Democracy is about voting, and for democracy to be credible, the voting process, from registration of voters to the counting of votes, must not only be clean and fair but be seen to be so as well. This is basic to our understanding of democracy. Yet, compromising the voting process is as much a part of Malaysian politics as suppression of the freedom of speech is.
By Kee Thuan Chye
Will the next general election be fair?
This question has become urgent and pressing as claims are surfacing that the electoral roll is not clean, and fears are being raised that recent immigrants might be issued blue identity cards to enable them to vote. We have been hearing horror stories of the presence of cloned voters, i.e. voters who have more than one entry in the electoral roll; of permanent residents who become citizens overnight and are therefore granted the right to vote; and of the perennial phantom voters, such as those who are already dead or non-existent but whose names remain on the roll.
It was to raise awareness of the need for electoral reform that Bersih 2.0, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, staged a rally on July 9 despite the massive clampdown by the government. This came about aft er it felt that discussions with the Election Commission (EC) on what needs to be done to ensure a healthy democracy had been fruitless. Th e logical recourse was to take to the streets.
Bersih 2.0 highlighted eight demands – clean up the electoral roll, reform postal voting, use indelible ink in all elections, allow for a minimum of 21 days for campaigning, ensure that all political parties have free and fair access to the media, strengthen public institutions, stop corruption and stop dirty politics.
To be sure, a few of the demands appear abstract and general. While the first four are specific and apparently aimed at the EC as they are within its purview and implementable, the others seem to involve all sectors – the government, political parties and civil society – in an enterprise that would require a longer time to accomplish.
Moreover, we’d need a government that is sensitive to the needs of Malaysians to reinstate public confidence in the country’s institutions such as the police, the Attorney General’s (A-G) Office, the judiciary, the civil service, the mass media, etc, and to also eradicate corruption. We’d need the ruling party to be fair and concede that when a general election is in progress, it becomes merely a caretaker government and must therefore open up media facilities to all political parties, including the Opposition. Would that be forthcoming under the current administration?
In terms of strengthening public institutions, the EC itself would surely be one of those that need to regain public confidence. Bersih 2.0 has indeed been emphatic in repeatedly calling on the EC to perform its role independently and impartially, as is spelt out in the Federal Constitution. But thus far, the EC has been seen to be subservient to the ruling party. Or, at the very least, afraid to challenge the latter’s transgressions of election laws.
The EC claims it has no power to act. That it is guided by the A-G’s Office. That it is not an enforcement agency. Th at dirty politics and corruption fall under the jurisdiction of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Th at during elections, its enforcement function is confined to monitoring the display of posters and banners whereas ceramahs are monitored by the police. “We have no power to take action against electoral fraud,” it laments.
That sounds pathetic. And yet the EC is not meant to be like that. The Election Offences Act does give the EC the power to act. Its enforcement functions include monitoring the activities of candidates to ensure that the laws pertaining to elections are complied with. These cover bribery, threats, undue influence. While it is true that the EC has no power to prosecute, it nonetheless has a duty to report the offences.
A famous case that comes to mind is the unseemly deal that Prime Minister Najib Razak tried to make with the voters of Rejang Park in the Sibu by-election last year. “I help you, you help me,” he told them. “You want five million, right? I want Robert Lau [the Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate] to win … If you deliver me Robert Lau on Sunday, on Monday I will ask [for] the cheque to be prepared.”
Another case, arising from the Sarawak state elections this year, involves the BN candidate for Tamin who gave three cheques amounting to RM10,000 to a headman in that constituency. Th e public would have been none the wiser for it except that one of the cheques bounced and the headman complained. He revealed that the money was given to the people of his longhouse so they would vote for BN.
Bribery and vote-buying are election off ences, but the EC has seldom, if ever, been proactive in lodging reports against such off ences. Most of the time, it only waits to be called to serve as respondent or witness when a case is brought to court. “We never take anyone to court for corruption,” said its deputy chairman, Wan Ahmad Wan Omar, recently.
In a nutshell, the EC appears to be merely an event management company whose employer is the government. And it abides by the orders of its employer. How this coheres with the independence and impartiality it has been endowed with is a question it must answer.
It must also give a convincing reason for its resistance to the use of indelible ink. In fact, in 2008, it had decided to use that aft er having bought the ink from India, but a few days before the general election, it scrapped the idea – because of “rumours” (Wan Ahmad’s word) and police reports that supplies were coming in from Thailand, perhaps to sabotage the polling, and also at the advice of the A-G’s Office.
The odd thing is, despite the ensuing police investigations, no one was ever apprehended.
The use of indelible ink is actually cheap and reliable. It has been used successfully in several countries, including India, which is the world’s largest democracy, but the EC has managed to come up with an excuse against it. According to Wan Ahmad, voters can be forced by saboteurs to colour their own finger to prevent them from voting. Yes, this could happen, but if it does, those who have been victimised should make a police report. Th is should not detract from the real benefit of indelible ink – that of preventing individuals from voting more than once.
Now the EC is proposing using the biometric system to identify voters in order to weed out phantom ones. This is, however, a costly method, and – as the Immigration Department has lately experienced in its exercise to register foreign workers – vulnerable to technological hitches. Some of us may have even found out first-hand at banks or airports that the system can fail to recognise our identity when we press our thumb to the scanner. It is also said that as a person grows older, the texture of their skin tends to change and this can affect the biometric reading. What if faulty detection happens to a large extent on Election Day? Many people could be denied the right to vote – for the wrong reason.
Besides, the biometric system will still not prevent someone from voting in more than one constituency. All they need to do is show up at the next one that they are also registered in, be identified and be able to vote again.
What this actually shows is that the first thing that needs to be done is to clean up the electoral roll. Bersih 2.0 chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan has a suggestion as to how to do it. “Set up a committee, give it three months and let’s just do it,” she said recently. But why is the EC not taking up the suggestion?
The problem is, the EC is made up of people who are former civil servants. As such, they have become too used to giving the government whatever it wants and not doing anything that the government doesn’t want.
This mentality has to change. One way to ensure that the EC assumes its rightful responsibility to be independent and impartial, and that it does its work without fear or favour, is to stop appointing members drawn from the ranks of the civil service. Private individuals with integrity should be appointed instead. But this is something to be kept in view for the future. There’s no way the current EC team will be replaced before the next general election is held.
For now, there are the other issues to bring up, like postal votes and number of days for campaigning, because the EC has been as unsatisfactory in responding to them, but space does not permit our going into them here. What has to be pointed out is the need for public vigilance. Bersih 2.0 has created public awareness of the ills that inform our electoral system and the unwillingness of the EC to remedy them. It is now up to the public to follow that up and take the next step of holding the authorities accountable. If this is not done, the next general election could be won by means more foul than fair. And Malaysians could end up getting a government that doesn’t deserve to win.
Kee Thuan Chye is an actor, playwright, stage director, journalist and author.