©The Sun (Used by permission)
by Dr Mavis Puthucheary
It is becoming clear that many of the maladies now impeding efficient use of the country’s economic resources – wasteful spending, resource mismanagement and widespread corruption – stem from the lack of essential political reforms needed for the effective implementation of our socio–economic policies.
We need to take stock and see how we can ensure that elected governments do not behave in ways that threaten our fragile democracy.
Electoral reforms are integral to the broader political process to make Malaysia more open and democratic. But elections cannot be separated from the environment in which they take place. Broader issues such as freedom of speech and of assembly, freedom from police harassment, as well as press freedom are essential for free and fair elections.
Fifty years from today, I would like to see the federal principle applied in reality as well as in form.
Democracy functions best when the divergent views of all the people are represented in the legislature.
The dispersion of power to state and local jurisdictions is particularly important in an ethnically and religiously diverse society like Malaysia because it gives groups that are a minority on the national level the opportunity to become the majority at the sub–national level.
In particular, I would like to see:
>> The Senate fulfilling its constitutional function in representing the states’ interests.
The principle that the highest office–holders should be
elected is constitutionally enshrined. All members of the House of
Representatives and the State Assemblies except Sabah) are fully elected.
In the Senate, however, the constitution provides for nominated senators to represent special interests in addition to those indirectly elected (by the state assemblies.
The nominated member system is out of step with parliamentary democracy. It also detracts from the Senate’s main purpose of representing the states’ interests at the national level.
The Senate’s function as a watchdog of state rights is
particularly important in Malaysia where powers to amend the Constitution is
entirely in the hands of the national legislature.
For this reason, even though the Constitution allowed for nominated members to be appointed, it also included a provision giving powers to Parliament to pass legislation to abolish the nominated member system through a simple majority vote.
Instead, over the years, the ruling party has chosen to amend the Constitution to increase the number of nominated members so that they now constitute the Senate majority. This has resulted in a watering down of the Senate’s real function in a federal system. My vision of the Senate is one which is entirely composed of members who are directly elected by the states.
>> Less controversy regarding constituency size and boundaries. This is inextricably linked to our first–past–the–post (FPTP) electoral system. The usual criticism against FPTP is that it is manifestly unfair to smaller political parties which invariably find that their share of seats in the legislature do not match their share of votes.
But the system has more serious flaws. The last 50 years has shown that electing persons in single member constituencies on a territorial basis is open to electoral manipulation, especially gerrymandering.
Rules that electoral boundaries be adjusted regularly to maintain a roughly equal share of the population in each constituency provide opportunities for those in power to alter boundaries to give them an electoral advantage over their opponents.
The system also provides scope for political parties to shift their supporters between constituencies for maximum advantage, giving rise to the “bussing” of voters to polling stations far away from their place of residence.
The Election Commission (EC) has not been able to stop this practice which seems to be spreading especially in hotly–contested seats. In the last election, the EC was considerably criticised for electoral roll irregularities.
In the FPTP system, where in theory a person needs only one more vote than his or her opponent to win, the way postal votes are distributed among constituencies can be crucial in deciding who wins. It is therefore tempting to allocate them in constituencies where extra votes can make a difference. This has resulted in one constituency having more ballot papers than the number of registered voters!
The FPTP needs to be critically examined and modified or replaced with a system most appropriate for Malaysia under the present circumstances. I hope to see an independent Election Reform Commission appointed towards this end.
>> The government recognise the importance of an independent EC. Over the years, many of the EC’s constitutional functions relating to seat apportionment among states and the drawing of electoral boundaries have been transferred to Parliament. Where there is no change of government at the parliamentary level, this de facto means the executive.
This has undermined the EC’s role in ensuring fair, open and competitive elections.
An independent and impartial EC is crucial to our
Even in Malaysia’s semi–democratic regime, a reasonably free and fair elections is essential to government effectiveness because the effectiveness of any government is largely the product of its legitimacy. And its legitimacy is, in turn, dependent on how credible the electoral process was that brought it into power.
Thus, the government has a vested interest in maintaining the EC’s independence and impartiality because it is only through elections that government gains legitimacy to rule.
The EC’s restoration is closely linked to the appointments of its members. Since Independence, the practice of appointing retired civil servants has raised criticisms of the EC being biased towards the ruling party. This is because the absence of any change of government at the national level has blurred the distinction between state and ruling party. With no experience of working with other governments, the Federal civil service has lost the independence it requires to be politically neutral. In particular, the current practice of appointing a civil servant as EC secretary begs the question of conflict of interest because the secretary serves two masters – the Chief Secretary to the government and the EC chairperson. Because the EC acts as an umpire in a contest between two or more players, it cannot afford to be seen to be closely linked to any side.
It is therefore essential for the government to look beyond the civil service for suitable candidates, for example, to consider appointing a member of the judiciary or a retired judge as EC chairperson.
As we enter the next 50 years of independence, the time is overdue for political and electoral reforms to be introduced that will contribute towards achieving a more democratic system.
Dr Mavis Puthucheary is associate senior fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies.