By Khairul Syakirin Zulkifli, Research Analyst, Institut Masa Depan Malaysia
Malaysia is stuck with a system that has produced vast numbers of wasted votes, low representation of women and other minorities, instability of the government, as well as unnecessary state elections.
The voting system needs to be seriously looked at.
The anecdotal evidence of why Malaysians are still using the first-past-the-post system (FPTP), the 65-year-old British election voting model, raises a pertinent question.
In his seminal article titled “Electoral Politics in Malaysia: ‘Managing’ Elections in a Plural Society”, scholar Lim Hong Hai indicated that the FPTP was applied since the 1950s because it was simple and capable of promoting a strong government.
However, it was vulnerable to exploitation by the ruling political party through gerrymandering.
What then are the other options?
Thirty per cent of 53 Commonwealth countries and territories have moved away from the colonially inherited system.
Australia and New Zealand have changed their electoral systems several times.
It’s difficult to compare the effectiveness of electoral systems in other countries. Some produce regressive results, while others keep on improving and changing systems in sync with the local context.
In the Netherlands, the Christian Democratic Appeal has been the ruling government for 17 years despite having lost substantial support.
Moreover, the system gives an opportunity for an extremist party to be part of the ruling coalition.
It is essential to understand that an electoral system is not rigid — many methods can be mixed or amended to be congenial to the local context.
Scholar Harun Hashim, in 1999, proposed a mixed electoral system. Wong Chin Huat, Helen Ting and Benjamin Reilly suggested that FPTP needed to be reformed to address malapportioned representation and efficiency.
Ting suggested a closed-list proportional representation.
Neither systems may be effective.
The Election Commission had proposed a party-list proportional representation system to replace the FPTP.
Communal anxiety over losing political, religious, cultural and economic rights is one of the primary reasons our electoral system is still using the FPTP.
Inter-ethnic anxiety over the “social contract” is still acute.
As we transition to becoming a high technology country, we are more than capable of understanding a new, more complex voting system.
People may be familiar with local council or town hall meetings, but a highly scrutinised meeting between an elected politician and the local electorate is rare.
Elected politicians shouldn’t be prevented from being examined by the electorate.
There must be frequent town hall or council meetings to evaluate politicians and facilitate robust engagement between the local community and them.
Another possible reform is to revitalise local affairs by dealing with people’s daily interactions with services and infrastructure, public transportation, waste management, parks and recreation, land development and zoning.
Another way is to hold elections for the local authorities, which were suspended in 1965.
There are concerns that ethnic rights will be jeopardised by the reintroduction of local elections.
But the main reason for holding such elections is to avoid the concentration of power, enhance efficiency and reduce bureaucracy.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission states that people perceive local councillors as among the most corrupt. This, if not rectified, will disrupt good governance.
Besides enabling the direct democratic participation of society and institutions, such public-politician engagements may produce more inter-ethnic and inter-group interactions, which are vital for nation-building.
The whole aforementioned narrative is about appointing the right person to lead this country. This can be fulfilled only through the right electoral system.
It is high time the electoral system was reformed. This would enable Malaysia to get back on track in terms of socio-economic development.
Electoral laws should be redrafted; the most egregious dysfunctions of the old system should not reappear.
The approach must be impartial and congenial to the local context.
Democracy is not a wooden or stone statue.
Its nature is to keep evolving according to the era and the local context.