Giam Say Khoon
Wong Chin Huat has researched the electoral system, electoral corruption and quantitative textual analysis. He has been an observer for general and by-elections since 2004 for the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) and the election watchdogs, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) and Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel). A Chevening scholar completing his PhD on the electoral system and party politics in Peninsular Malaysia, Wong is also editing a book and lecturing. He is the chair of the Writers Alliance for Media Independence (Wami) and vice-chair of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall’s Civil Rights Committee. He spoke to GIAM SAY KHOON recently on the election scenario.
theSun: How prepared do you think Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition parties are in facing the next general election?
Wong: I think BN is generally prepared by definition to decide when to call for election, so in that sense, it is prepared. Opposition-wise, the preparation varies with the party.
What advantages does each have and what’s working against them?
Three things we can look at. The fundamental thing, of course, is the machinery. I think in this sense, PAS is more prepared than DAP and DAP more than PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat).
Another issue is seat allocation and candidacy. I think BN has the machinery ready and its machinery is always functioning well and it would have fewer problems in terms of seat allocation and candidacy considering that it has many resources and positions at its disposal.
I doubt Pak Lah (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) will come out with any grand theme for the election – it will be the usual one for continuity in development and stability.
In terms of seat allocation, they (the opposition parties) have already started talking to each other now and I am sure they would settle on some arrangement before the election. But the question is how much time would their designated candidates have to present themselves to the constituents? And in this sense, if you consider that 91% of seats are in BN’s hands and most of them are still being run by the incumbents, then a new candidate from the Opposition would be much disadvantaged because people simply won’t know who they are.
And the toughest challenge for the Opposition is that they have not set a theme yet, so what is there for them to secure in the next election? You can’t look at things at a very micro level, that is, who is running against who. Most people would care more about the larger picture – what this election means for us.
The problem with the Opposition is that it fails to give a vision, it’s not like in 1999 when (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim was victimised and there was a cause to rally for and certainly not 1990 when it had a clear direction of what the Opposition wanted. At the moment, I don’t see where things are going. There are grouses in every community but you don’t see a coherent or cohesive line (in the Opposition camp).
How will BN and the Opposition fare compared to the previous general elections?
I would foresee BN to do less well compared to the last election for the very simple reason that it is at the peak in terms of votes. Since 1969 – that was the second highest – so what goes up must come down. Moreover, Abdullah has gone by his honeymoon period with the voters.
In any country, when a new person comes in, you always enjoy some goodwill among the voters and after some point, you’ll lose that. Your support will go down. In the case of Abdullah, people have had high expectations with him.
He campaigned on two themes in 2004 – one was anti-corruption and the other one was religious moderation (Islam Hadhari) and police and administrative reform.
After Mahathir (former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad), people were looking for a more approachable and softer leader. But that someone still needs to be effective. People who usually voted for the Opposition decided to give Abdullah a chance (in the last election). I think they won’t cast him this time. So there will be a drop in his support because of the (stalling on the) Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission, corruption and worse still, you have crimes and all the leakage problems.
The question is how big is that price? If you look back from 1982 when Mahathir came into power: in 1982, BN got about 61% of seats and in 1986, it fell to 57%, dropped about 3-4%. The other peak was in 1995, then it dropped from 65% to 57% – a drop of 8%. Would 2007/2008 be more similar to 1986 or 1999? I doubt it would be like 1999 because that was a very extraordinary one.
It might be like when Mahathir came into power and it went down but it might be more than that because in 1986, there was no effective opposition leader. I think the difference between 1986 and the coming election is that you have Anwar. So there is an Anwar factor, but this factor is different from 1999, when the factor was much stronger. But not now. Now Anwar just falls back to be an opposition leader, but still a credible one compared to 1986.
I suspect that if the past can be a guide for us to look into the future, I suppose that you are talking about a fall of between 3-8%. BN would lose that amount of votes, unless there is a drastic change.
If the Opposition can find a coherent storyline to tell the people why you need to consider this, then there might be a chance of becoming a 1990, which I think is quite unlikely.
What do the people expect from the election this time?
I think there are issues that people would expect. Some would be very direct, law and order would be a main issue; economy, I suppose, although some rural sectors are enjoying a boom because of commodity prices. Overall I think many people are still concerned about how are we moving in the larger picture.
The growth is one thing, but the larger question is probably the New Economic Policy (NEP). This is a difficult question because people have different expectations. Overall, it is hurting the country’s competitiveness and so many people especially non-bumiputras would want to see it removed.
Can it be delivered? No one would expect the elections would immediately change that, but what would it signal? 1990 was a very interesting picture, you had almost 70% Chinese votes turning against BN, and that incidentally got in Vision 2020 and helped BN to reshape the political landscape.
What an election can bring is that what kind of direction are you sensing. In this case, an important player is Anwar as he is banging on the NEP, so it goes down to whether he can convince enough people to support his platform and therefore the government would feel that it needs to address this discontent. But at the same time, there are people who are worried about change, anxious about any change – the bumiputras – some are basically the cronies, who had been dependent on this and they have the most to lose, so they are anxious. They could also be lower class Malays who may not have gained a lot, they may still be worried that a completely competitive environment would hurt them more.
Then there is the economy, the goals (being set), the direction (it will take), whether the Iskandar special region would work; related to that, how far are we going to stick to the free competition policy and transform ourselves to be more open and market-orientated.
Next, there is the efficiency and effectiveness of the government, signified best by all the leakages, and the delivery system which Abdullah tried to address by appointing a task force, but how far would that work?
While crimes need to be linked back to police reform, the police’s ability to address crime and to reform themselves is also an issue. It casts a big question mark over the ability to deliver (results).
The other issue that may pop up to be important is religion. For the Muslims, some may worry about apostasy and whether what happened in other countries may actually affect them. But for the non-Muslims, the issue is the creeping Islamisation. Some people feel that this country is already an Islamic state through the back door, when books by Karen Armstrong and Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species are banned, many people are worried, what’s the room for religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in this country?
Other issues probably include education and language, but it may be very weak and it would probably work for certain constituencies, like the Chinese and certain Indians. The overall change to teaching Mathematics and Science in English is not so much the BN policy, but that it reflects a problem of makeshift policies. There are students who are losing out especially those from rural areas. You are sacrificing part of a generation so that the next generation may do better.
Even if there is a swing in sentiment and votes to the Opposition, will it really be reflected in the number of seats it wins in Parliament?
It depends on how the Opposition plays its vote strategy. In the last election in 2004, the vote of one BN voter was equivalent to about three DAP voters, eight PAS voters, and 28 Keadilan voters. The reason for the discrepancy is that for parties like Keadilan and PAS, their support is thinly spread out nationwide. So even by having a lot of people voting for them in the constituencies, the party may not win, so their votes are practically wasted. This is known in political science as waste votes.
If you are going to spread (your support) around and contest a lot of seats and not win in the end, I don’t see much point in it. If they (the opposition groups) are putting strong leaders in certain areas and consolidating their resources well, they could actually create a “cocktail effect”, in which all the smaller politicians can cling on to a big leader and win. That is what happens in a presidential election. For example, if a presidential election and a legislative election happen at the same time, and you have a very popular candidate, that candidate would help to pull votes for the parliamentary candidates as well. Most people won’t bother to actually consider which candidate is better than the other; they make an overall judgment. If you like a particular person and this person calls for you to support all his boys, they will actually get your votes.
We have a constituency system where geography matters. So the system we have now rewards parties with optimally concentrated support.
DAP is in a stronger position as its strongholds are all well-defined, but it would be more uncertainty with PAS. Looking at a few past by-elections, it does not seem that it won as much as in 1999. Certainly, it is not going back to 1999 yet. There is no sign that there will be a revival of opposition Malay support as in 1999. So it is a question of how far it is moving from 2004 in a situation where it can’t do well. And for Keadilan the question is how far it can capture the Malay and non-Malay support and where does it place its candidates and what message is it sending out.
It is eventually still a question that most people are asking: where would Anwar be in the next five or 10 years? People are worried that he is going to be another Tengku Razaleigh (Hamzah, the former finance minister).
In 1990, 70% of Chinese supported Razaleigh because they believed that there was a chance to have the two-party-system. You are going to have very competitive politics and that would moderate ethnic politics.
But it didn’t happen because Razaleigh lost his second election, and one year after that, he dissolved his party (Semangat 46) and returned to Umno.
If Anwar manages to solve that question and convinces the voters that for the next five or 10 years, he will show the way, his party would do remarkably well. Not to say that it would become the next largest party overnight, but if his party can gain 10 seats, that party will stay and become the third force in Malaysian politics.
But if it is just going to win about four or five seats, I doubt it would last long. No one would believe that someone with the calibre of Anwar needs to stay on as a minor party leader, he has so many places to go.
So his challenge would be how does he signal his willingness and determination to lead political reform. It will be important for Anwar to seriously consider this radical idea to position himself as a mentri besar, a state chief minister.
Can he run before the next election? This is just a technical issue, because in Turkey, the current prime minister was barred from running as well, but once his party won the election, they basically changed the rules and vacated a seat for him to run. So it is not really a big issue, Anwar can always come back in a by-election.
I think it might be more pragmatic for him to position himself as a chief minister, because his calibre is definitely higher than being a chief minister, but the good point is you are telling the people that ‘I am not rocking the boat. To conservative voters, I am saying that I am not rocking the boat. I am more than capable, you know. At one point I was once the best finance minister. I am capable of running a state, let’s say Selangor. Then I will introduce the reforms that I have been preaching and see how far they will go.’
Positioning himself that way may not win him the state, but it will create the “cocktail effect” because immediately you will have a direction where you are pushing.
Keadilan does not have credibility as an opposition party. Both DAP and PAS have been running since the third election and remained as the Opposition. So these parties have a very long history being the opposition. No one would dare to say DAP will join BN. You will know that when you want to register a protest vote and send a message to the government, you would vote for these parties.
But Keadilan would always have this problem, that it is a new party. Since 1969, there has been no new opposition party that survived more than three elections.
On the other hand, it has the credibility to become a new state government because of Anwar, his experience in government, because it is more mainstream. The best thing about a new party being an opposition group is it does not have that lawan tetap lawan (fight until the end) that kind of spirit, but it has the credibility of becoming a mainstream party, mainstream in both senses, that it has been part of the government, it knows how to run the system, it won’t rock the boat and it happens to be a middle between DAP and PAS.
So Anwar needs to be able to use that effectively.
The Election Commission said it will introduce the transparent ballot box and indelible ink. Will this make a difference or help weed out some of the problems in the electoral process?
The transparent ballot box will do a little bit of good. It creates a little bit of transparency, but I doubt it will really change much. The main issue in our electoral process is not polling, it is the electoral system. It begins from the electoral system, to the process of people coming in, and the process of casting the vote. But we don’t have ballot stuffing (the illegal act of one person submitting multiple ballots).
In some countries, they have ballot stuffing, but not in Malaysia.
It is commendable for the EC to agree on the indelible ink. It is very important, in the sense that it cannot eliminate impersonation, so it cannot eliminate phantom voters, but it can prevent phantom voters being recycled. As the system stands now, we found that it can be easy to recycle phantom voters. If you can get away with one constituency, you can send them to vote in the morning and you can send them to another constituency in the afternoon. You can probably do that to three constituencies.
But to really clean up, you need to clean up the electoral process.
We had a meeting with the Election Commission (on July 3). It claimed that its position is that it can’t do anything to expunge anyone in the principal electoral roll. Since your name has been there, it would be there unless you are dead, have been disqualified for crimes, you have forfeited your citizenship or you have been declared insane.
This opens chances for people to impersonate others. The EC is solving part of the problems, but there are larger problems to clean up the electoral process because for the EC, that may involve a constitutional amendment. Because Article 119 in the Constitution says very clearly that you have the right (to vote) once you registered.
What are the other problems that these two measures will not be able to address?
The geography matters a lot and if you can manage to change the distribution of your supporters, whether they are genuine or fake, you may win. To beat this, you really need to do away with disproportionately populated constituencies, get geography out of politics. It is extremely difficult to overcome.
What should be done to address these other problems?
We need to introduce a proportional representation element into our electoral system. I would call for a German system – the mixed member proportional system.
You’ve observed that the incidence of violence in Malaysian elections is growing, as can be seen in the Ijok by-election. What kind of violence took place and why do you think violence is on the rise during elections?
There was also an incidence of violence in Machap in which a photographer was threatened. The violence can be looked at in two ways. One is intimidation of the other parties that sometimes happens during very heated campaigning. You shout at each other, so it has the impact of overheating emotions, and you can’t control yourself and probably it bursts out into trouble. A more serious one is the systematic intimidation of opponents, journalists and citizens.
In this case, the Ijok by-election is quite scary and alarming. You actually had citizens who were visiting the electorate in Tuan Mee estate and who were chased out by a group of unfriendly party supporters led by a parliamentarian. It is quite bad when you have such a situation where violence is tolerated and not punished. You send a message to by-standers including voters that they could be the next one. With violence running wild, it is hard to have a free and fair election as people cast their votes in fear.
Why is violence on the rise? Two reasons: when the stakes are high, it tends to happen. No one will pick on violence when you have a sure win or sure lose situation. Not much gain for you to resort to that.
The second reason is that you believe violence pays. We need to look at that and say the ones to answer the question are the police. If violence does not pay, no one would actually resort to it.
If this is the case in a by-election, what would you expect in a general election? It would be quite bad, overall, that you have curbed the freedom of campaigning.
The police should ensure that everyone has the freedom to speak but once you go beyond words and use violence, then action should be taken and the culprits penalised. The police have to answer for their inaction over the two past by-elections.
What do you think about the suggestion of the EC of having a joint committee with all political parties to curb election violence?
It is always good to have all parties to sit together and solve problems, but the enforcement is still with the police force. There will be always someone who resorts to violence and then the party leader would say, ‘I can’t control them’. On the other part, about the involvement of party representatives in the electoral process, it is very important but eventually we should revamp our election authority. We should introduce an EC that includes party representatives to be more even in decision-making to oversee all the issues. But in the enforcement issue, we need the police to be non-partisan and impartial.
Will the first-past-the-post system, which Malaysia currently employs, always benefit the ruling party?
Not always. If you have a swing over the half, you may lose everything like what happened in Kelantan in 1990 and Terengganu in 1999. You lost all just because of that.
In the past, some parties have been the beneficiaries. For example, DAP in Penang at its peak time, gained about 40% of votes and secured about 60% of seats.
The point here is it is not fair.
Election watchdogs and civil society have repeatedly called for reforms to our electoral process but to little avail. This is understandable since no incumbent would want to change the rules of the game if it benefits from them. How can the national leadership be convinced, then, to embark on this reform?
I believe serious reforms must begin at the campaign stage – (a) changing the regulation method from expenses cap (by candidate) to transparency of contribution (by donors); (b) state financing; (c) administrative neutrality – caretaker government and making abuse of state machinery a crime.
Another thing, it is true that most parties have a strong initial resistance against change if they knew that they have chance to win. In New Zealand in 1993 before they shifted from first-past-the-post to the German system, at different points, different opposition parties had said that they wanted it and when they came into power, they just abandoned it; but then other parties would say they wanted it.
At some point, they say it too much, and it becomes true. But I think it was in New Zealand, so many citizens felt strongly about this that despite the parties taking back their word, eventually one party had to do it; they introduced that and changed the politics. New Zealand’s politics at one point was more British than the British, strictly two-party-system. You have four, five parties, two main parties and some other smaller parties.
We need to press for the opposition. In Malaysia, we are a federal country. If the opposition is sincere, it can actually introduce a lot of changes.
What role can the Opposition play? For example, we know that PAS in Kelantan can exercise its state government power to take the first step in electoral reform by having local council elections. But it seems reluctant. In your opinion, why is this so?
PAS in Kelantan has shown great potential. It is the time for the civil society to push for more. If you believe in democracy, you should introduce local elections because Article 113(4) in the Federal Constitution does provide for a state law to authorise an election. I asked Tan Sri Abdul Rashid (Abdul Rahman, the EC chairman) could there be any problem for EC to do that and he said ‘no’. If the state government wants to do it, the EC can do it. He said that in front of (PAS central committee member) Dr Dzulkifli Ahmad.
So it is a question at the PAS government’s court now, whether it wants to do that. And it is also very cheap to run a local election, it costs about RM40,000 to RM50,000 – an estimation by Abdul Rashid – to run a municipal council election. Let’s say in Kelantan, we have 12 local councils, it costs less than a million ringgit, you can have democracy. How cheaper can things be?
Do you think boycotting an election is an effective way to push for reforms?
That should be the last resort. The main purpose of election is a job interview for us as the boss of the government to employ who runs the country.
If a job interview is rigged then there is no point. As much as you can, make a change. I don’t think you should boycott elections.
Boycotting an election is the last resort to push for reform. If your choice is denied again and again. An election will merely legitimise an unjust system. Unless you are in such situation, we should always push for reform and I believe that Malaysia’s politics is opening up. The question is how strongly we demand for it.
For political parties, if you don’t have a chance to win, then why don’t you boycott just to send a signal. Boycott would be most effective if you do it in your stronghold. So it is actually a double-edged knife, it hurts the other party and you as well. If you do it in a marginal constituency, you won’t lose much because probably you won’t win.
For that reason, if political parties are pragmatic, it would be the last resort as well. If political parties are willing to boycott again and again, there must be something wrong in the system. If all parties are going that way, that means an extra-constitutional change is not far away and that would be a very sad thing.
(The views of the interviewee are his own and do not reflect those of the institutions he is associated with.)
Updated: 08:11PM Thu, 12 Jul 2007