'Aim for level playing field'

NST: 12 February, 2008
The air is thick with talk of the impending general election. PATRICK SENNYAH talks to Dr Mavis Puthucheary, the senior associate fellow of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and Abdul Malik Hussin, chairman of Malaysians For Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel), for their views.
Q: What is your perception of free and fair elections in Malaysia?
A: Elections must be conducted in a manner without any discrimination, on a level playing field. The institution conducting the elections must be neutral, impartial and fiercely independent. No individual or party should be able to gain an advantage over the other.
Q: What do you mean by a level-playing field?
A: This includes everything. Elections cannot start with any one group having an advantage over the other. Just like in a football match, it must start with the score at 0-0.
Nothing is completely level, but we must try to make it as level as possible and with equal treatment accorded to both sides, right from nomination to polling day.
Even for the opposition in Kelantan, we find that the local authorities express favouritism when it comes to putting up banners and posters.
There must be a reasonable attempt to give equality to all. Many institutions and agencies are involved in ensuring free and fair elections.
Q: What is your opinion of the first-past-the-post system and is it still effective today?
A: There are an equal number of advantages and disadvantages to this system. I feel the system is still workable and has its advantages in a society like ours.
Proportional representation may encourage the development and growth of more ethnic-based parties. With the first-past-the-post system, even ethnic-based parties must gain the support of a wide selection of voters in a particular constituency.
Our priority is not to change the system but improve it. We need to iron out issues and not change the structural frame.
Changing the system is not an answer at all. Some countries like New Zealand and Germany have a system which is a combination of both the first-past-the-post and proportionate representation, which may be too complex and unsuitable for use here.
Changing the electoral system is too tedious and not necessary for now.
Q: How do you think we could improve the present system, especially with regard to issues like phantom voters?
A: Phantom voters could mean two things — either people who are dead and their names still on the roll or people not eligible to vote being on the roll, for example foreign workers.
I don’t think the issue of dead people being on the roll is a major concern.
It is all a question of terminology. Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said phantom voters were those who were not eligible to vote in a particular constituency but voted there.
Election Commission (EC) chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said these people could not be classified as phantom voters since they were eligible to vote anyway.
I tend to agree with Dr Mahathir on this matter as I feel voters should be registered in a particular constituency to be eligible to vote there.
This issue is particularly prevalent in by-elections where we often find the problem of phantom voters surfacing.
This problem is, of course, due to manipulation by politicians, while the EC is caught in the middle. This is not confined to any particular party.
Q: What would your solution to this problem be?
A: I am not sure what the answer is. The EC has insisted that you show proof of address by producing your identification card, but getting a change of address is a fairly easy process.
Perhaps what we need is a more centralised system where you can get more accurate information on a person’s place of residence.
A recent study revealed that sometimes there are 30 to 40 voters registered in a single house and these residents are all of different ethnicity.
This clearly shows that they are just squatting in that particular house for the elections. This is a major problem that must be ironed out.
Q: So are you saying there is no answer to this problem?
A: Ever since independence, politicians have been misusing the electoral process for their self-interest.
In 1962, when laws were passed to transfer certain powers of the EC, especially in regard to re-delineation, to parliament, the rot began to set in.
In some countries, it is very blatant and the rot starts right from the process of re-delineation to the media, right down to the giving of speeches and debates.
Various aspects of our electoral process must be looked at again. Our EC chairman has said that where the EC has control, it has managed well, but where it does not have control, like with the re-delineation and media, it cannot do anything.
However, I think the EC has some control, like in regard to the duration of the campaign period, expenses and electoral roll.
I wonder if the EC has chosen the easy way out to say it does not have any control. It should use whatever powers it has to act independently and do what it can to ensure a free and fair election as far as possible.
However, please don’t put all the blame on the EC; it would not be fair.
Q: Do you think foreign observers should be encouraged during our elections?
A: Monitoring during elections is important and this is even encouraged in more developed countries.
It gives a country international legitimacy and we should make room for international and local observers.
We need the entire system to be transparent and should not be afraid of criticisms as we often tend to be.
~ Interview with ABDUL MALIK HUSSIN ~

Q: What is your perception of a free and fair election?
A: Elections were introduced as an integral part of the dynamics of our independence more than 50 years ago.
However, when the British introduced elections, they were filled with restrictive laws.
We should ask ourselves why such laws are still around after 50 years. There should have been amendments introduced to meet the needs of a democratic society based on present demands and norms.
Q: So are you saying that our elections are far from being democratic and fair?
A: It is universally recognised that free and fair elections must adhere to human rights. We must realise that we are often judged internationally by how much we actually adhere to international laws and standards.
When people cast their votes, it is their will to choose who they want and the sovereignty to do so lies solely with them.
In fact, the vote is the sacred will of the people. That’s why our elected representatives are called “YB” (Yang Berhormat), which means honourable member.
Therefore, it is the duty of this YB to ensure that he is elected by honourable means and not dishonestly by corruption, totally denying the will of the people and using dishonest ways to propel himself to power.
This way, they become worthless, undecorated leaders after the elections. This also applies to the opposition.
The opposition must ask themselves if they observed the basic principles of human rights, and was the will of the people respected when they were in power in Terengganu and while they are in power in Kelantan.
Politicians must fight and struggle for the rights of the people. Politicians, even from the opposition, sometimes tend to be rhetorical rather than practical.
Q: With the present electoral scenario in our country, what best can be done to safeguard the democratic system?
A: There must be a level playing field. Democracy must be shown in practice and shown to be done. Having an election is not sufficient to connote that democracy is in practice.
The system must adhere to certain principles and it must be a lawful process — that is why we have election laws and regulations.
This will be our 12th general election since independence and so far, we can say that the system works. But what we are confronting now is to identify and confront the defects in the system with a view to rectifying and bettering it.
We must realise that the present system may be outmoded and outdated based on the present trends of thinking which have changed through better education and knowledge.
People now demand good governance and transparency.
Q: What reforms would Mafrel propose?
A: We must consider the impact of living in a globalised world. We must take heed of developments that take place elsewhere outside the country which have an impact on the democratic thinking of the people and government here.
We must go the extra mile to ensure our elections are conducted in an honest, orderly, peaceful, fair and free manner.
In the Philippines, the people say elections must be conducted in “hope” — honest, orderly, peaceful elections. In Indonesia, it must be “jurdil” — jujur and adil, which means honest and fair.
In October 2005, the United Nations endorsed a charter on International Election Observation, which is the Declaration of Principles for International Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers.
Mafrel is governed by this charter and we hope to play our role effectively in making the Malaysian electoral process as free and fair as possible.
Q: What are the main electoral flaws in our present system?
A: The flaws we have found from our observations at by-elections lie in the electoral roll and the conduct of elections. They include the nomination process, polling, counting and official announcement of results.
Mafrel will apply to the Election Commission for permission to enter restricted premises where the electoral process takes place.
Our presence will be to deter and detect malpractices. However, we will be there as observers and cannot interfere in the process.
After the elections, we will submit our recommendations to the EC, government and political parties on improvements.
It is also important for voters to be aware of their rights and recognise the importance of what they are empowered to do.