Pointers for the Electoral Reform Committee

The Electoral Reform Committee tasked with recommending reforms for Malaysia’s electoral system, laws and practices should be submitting its report to the government by the end of this year.

A major complaint has been about constituencies with a big electorate, where the winner’s majority is huge. This is said to cause a massive waste of individual votes, and a blot on democracy in Malaysia. Hence, the calls for large constituencies to be broken up, and more seats added.

But the huge majorities have not been caused by the size of the constituencies, but rather an extreme behaviour of herd voting for a political party.

The committee ought to base its study, and form recommendations, with an appreciation of the country’s history, in particular its constitutional history from before merdeka, and the founding society of the nation. This is because a proper electoral system, and the laws and practices associated with it, are organic to the society they serve. They cannot be alien, completely imported from other societies.

Electoral reforms include looking at matters such as political financing, campaigning, caretaker government, media freedom, etc. But, one that holds the greatest public attention is the election system itself. Whatever the motive, in Malaysia, some question the first-past-the-post system derived from British practice whereby the candidate who obtains a simple majority wins the seat, even as the other candidates combined garner more votes. This system is said to be unfair and undemocratic.

Alternative systems have been proposed, and mentions made of Western countries that have used these systems, but the defects are glossed over. These other systems are claimed to be more democratic because they “accord better value” to the votes of the individuals, and provide voters more choices as they enable more political parties to win seats.

Thus, there is demand that Malaysia replaces the first-past-the-post system.

The reform committee needs to note that Malaysia has its own type of society and constitutional history. Our society is not derived from the West.

Western societies evolved the notion of the sacred “individual” – individual rights, individuals’ representation, individual space, etc. And, Western democracy seeks to continually enhance the “value” of the votes of the “individuals”.

Asian societies have no primary consideration for the “individual”. Logically, when we look at “improving our democracy”, why must the votes of the individuals be the absolute consideration? Asian societies are characterised by sub-communities that make up ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional and historical identities. This is the civilisational architecture in Malaysian society, too. Political construction cannot be at odds with social mores.

Malaysia has its historical particularity in a unique federation of originally independent states, each with its history and pride of sovereignty.

The federation is a political compact among historically sovereign states which still possess residual powers of government today. The states are the most important in our political and constitutional considerations.

The individuals did not create the federation, nor did their representatives. The Malay rulers created the federation with British assistance, their highnesses relinquishing their position as absolute monarchs and accepting the position of constitutional monarchs, with definite constitutional roles, and granting the people a constitution embracing democracy.

This constitutional structure (originally, Persekutuan Tanah Melayu) houses state power. Thus, three components – the Malay rulers, the states, and the population. To uphold the compact and the constitution, there has to be a balance among the three.

The population in democracy vote in their representatives; the states guard their interests against the federation where the population’s representatives (the politicians) exercise political power; and the Malay rulers singly and in council check the powers of the politicians.

This is the full picture, meaning democracy in Malaysia is not wholly about the votes of the individuals. If it is only about the votes of the individuals, then the masses will lord it over the rest. That would be unbridled power – the tyranny of the majority of the masses. Democracy is not about “power in the hands of the masses”. It has an essential character – a balance of power among components.

If we think Western style individualism is what democracy is all about, ever seeking to make individual votes more accurately expressed in elections, then we are seeking to knock off the states and the rulers – the building blocks of our constitutional structure.

Strictly conceding to population size in delineating constituencies would allow five or six populous states to “seize” political power in the 13-state federation, which amounts to a constitutional coup.

The more populous states will have more constituencies. But their numbers should not exceed those of the smaller states too much, or else they destroy the fundamental equality of the states.

Sabah and Sarawak may legitimately ask for 30% of the constituencies to make their presence in the federation meaningful vis-a-vis the peninsula, even if their constituencies have smaller populations than Kuala Lumpur’s.

Obsession with individual votes is about establishing the supremacy of politics in society, in two ways. One, it is effectively seeking to dislodge the constituent states of the federation, and decimate the role of the rulers as a constitutional counter weight. There are already concerns that federal power founded on votes of individuals is controlling all the states, causing damage to the fact of a federation.

Two, obsession with individual votes is obsession with simple political democracy, endlessly. Malaysia, it must be noted, is already practising political democracy, and the simple first-past-the-post system has succeeded in producing effective governments, and led the country toward admirable economic development, a fact acknowledged by the chairman of the Electoral Reform Committee himself.

The irony is democracy is not well established in many political parties where authoritarianism and disputed party elections are prevalent. And, stranger still, the public and NGOs seem unconcerned, and still vote for these political parties while complaining about “poor” democracy in the country.

So, are calls for electoral reforms genuinely about a passion for democracy, or driven by some other calculations?

Prioritising politics is dangerous as it breeds a powerful political class. Even the best electoral system can be manipulated/controlled by them. A powerful political class “elected/mandated by the people” will challenge other loci of power, telling them off as unelected. Balance of power will be gone.

Electoral reforms thus carry a danger of subverting the constitution by damaging the loci of power therein cast, and unhinging the federation. An electoral system should serve the intention of the constitution. Ours is representative democracy, not direct democracy, and that entails winning the majority of constituencies, not winning the popular vote. Preserve our system.

Already with a well established working political democracy, Malaysia should be shifting its attention toward building a social democracy instead – like more democratic home ownership.

Arof Ishak is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.