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Forging a Bangsa Malaysia identity through electoral system redesign

Thomas Fann

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COMMENT | There have been some discussions and ideas proposed on what is Bangsa Malaysia and I would like to contribute to this discussion from the angle of democracy and the kind of political and electoral reforms that we need in order to forge a clear Malaysian identity. I will acknowledge that there are no quick and easy solutions to this challenge, but I believe that having a proper understanding of democracy and the electoral system can help us to move forward as a country.

I want to say something about democracy that may surprise some - disagreements and divisions are normal in a democracy, and it is indeed a sign that we have a healthy democracy.

In a democracy, divisions are not only inevitable but necessary so that the different groups can keep each other in check and allow society to strike the right balance between competing ideas - left-right, development-environment, and conservatism-liberalism. This is how, in my opinion, many Western countries have grown strong with relatively stable societies. A healthy democracy is one where all disagreements can be managed politically and socially, without it tearing the country apart and descending to chaos and violence.

Democracy allows for the representation of all the cleavages or divisions in our society so that we can coexist harmoniously and with mutual respect. But whether there is fair representation of our diverse communities depends very much on the kind of electoral system we use to elect our political leaders. A political scientist once said, “A good electoral system can give you a glimpse of Heaven, but a bad one can give you a quick trip to Hell.”

If we find that the current political discourse is too toxic and skewed towards identity politics; could it be due to how our electoral system is designed? Paul Hutchcroft, a renowned expert on election systems said, "Electoral systems help to shape incentives, and incentives help to shape behaviour." In other words, could it be that our politicians use race and religion to fish for votes because our current election system gives them incentives to behave that way? I can't blame politicians who want to use race and religion to gain power, just like I cannot blame a tiger for eating all my goats if I place them in a goat pen.

Under our current "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) system where the candidate who secures the most votes, not necessarily the absolute majority, is declared the winner, it creates several problems. One is the phenomena of "wasted votes" where the winning candidate or coalition may not have secured more than 50 percent of the popular vote.

During GE14, 42.5 percent of votes for all parliamentary seats were considered wasted in this winner-takes-all (and loser gets nothing) system. This creates discontentment and resentment among voters whose votes were “wasted” and the sense that the elected government has no real legitimacy, especially when the popular vote for the government is less than fifty percent.

Secondly, the perception of “split votes.” Because Malay and other bumiputera are 69 percent of the population and with the effect of malapportionment and gerrymandering in favour of rural constituencies where these communities reside, a large proportion of parliamentary seats are Malay/bumiputera or mixed, with less than a 15 percent Chinese-majority.

The problem is not underrepresentation of the Malay-Muslim voters but the perception that these votes are split between five Malay-based or Malay-majority parties. It is easier to believe the diatribe that the Malays are losing power when the ruling coalition is made up of multi-racial parties while the other one is dominated by a Malay-based party now in partnership with an Islamic party.

With a FPTP, winner-takes-all system and pre-election coalition, the incentive for politicians who want to win power is to resort to scaremongering and race-baiting.

If we want to maintain racial harmony and forge a clear Bangsa Malaysia identity that is inclusive of all citizens from all races, religions and regions, we should start considering a re-engineering of the way we elect our political leaders by changing to an electoral system that gives better representation to voters so that the sense of their votes being “wasted” is assuaged.

A proportional representation system where seats in Parliament are allocated according to the percentage of votes a party garners would give a fairer representation to all parties and give an opportunity for women and minority groups to be represented through party lists. Political parties would then forge post-election coalitions in their bid to form the government. If parties know that they may have to rely on other parties to form the government to have a chance to rule, they would be incentivised to take less hostile posture towards each other and move towards more centrist positions.

Any discussion about a Malaysian identity must include Sabah, Sarawak and all citizens of this country regardless of ethnic origins and beliefs. To exclude any group of citizens in the construct of a Bangsa Malaysia identity is to deny the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

We need to consider re-engineering our electoral system so that our politicians would have incentives to compete with each other based not on race and religion but on issues that are important to all of us like poverty eradication, cost of living, jobs, the economy, education, climate change, sustainable development, social inclusion, justice and institutional reforms.

Now is the time for us to consider bold and structural reforms that would help us become Bangsa Malaysia and prepare our children and country to face the many challenges of the 21st century.


THOMAS FANN is chairperson of Bersih 2.0. Parts of the above were shared by him at a panel discussion today on "Building a National Identity" organised by Wadah, Abim and PKPIM.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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