Moving away from race-based politics towards a more inclusive democracy.
In May 2019, the Hope Coalition (PH) surprised the world when they ousted the National Front (BN) that has ruled the country for 60 years, in the 14th General Election despite widespread gerrymandering, a history of electoral fraud, and repressive reelection climate that has plagued Malaysia in the recent years. In the early stages, PH's ascension to power was well received as it welcomed a period of change and hope for a fairer and more inclusive government, however supporters have become increasingly disillusioned as the new government fails to deliver on the calls for substantial political reform—perhaps closely related to the reluctance of the coalition headed by Tun Mahathir, former BN leader, to combat race-based politics that dominates the bulk of the Malaysian political scene.
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Although this peaceful political transition feels like a win for democracy, the continued reluctance to eradicate deeply ingrained identity politics hampers the development of democracy in Malaysia, requiring a redesign of the system. Reforms that should be considered include reevaluating the first past the post (FPTP) system, the re-delineation of electoral boundaries, the revision of race-based affirmative action, and the reformation of electoral committees and the constitution to ensure that a fair democracy can be upheld.
Malaysia adopted the FPTP electoral system during independence in 1957 to ensure a strong and stable government. However, the nature of the system propagates the rise of two prominent coalition parties engaged in a 'winner takes all' political game that can be greatly unrepresentative, especially of minority groups. Supporters of FTPT often highlight how this system is good as the two party system that it encourages provides a check and balance for the governing administration, which can be the case. However, because identity politics are so engendered in Malaysia, it is easy to deflect sound criticisms as politicians often resort to pandering votes and swinging opinion on the basis of race, playing on the fears that the Pendatangs (newcomers), referring to the Chinese and Indians that was brought in by the British to work in mines and plantations, are hogging their jobs and wealth, leaving the Malays behind.
FPTP is suited for a nation with different ethnic groups dominating distinct geographical area, and due to Malaysian electoral voting patterns remaining largely based on ethnic lines, this paves the way for gerrymandering (the manipulation of electorate sizes) and malapportionment (the manipulation of electorate size) to occur. Many academics and think tanks in Malaysia have explored the idea of moving away from FPTP towards establishing a more inclusive form of electoral system such as Proportional Representation (PR). With the existing system, the winner takes all politics have resulted in many 'wasted votes' as a large portion of citizens remain underrepresented, particularly the Chinese, Indians, and other minority groups that make up to approximately 41.1% of Malaysia's population (World Atlas, 2019). Increasing representation of these groups through PR can discourage identity politics and result in fairer policies that are more representative as a whole.
In redesigning democracy in Malaysia, we also need to curb the exploitation and misuse of redelineation — the drawing of electoral boundaries to prevent uneven distribution of voters across constituencies. Although redelineation is meant to ensure the votes of each individual remains fairly weighted, this exercise is often misused to unconstitutionally swing votes, essentially resulting in widespread gerrymandering and malapportionment. The redelineation exercises by the previous government has been accused guilty of ethnic gerrymandering, redrawing electoral boundaries to manipulate their guaranteed votes to gain more seats in constituencies where they have guaranteed wins. This not only violates the 'one man one vote' principle that redelineation is supposed to regulate, but can result in a party having more votes than the other but less seats in parliament, which happened in the 13th General Election when BN received only 47.38% of votes but gained 133 out of 222 seats (Wikipedia, n.d.), turning the act of voting into something purely cosmetic as the winners have been essentially pre-decided when the electoral boundaries are drawn.
This can cause citizens to feel like their votes do not matter and lead to overall disillusionment towards the democratic process. The Election Commission (EC) often justifies gerrymandering by citing the Rural Weightage Clause (Section 2(c) in the Thirteenth Schedule of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia) where constituencies in rural areas are allowed to have lesser votes as the population in these areas are more spread out, misapplying this clause to justify drawing boundary lines that under-represent urban areas instead of ensuring rural areas gain fair weightage. Gerrymandering therefore enables low-class politicians to choose their voters rather than the other way around, which is amplified with the FPTP system as they only need to redistrict a small number of voters to win a seat and swing votes effectively.
To overcome this, we need a fairer and more transparent EC that are made of independent commissions run by nonpartisan civil servants rather that can ensure redefinition exercises can be carried out justly. Some constitutional amendments also need to be made, such as re-introducing the cap on maximum deviation of 'area weightage' from state averages, and utilising the efficiency gap model. Moving towards PR as an electoral system will also inherently make it difficult to abuse redelineation due to the nature of the system.
We must also review race-based affirmative action and talk about moving towards a more needs-based policy. To gain independence, a social contract was established that guaranteed the special position of Malays (Article 153 in the Federal Constitution) in exchange for granting citizenship to the Chinese and Indians. This included privileges such as economic aid, scholarships, and quotas in public universities for Malays to mitigate the economic and social gap that came out of the divide and rule policy under British colonisation. However, today these affirmative actions are becoming counter-intuitive, as it is being misused by aristocratic and upper middle class Malays for their own interests, discriminates against the non-Malays, and only minutely helps the poorer Malays in rural areas as intended. This policy is also ineffective as it allows politicians to keep playing on the fears of the threat of diminishing economical and social position of the Malays, further propagating identity politics. Only by moving towards a more needs-based affirmative action can Malaysia bridge the social and economic gap between the races, prioritising the poor which includes all races, instead of focusing on race.
With a long history of muffled academia and press, citizens are fed with media-controlled content on the government that can be misleading. The impact of social media in this age also means misinformation and 'fake news' can be easily circulated and blown out. The Sedition Act of 1948 enables politicians to arrest anyone who dares to speak out against them, impeding on the freedom of speech. Under the new administration, shackles on the press are being released and criticism is encouraged. The recent lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 is also a good move to encourage participation in politics which shows progress in Malaysia's democracy. However, these will merely be cosmetic changes if they are not followed by serious initiative such as educating youngsters politically so they can vote wisely.
Simply lowering the voting age will also be pointless with malapportionment, as the weight of an individual vote in most urban areas are almost negligible. Corruption is also a key issue that needs to be resolved as evidenced by the notorious 1MDB case, and this has been done through the reformation of the EC, giving it more autonomy and independence. Therefore, to enact inherent changes, we must undergo deep structural reforms in terms of reviewing our electoral system an ensuring the electoral process is completely democratic.
Even with PH winning the most recent general election resulting in a more multicultural cabinet, it does not render race-based politics irrelevant as there is still a long way to go for Malaysia to move away from identity politics. Malay-centric politics has become largely about sustaining a sense of common threat against the 'others'. It is difficult for a country which has been long fed with populist rhetoric that feeds on this fear to move away from 'nation-building' defined by ethnic constituencies. Redesigns need to be made to ensure a fair and just democracy, which can be done by moving away from FPTP towards a form of PR, ensuring the principle of equality and equal representation by adhering to the one man one vote policy, and ensuring the general public is well-informed in politics to make a sound decision. For the change to be substantial, it requires some major constitutional amendments and inherent structural changes in government. By moving away from identity politics that has long plagued Malaysia, this country can focus better on growth and nation-building, as a truly democratic nation.
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