COMMENT There has been much informed discussion in Malaysia over the past two months about electoral reform, with thoughtful proposals from reformers and counter-statements by the government.
In this article, the first of two, I take a look at some of the proposals that have been made and compare Malaysia’s situation to that of other countries.
Lowering voting age
From an international perspective, Malaysia’s 21 year age requirement is out of step with the rest of the world.
Wikipedia lists the voting ages in almost 240 countries and territories around the world, and overwhelmingly the predominant voting age is 18. Malaysia is one of only 12 countries where a voter must be 21.
Let’s look at Malaysia’s Asian neighbours. You need be only 18 to vote in Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
In Indonesia and East Timor, it is 17; in South Korea, 19; and in Japan and Taiwan, 20. Together with Singapore, Malaysia is the only country in Asia to set the voting age at 21.
Let’s also take a look at other nations in the Commonwealth, whose governmental structures and constitutions have all been influenced heavily by the British.
The voting age is 18 in Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Bermuda, Canada, Ghana, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe. Once again, Malaysia is an outlier.
In Malaysia, when citizens turn 18, they have the legal right to get married, have consensual sex, sign contracts, and buy alcohol and tobacco. They can leave school and work when they are 16, and they can drive when they are 17.
They do not, however, have the right to vote until they are 21. Why does this age gap exist?
Malaysia’s age limit clearly is out of step with the rest of the world and also is inconsistent with the legal rights it grants its citizens at an earlier age, from marriage through employment.
Extending the campaign period
Bersih 2.0 advocates extending the campaign period to 21 days, but the Elections Commission is opposed to it. EC deputy chief Wan Ahmad Wan Omar says that a shorter period is sufficient for a nation of Malaysia’s size and technological sophistication.
However, a number of Malaysian advocates of electoral reform have pointed out that in years past, Malaysia’s election campaigns extended beyond 21 days.
Let’s take a look at Wan Ahmad’s justification for a short campaign and examine the campaign periods in other Commonwealth countries, with which Malaysia shares a political heritage.
The 2010 Australian elections were announced on July 17, and the polls were held five weeks later, on Aug 21.
Using Wan Ahmad’s logic, Australia needs a longer campaign period because it is a big country. So let’s look at some smaller-sized places, which also are technologically sophisticated.
The 2010 elections in the United Kingdom were announced on April 12 and held on May 6. That is a campaign period of 24 days.
This year’s parliamentary elections in New Zealand were announced on Feb 2, but they will not be held until Nov 26, almost 10 months later!
What about Singapore, a nation that is only 582 sq km in area, just 0.2% of Malaysia’s size? Their Parliament was dissolved on April 19 of this year, and the elections were held on May 7, which was 20 days later.
Wan Ahmad argues that the length of a campaign period is correlated to a country’s size and sophistication, but as the examples of the UK, New Zealand, and Singapore show, the argument doesn’t hold water.
Finally, while Malaysia’s land area is smaller than other India or Australia, the physical separation of the nation into its eastern and western halves has an impact on national election campaigns. The flying distance between Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu is 1,624 km.
That is just 42km short of the distance between Bombay and Calcutta, and 123km less than the distance between New Delhi and Chennai. So for political leaders who need to criss-cross the country, the length of the campaign is important.
Using indelible ink
Bersih 2.0 advocates the use of indelible ink, which has proven to be a low-tech but effective method to prevent electoral fraud. EC deputy chief Wan Ahmad has made a number of points in opposition.
First, Wan Ahmad claims that Malaysia’s Constitution would need to be amended, because the government cannot deny a registered voter his or her right to vote. This is incredibly perverse logic.
The purpose of indelible ink is not to prevent someone from voting; it is to prevent someone from voting twice, fraudulently and illegally. It is a crime-prevention and not a vote-prevention measure. Furthermore, when the government imported indelible ink for the 2008 elections, no one claimed then that the Constitution needed to be amended.
Wan Ahmad’s second argument is chauvinistic. He says that indelible ink is for poorer, less sophisticated countries like India and Indonesia. Sophisticated countries like Malaysia deserve a more high-tech system like biometrics.
But then, in the same breath, he says that voters in the countryside are not sophisticated, and that they could be duped by people who dip their fingers in ink before they vote. So which is it - are Malaysians sophisticated or not?
Indelible ink has been in use in Indian elections since 1952, and there have been no accusations of fraud. The peasantry have not been duped. True, there have been problems in the Philippines because they used a lower quality ink that can be removed easily.
But Indian ink - which is what the Malaysian government imported in 2008 - stays on the skin for 72 hours and cannot be removed.
The irony is that many Malaysians believe that the proposed high-tech biometric system will lead to more fraud and more problems, not less. The equipment and database will be under the control of the government. Some blog reports say that the Malaysian companies that provide this kind of equipment have close political and family connections to government leaders.
Furthermore, as we all know, any computer system and database is only as good as the information that we put into it. High-tech systems are also prone to crash.
Can Malaysia deploy biometric equipment to thousands of polling places across the country, train personnel, and ensure both electricity and Internet connectivity, especially in the rural areas? A low-tech solution - indelible ink - seems easier, cheaper, and more reliable.
Permitting foreign observers
When Wan Ahmad was asked last July whether Malaysia would invite foreign groups to observe the country’s next elections, the EC deputy chief became emotional and nationalistic: “Why do we need foreigners... commenting on our election system? They don't know our election laws. They don't understand our values.”
It is a matter of pride, he said. Malaysians would be hurt by the negative comments of foreign observers. “They are foreigners. Who are they? Why do we need Germans commenting on our election system?”
The irony is that he made these comments just as his boss, Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof, was in Thailand on a five-day trip with four other Malaysian election commissioners to observe the Thai elections. The Malaysian group had been invited by the Thai Election Commission, along with 11 other countries.
As in Malaysia, voters in Thailand are divided on the question whether their elections are free and fair. An Asia Foundation survey in 2009 found a split - 47% of those Thai surveyed said their elections are free and fair, while 48% disagreed.
But when asked whether the presence of election observers would give them more confidence that the results of the elections were fair, 62% said yes. Only 34% said that it would not.
From that point of view, it is in the government’s interest to invite both domestic and foreign groups to observe the next elections. The heavy-handed government crackdown last July 9 against the Bersih rally certainly got the world’s attention and raised international concern that all might not be as it seems in Malaysia.
The government says that elections are free and fair. The world needs to be assured about the strength and integrity of Malaysia’s democracy. Inviting foreign observers is not an issue of national pride; it is a question of national interest.
JOHN R MALOTT was the US Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998, and continues to follow developments in that country closely.