to the House of Representatives or the Legislative Assembly, unless he or she is disqualified under clause (3) of Article 119, or under any law relating to offences committed in connection with elections.

It is the requirement of residency that has posed problems for the EC. Data from the National Registration Department may be reliable enough to establish citizenship status but not necessarily the fact of residence in a particular constituency, as the address on an individual’s identity card may not be up-to-date or accurate. In other countries, data for the preparation of electoral rolls is made available by the local government bodies that provide municipal and social services to residents. That requires citizens to maintain their current residence in order to vote in a constituency.

As discussed above, the Election Commission also has continuing functions in the delineation of constituencies. It undertakes general reviews and recommends changes to the prime minister, who then submits the recommendations for parliamentary approval, although the prime minister has since been given the power to make revisions to the EC’s recommendations before submitting them to Parliament. The last delineation exercise was in 2003.

In Malaysia’s first-past-the post electoral system, these two issues – the presence of non-resident or “imported” voters and politicization of the delineation process – can easily undermine public perception of the efficiency and impartiality of the Election Commission.

On the whole, the EC carries out its management of elections in accordance with the rules and regulations. And it should be remembered that from 1962 onwards, several new laws and government practices have been introduced that may impinge on the EC’s impartial management of the electoral process. So the credibility of the Malaysian electoral system does not depend entirely on the EC’s performance or “administration” of the system.

But the EC is also vested with considerable discretionary powers in conducting elections. And there are some areas where it should become involved, but has chosen not to. These relate to the enforcement of laws ensuring fair and equal competition. All in all, deviations from the principle of a “level playing field” have had serious implications for our parliamentary democracy.


What the Future Holds

Across the Straits, our giant neighbour Indonesia has been engaged in a sometimes painful, often exhilarating, process of political renewal. The presidential elections held earlier this year reflect a new set of political values that nudged, indeed pushed, the old “New Order” out of existence some years ago. The dramatic social and political convulsions of that transition were in part the manifestation of a system that could not renegotiate its own limitations, revisit its assumptions, and reengineer itself. Just south of us in Singapore, and north of us in Thailand, reengineering the system has been a fact of statecraft over the past decade. Thailand was pushed towards change by the democratic movement of 1992 and the crisis that precipitated it, whilst the Singaporean government sought to pre-empt dissent by establishing channels for popular “feedback,” even creating an unconventional form of parliamentary representation, the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament.

Malaysia has, by contrast, remained unchanging in this sea of democratic volatility. Is that a measure of our success? Does our version of the “democratic process” deliver what the population wants?

In these essays, we have attempted to reopen the debate on our electoral system and the democratic process that underpins it in a manner that engages the broadest segment of society. By conceptually walking through many of the limitations of our present system, we hope to stimulate a debate in which new approaches and perspectives can emerge, not for their own sake but in order to engage in the important task of regenerating the basis of political life in our nation. This is a task we feel is of some urgency.

The need for change is a feeling that is pervasive throughout society. Perhaps it is a function of a more educated population being increasingly exposed to a globalized media that underscores our dissatisfaction. Be this as it may, we suffer from a lack of informed fora to discuss what we want to change and what we want the system to achieve. In such fora, we would ask questions about the fundamental values which underpin our social, cultural, and political life:

If we want “pluralism,” “equality,” and “justice,” isn’t a secular, democratic system an essential tool to that end? Conversely, what would a “theocratic state” based on the leadership of an unelected clerical class deliver to a multi-religious society such as ours? If we want to create a “moral society,” would we want to legitimize the use of police powers to achieve that end?

As for elections, what kind of government do we want the electoral process to deliver? Are “stability” and “pluralism” incompatible ends? Would elections at more levels of governance and elections over policy give us the “consultative,” “participatory,” and “transparent” governance we claim we want? Do we want the responsibility as citizens that that would entail?

In Malaysia, our franchise applies only to the national Parliament and to the state assemblies once very five years. Local council elections were abolished, rather controversially, some decades ago. This is worth discussing, but even if we accept this rather limited franchise, we might still ask if the voting system is the best one possible.

Malaysian elections are characterized as “first past the post” (FPTP). Simply put, the candidate with the most votes wins. In the abstract, FPTP is said to have four distinct advantages. It is said to promote greater accountability; to foster durable coalitions and political stability; to encourage inter-ethnic and inter-religious conciliation through inducements for moderate behaviour; and finally, to provide minority representation by intentionally drawing constituency boundaries in the direction of greater homogeneity.

In our study we asked how this system has worked in Malaysia and whether these advantages have been secured. On the question of “greater accountability,” we found that the virtual one-party system has given voters very little real choice about who represents them. And that competition often takes place at the party level, rather than at the electoral level. This renders the link between members of parliament and constituents tenuous at best.

On the question of “durable coalitions and political stability,” we found that FPTP often awards the party with a simple majority a number of seats far out of proportion to the percentage of votes it won. While this might seem like a good thing to the winners, it proves a fickle friend since small swings in the number votes won can translate into big swings in outcome. For instance, the 1999 elections had a tremendous impact on representation in Terengganu. When the Barisan Nasional’s share of the vote dropped 14 percent (from 54 to 40), its share of parliamentary seats fell from 87.5 percent to nil and its presence in the state assembly fell from 78 to 12.5 percent.

Of course, with disproportionate representation in Parliament, the ruling coalition has been able to amend the Constitution to its advantage. Here “stability” has been bought at tremendous cost to the democratic foundations of the nation.

As for “inducements for moderate behaviour,” the study came to the conclusion that the ruling elite has used its control over Parliament and re-drawn constituency boundaries to create more smaller Malay constituencies, the number of which is disproportionate to the community’s representation in the population. This distortion has altered the dynamic within the ruling multi-ethnic coalition (ever strengthening UMNO’s dominance) and has inflated the significance to the larger political system of competition within the rural Malay political community.

Paradoxically, there is in fact a powerful impetus, even if self-serving, for those in power to make the system fairer and more democratic.

If there was political will on the part of the ruling elite and/or popular demand for change on the part of the citizenry, what principles and values would guide us in re-making the system? Would we re-make it in the image and spirit of the 1957 Merdeka Constitution? Have constitutional innovations been developed since then in other countries that are worth emulating? And do we have the institutional mechanisms to support and maintain such changes?

We concluded our study with a set of recommendations that add up to a call for electoral reform, including the establishment of an independent Election Reform Committee. The Report’s recommendations were divided into three sections. The first was a set of recommendations regarding the management and conduct of elections, focusing on election laws and the role of the Election Commission. The second section concerned the appointment of the Election Commission and its staff. And the third considered the limitations of the FPTP system and suggested changes to make the system fairer.

We were concerned with several amendments to election laws in recent years which we felt could not be justified on basic democratic principles. These principles are: one person-one vote, with each vote of equal value; the secret ballot; and maximum effort by those responsible to ensure that candidates compete on a “level playing field.”

These recommendations were by no means exhaustive, but instead suggestive of the broad areas that need to be reviewed if there is to be genuine change. Parliamentary reform and regulations concerning political parties were not within the scope of the study, but are undoubtedly important for future research.In conclusion, we believe there is a need for open debate that engages questions of fundamental principles and values, as well as the specifics of the current system and proposed alternatives. Ours is just the beginning of a discussion that should be central to any democratic society. 

The authors are members of the IKMAS Electoral System Project Phase II. Norani Othman (deputy director and senior research fellow of IKMAS) and Mavis Puthucheary (senior associate fellow of IKMAS) were the coordinators of the IKMAS Project for Phase I. Sharaad Kuttan, a freelance writer and affiliate fellow of IKMAS, is coordinator with Norani Othman for Phase II. Ibrahim Suffian is a leading member and researcher with Merdeka Center, an NGO which conducts market and opinion survey research. He led the survey of voter perceptions.

Sharaad Kuttan, Norani Othman, Mavis C. Puthucheary, and Ibrahim Suffian

The authors are members of the IKMAS Electoral System Project Phase II. Norani Othman (deputy director and senior research fellow of IKMAS) and Mavis Puthucheary (senior associate fellow of IKMAS) were the coordinators of the IKMAS Project for Phase I. Sharaad Kuttan, a freelance writer and affiliate fellow of IKMAS, is coordinator with Norani Othman for Phase II. Ibrahim Suffian is a leading member and researcher with Merdeka Center, an NGO which conducts market and opinion survey research. He led the survey of voter perceptions.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 6 (March 2005). Elections and Statesmen