Overhauling Malaysia’s Democracy

More than electoral reform will be needed

By: Murray Hunter

Shortly after Pakatan Harapan (PH) came to power in May 2018, the coalition formed an Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) made up of academics, lawyers and political operatives to look into issues such as the electoral system, 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 reform commission has held roadshows around the country to canvass public views and has enlisted the assistance of the United Nations Development Program for Electoral Reform Assistance Project for their review. It 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 reform commission’s final report is due in the third quarter this year. However, it will not be binding. The upper circles of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) are hesitant to change a system that brought the coalition to power, sources say, particularly if it favors multiracial parties like the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat over ethnic 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. Much deeper reform to Malaysia’s institutions and processes is 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, are 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, a small grouping within the parliament, dominated by a forceful leader, has been able to dominate the coalition.

The system 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, which is composed of 69 members, two each elected by the state assembles of the 13 states, and 43 appointed by the Yang Dipertuan 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. 

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. Technically, the Senate by the nature of 43 the 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. 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, which 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. It is too easy to amend, sometimes 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 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, an incubator of future leaders, should be 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 is on public record against local government elections, arguing 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. 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, disenfranchising the grassroots, who should have the major say on their political candidates. National party offices should be peak bodies and facilitators, with political power distributed back to the grassroots of the party, preventing any one group from dominating and allowing for much more diversity of thinking within the parliament. 

The key to overhauling 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 institutions crumbling and critical consciousness needed for progress quickly disappearing, it is imperative that the hangup of Ketuanan Melayu – Malay supremacy – 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.’