By ANIZA DAMIS
17 February, 2008
The Election Commission has been dogged by claims of voter registration irregularity despite the belief that Malaysians enjoy clean elections. ANIZA DAMIS speaks to EC chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman about the efficiency of the system in the light of a woman ‘registered’ hundreds of kilometres from her home.
Q: The EC says no one can register another person as a voter. But this week, a 35-year-old housewife, Sharmila Thuraisingam, claimed that she never registered as a voter in Kubang Kerian, Kelantan, as she has lived all her life in Selangor.
A: This case was never brought to my notice. In any case, the registration of voters is according to the address on the Identity Card.
Q: But, assuming that she has never had an address outside of Selangor, what could have happened?
A: (Picks up the phone and asks for a check on Sharmila’s details)
The elections are all based on law. We are not supposed to draw conclusions and use our own judgment. Not even the EC should arrive at conclusions as the best judgment is the judges’ judgment.
So, in cases like this, don’t jump to conclusions. This is not a phantom voter — where the person does not exist, is dead, or hasn’t the right to vote.
At worst, this may be a case of a “planted voter”. If a person finds that he or she is registered with an address that is “not appropriate”, that is a case of wrong placement of address.
Q: But this woman had not registered. Why should there even be an address?
A: That is what she claims. Any registration is the end result of an application.
When we get a complaint such as this, we have to verify whether somebody had done it (registered) for her. Or maybe she had registered somewhere, but found that the address was wrong.
These may be technical mistakes which can be rectified. In any case, we can check with the original application. We will have to trace the matter at the Kelantan elections office to see whether an application to be registered was submitted.
We can do that because normally we keep the registration paper. We will be able to ascertain whether she registered in Kelantan.
Q: How long do you keep the registration forms?
A: Quite long. At least for four or five elections.
Q: Even if someone took Sharmila’s IC with her consent and registered her, isn’t it an offence to be in possession of someone else’s IC?
A: It is. But sometimes, they get a copy of the IC, and the officer may take it as sufficient proof, and allow the registration.
Q: But she has never lived in Kelantan. Why would the address be in Kelantan?
A: Before July 2002, a person could be registered at any address. It didn’t have to be the address stated on the IC. After July 2002, we changed the law so that nobody could be registered in a place away from the original address — the one on the IC.
Q: So, before this, they could submit an address that was not the same as that on the IC? They didn’t have to show proof of residence?
A: They had to show some kind of proof. But, you see, we take agents to assist us in registering people. And some of our agents are political party people.
After the July 2002 change in law, you couldn’t cheat anymore. Frankly, this is a funny case. If she was registered without her knowledge, why did they place her to Kelantan?
I find this case puzzling. Don’t draw the conclusion that this is cheating. Don’t go after the EC for cheating. The EC only acted on registration.
Registration is done through forms. We can’t check every form. There are too many. So we base it on trust. We know we were cheated many times. But the number has dropped.
Q: Of course, if people want to cheat, they will cheat. But isn’t it your responsibility to tighten the procedures so that it is very difficult to cheat?
A: Tighten? The problem is, the EC has not been given the power to move people unless they apply to be moved. That power relates to a person’s fundamental right as a voter, under Article 119 of the Federal Constitution.
Once you are a registered voter, no one can take that right away from you. If we were to change this, the power might be abused. Therefore, if we find that is the case (that the address is incorrect), then she will have to apply (to have her address changed).
She claims she went to the post office to have it changed. The post office doesn’t do transfers. We don’t allow this anymore. She may have been advised wrongly.
Q: But she claims to have filed a complaint with the Election Commission, too.
A: Election Commission where? State election office? The Selangor election office may have referred the matter to Kelantan.
Q: She also filed a police report.
A: That I don’t know. I’ve never had anything like this happen. But then again, the chairman cannot know everything.
There are claims that have to be verified. Don’t point fingers. But, definitely, there has to be an application.
Q: Before 2002, what kind of proof was needed?
A: Back then, we accepted various types of proof. But, you see, we wanted to encourage people to register. So, you can’t ask too many questions.
But that system didn’t work well. So we changed it and got people to register according to their IC.
That brought about different problems, because people were too busy to change their addresses. They have to go to the National Registration Department to do this. People don’t want the hassle. Still, we feel this system is working quite well because we don’t want any false claims.
I believe she may have been registered before 2002 because, otherwise, she would have been registered according to the address on her IC. A total of 9.5 million voters were registered before July 2002.
Q: That’s quite a lot. So, there could be more cases where the address is not correct, or where a person has been registered without his or her knowledge?
A: That’s why we encourage people to check the electoral roll. If you find any discrepancies, then apply for a new registration.
But this poses another problem. Half of these people don’t live at addresses given to us. When we send out confirmation letters, many are returned to us because the person no longer lives there.
People move houses very frequently in this country. And they don’t like to formally change their address. So, when people talk about automatic registration, the result would be havoc.
If people don’t do the registration themselves, they may not know that they are registered.
You will find a situation where, come election day, people don’t know whether they are registered, or that they are registered far away. It would be worse than today.
Q: Are there any thoughts to re-register everyone again? Really clean up the roll?
A: Not all addresses are wrong. We checked this three years ago and found that 4.5 million were not staying where they were registered. The NRD has their addresses. So, when we compared the addresses in the electoral roll against the addresses in their IC, we found that many people were not registered where their IC stated they lived.
Q: Can’t you synchronise the electoral rolls to whatever is on the IC? Re-set everything?
A: That is a voter’s right. We can’t touch it. That’s the beauty of our law. This is something we inherited from the British. The requirement is that the residence be in the constituency — that’s all.
Q: That was then. We have been independent for 50 years. Why can’t we refine the system?
A: We can’t touch the Constitution.
Q: Can’t you suggest a change?
A: To suggest is one thing. The Attorney-General is aware of this. We are only a commission. We implement government policies. So, if there is any change that is needed, the government has to make it.
(Phone call comes in with Sharmila’s registration details.)
A: According to our records, there was a registration application for Sharmila Thuraisingam. She registered in 1998 in Kampung Wakaf Zain, Kubang Kerian, Kelantan.
When she found out about this, she was advised to re-apply, which she did on Jan 12 this year. But, of course, that’s too late for this election, because re-registration takes three months to sort through.
Q: So, she can’t vote?
A: She can, but she has to go to Kelantan.
Q: What did you mean about political people being agents?
A: We used agents to assist us with the applications. Mostly, the agents are linked to political parties. A photocopied IC could have been used. We based it on trust. Then, we realised that some of these agents can’t be trusted, so we changed the system of registration.
I wasn’t the chairman in 1998 when Sharmila was registered, but when I came back to the EC in 1999, I changed the law a bit. To say that no action was taken is incorrect. We advised her to re-apply.
Q: But she complained to the EC when she first found out about it in 2004. Didn’t anyone look into it?
A: They must have looked into it. In the recent electoral roll, many complaints were lodged in (places like) Kelantan and Kedah.
Many people have had their applications put on hold as a result of these complaints, even though they registered before the end of last year. It is unfortunate for her, (especially) if what she claimed is true.
If she found herself registered in Kelantan in 2004, how come it took her so long to re-apply? The system then may have been manipulated. But don’t blame the EC. We based everything on trust.
Q: Is that a smart thing to do?
A: It was, then. That’s why we changed it. A citizen has a right to register as a voter.
Previously, we took it in good faith that the address given was the current address of residence. But back then, we didn’t have a database. Election laws are not like ordinary laws. I don’t blame the public for not knowing how the system works.
If what Sharmila claims is true, I feel very sorry for her.
Q: Why March 8 for the general election?
A: It’s the first day of the school holidays. As much as possible, we prefer to have the elections during the school holidays and during a public holiday (a weekend).
Q: But why not March 15?
A: Because we have to consider that some school teachers may want to go away for the holidays. Most of our temporary election staff at the polling stations are teachers.
In the past, when we held the elections at the end of the school holidays, we found that some teachers were missing — they never reported back for duty.
Q: Couldn’t you summon them back?
A: Yes. In fact, we could also issue a warrant against them, but to do this to teachers… In any case, all this happens at the last minute, and so we have to recruit and train new people.
Q: Did you have to amend an already planned election date?
A: No, we don’t decide until parliament is dissolved. But we do have some dates on standby, depending on when parliament is dissolved. EC secretary Datuk Kamaruzaman Mohd Noor and I had prepared a list of possible dates.
(Takes out a piece of paper with dates scribbled on them.)
We set a few alternatives if parliament was dissolved on Feb 13, Feb 15, or Feb 18.
Q: Only those dates? Why start with Feb 13?
A: Well, we all know 13 is the prime minister’s favourite number…
Everyone thinks the EC pakat (conspired) with the PM, but actually, we just worked on the principle of when we thought it was going to be. We’ve been at this for a while, so we know.
Q: Why the 13 days of campaigning?
A: We were choosing dates. I wanted 12 days, while commission members argued for a longer period than before. You see, I had given indications to the opposition parties. When they meet me, they always ask for fairness — longer campaigning period — and I always gave the indication that I would give them 12 days.
But, actually, how we got to 13 days was that we forgot to count in the nomination day as well. Because once the nomination is over, they can start campaigning immediately. So, that is actually one day of extra campaigning. Twelve days plus the nomination day makes 13.
Twelve days should be sufficient. More than that, and there would be a strain on the system.
Q: Why not an additional week? How much more of a strain would 20 days be, compared to 13 days?
A: Security-wise, it’s not advisable. People might drag in sensitive issues.
Q: If people wanted to “drag in sensitive issues”, couldn’t they do that on the first day of campaigning?
A: Boleh lah (they can). Right from the very beginning, they can do this. But then, things are not so hot at that time. At the beginning stage, it is still cool.
If you allow things to drag on, there will be charges and counter-charges, and this will eventually lead to confrontation.
Q: So, does this mean that all campaigning periods in future general elections will never be longer than two weeks?
A: We will continue to have sensitive issues that can divide the country. I don’t have to tell you that. A lot of things are hidden down there (under the surface). It takes only a small thing to start a big problem.
When we decide on how long to have the campaigning period, we take note of advice given to us by the security people. We look at the kind of situation that might arise from a long campaign period.
Q: What do you say to opposition parties which say that a short campaign period places them at a disadvantage?
A: I can’t comment on that. That is their opinion.
But it may be so. Small parties want to be able to stretch themselves a bit more. Since they don’t have many leaders, these leaders need time to cover the country, and a short campaign period may be too short a time for them.
We want to be fair. But at the same time, we can’t lengthen the period any further because of security considerations.
Once registered, no one can take away your right to vote