PETALING JAYA: A regional report on democracy has revealed Malaysians’ distrust of the electoral process and their belief that the Election Commission (EC) lacks independence.
The report, entitled “Democracy in Southeast Asia: Achievements, Challenges and Prospects” presented by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and the Kofi Annan Foundation, also called for an improved framework and sound regulations for political financing.
It said this would promote greater transparency in the political arena and enhance confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.
Suhakam chairman Razali Ismail, who presented the report at a conference at the Bar Council auditorium here today, said the key role of civil society in promoting systems was to regulate political financing.
“Civil society organisations have a major role to play to educate the public on political corruption, political financing and money politics. And I believe that the regulation of political finance must be a priority in Malaysia,” he added.
Razali also said many questions had been raised regarding the transparency and impartiality of the EC.
“(The public) found it rather remarkable that in the context of Malaysia, the EC does not appear to recognise practices such as giving out of handouts in cash or in kind during election period as malpractice,” he said.
“Suhakam appreciates the scepticism about the responsiveness of the EC… which is warranted.”
Razali said the government needed to provide an enabling environment for the people to express themselves and for their voices to be heard and taken up.
“Undoubtedly, upholding the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly, all of which are expressly embedded in Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, is central for this purpose.”
He said the government must move away from the notion and practice of decision-making without duly engaging with stakeholders.
Engagement and consultation with stakeholders including civil society organisations, communities and the public are a precondition for a healthy and purposeful democracy, he said.
That engagement and consultation, however, must be inclusive and meaningful and should not be carried out with the mere objective of box-ticking, he added.
He said it must be conducted with the intent of taking on board, as much as possible, the views of stakeholders, and must involve all parties concerned including affected communities and vulnerable and disadvantaged groups whose concerns and interests often slip through the cracks.
Razali said the report also identified many other pressing issues as being particularly relevant to the Malaysian context, such as:
- Prohibitive laws and legislative restrictions that may restrict civil liberties of Malaysians.
- Limitations to the legal framework governing elections and the lack of specific guidelines on delineation exercises.
- Selective application of security laws to intimidate or muzzle.
- Public lack of trust in the mainstream media.
- Proliferation of hate speech linked to racial polarisation.
- Issues of political literacy among Malaysians.
- Issues of governance and accountability that have not been fully accepted as the essence of a functioning democracy.
The president of the Kofi Annan Foundation, Alan Doss, who was also present at the conference, said the report identified “populism”, questionable electoral financing and the politics of identity as among the biggest threats to democracy both locally and regionally.