By: Murray Hunter

There is no doubt that the May 9, 2018 electoral revolution that ended six decades of rule of Malaysia by the Barisan Nasional is in danger. The Pakatan Harapan coalition that won has stumbled from issue to issue, in the process of losing three key by-elections and facing increased voter antipathy.

What the reform coalition must realize is that the key to its transformation agenda is electoral reform. It is the prerequisite to political, economic, market, civil service, and social reforms.

The current electoral system has locked in the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was introduced in 1971 after disastrous race riots on May 13, 1969 that took hundreds of lives but which has hamstrung the country economically in the succeeding 48 years.

The original intention was to help Malays participate in the economy along with other races and to develop a Malay professional class through education. However, this positive discrimination policy also facilitated the growth of Malay nationalist narratives into society to the point where the ethnic Malay-agenda has become the dominant political rhetoric, not just within the political environment, but is one of the major drivers of Malaysian cultural dynamics. To many, it has become hegemonic.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, during his first administration, with his then-deputy Anwar Ibrahim, went on a massive campaign to produce Malay entrepreneurs, providing them with ‘institutionally created opportunities” to get rich. We saw the privatisation of the state-owned airline MAS, the development of the Genting gaming complex, the creation of private tollways, public transport and telecommunications, in what has become to be known as crony capitalism. This cronyism became synonymous with becoming a politician as an endeavour to make money, particularly within the ranks of the governing United Malays National Organization, which led the Barisan.

As Islam is a major part of the Malay identity, a form of political Islam also developed. Political Islam’s rhetoric has increased the divide between Muslims and Non-Muslims over the last generation. Islam in Malaysia has moved away from the more inclusive forms that were once found in Egypt and Turkey towards a firebrand exclusive Islam more along the lines of teachings preached by fugitive preacher Zakir Naik.

The current Dewan Rakyat (lower house) electoral system with heavy weighting towards the rural Malay regions over more ethnically diverse urban areas perpetuates Malay-nationalist narratives. It is the heartlands where elections are won or lost, even though 76 percent of the population live in urban areas.

In an extreme example of the electoral weighting of rural areas, one vote in the federal constituency of Igan in Sarawak is worth nine votes in the Bangi constituency in Selangor. In addition, the first past the post 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, if they cannot win a majority in any constituency. This also promotes the polarity of Malay-nationalist narratives within the Malaysian political system today.

In the 2013 election the Barisan Nasional won 59.91 percent of the constituencies with only 47.38 percent of the popular vote. The principle of “one vote one value” more fairly allows the aggregate voting intention of the country to be reflected in which party or coalition governs the country.

A fairer voting system would help free the country of unhealthy exclusionist narratives which pit one race against another. Hopefully this would encourage inclusive politics rather than the current racial based political rhetoric which is costing the country socially, culturally, and economically.

This is a prerequisite to any development agenda.

Electoral reform cannot stop there. The Dewan Negara, the parliament, has been denigrated into a house of convenience for the federal government of the day. It is comprised of 26 members appointed by state legislatures, four representing the federal territories and 40 appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the king. There are no democratically elected members.

The Dewan Negara is a left-over artifact from the 19th Century symbolising feudalism. It doesn’t functionally review government and maintain states’ rights as it is nominally supposed to do. Its functions have been simply thrashed by past and current governments and converted to appoint members who often use this pathway to become unelected ministers of government.

The disrespect the house is given by the government today is indicated by the fact that 17 seats remain unappointed and therefore unoccupied. This makes it a mockery. The Dewan Negara should not be a convenience for the government of the day, but a working piece of the Malaysian democratic system.

A special committee to look into electoral reform chaired by former Election Commission Chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman was set up last August, not under the parliament but under the Prime Minister’s Department. The Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) has held a number of roundtable discussions with stakeholders and international experts and recently signed an agreement with the UNDP to assist in electoral reform.

However with no specific timeframe and an ad hoc style investigation taking place, it remains to be seen whether this committee will just be a talk fest and travel junket or make serious recommendations in regards to how to overhaul the electoral system.

Under Article 46 of the Malaysian Constitution, parliamentary constituencies can only be reviewed in 2023 and 2026. This means there cannot be any reforms implemented until after the next federal and state elections.  To hasten the process would require an amendment to the constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority in the parliament. Pakatan doesn’t command a two-thirds majority and judging by its defeat over the Sabah and Sarawak constitutional amendments, it’s highly unlikely any bipartisan approach will be taken on electoral reform.

Any amendments to the Dewan Negara will also require constitutional amendments. Any attempt to make amendments would most probably lead to charges by the opposition that the government is trying to undermine the royalty, as under the current constitution the Agong on the advice of the prime minister appoints the majority of members sitting in the house.

There are a few additional electoral reform matters which can be changed without committees and constitutional changes. De-synchronising the federal and state elections would bring state issues into elections. This could easily be achieved through dissolving respective houses at different times. Local elections are important to participatory democracy. However these reforms, proposed by the Pakatan coalition since 2008, have led to lengthy procrastination.

Gender bias in each political party could be tackled at the party level although there appears little determination to solve this problem. The balance of power between the Federal and state governments needs to be re-balanced towards the states. This could be partly achieved by political parties allowing their local memberships select their own state candidates.

However the bottom line on electoral reform is that it is not in the real interests of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. The current skew in constituencies toward the Malay heartlands favors Bersatu. Any reforms toward ‘one vote one value’ would greatly strengthen the urban parties, the Malay moderate Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party at the cost of Bersatu.

So expect the current government to sit on electoral reform until a leader comes from another party.

A system that reflects ‘one vote one value’ is badly needed if the country is going to continue to develop economically. Landslide election victories under the ‘first past the post’ system have brought arrogant, kleptocratic government in the past. The current system is keeping the NEP in place with the Malay-nationalist and exclusion dialogues propagated by ideologues. This is coming to a tipping point where it is starting to terrorize non-Muslims.

The government needs to send a strong statement against the institutionalised feudalism of the state by democratizing the upper house and giving a stronger states’ voice into the democratic system of a federation. The current electoral system is shackling Malaysia in more ways than one.

Murray Hunter is a development specialist and a longtime resident of Southeast Asia. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.