Bersih 2.0 aims to bring election reform back on agenda

Written by Financial Daily
Perhaps the loudest call for a thorough reform of Malaysia’s electoral system came in the months before the historic March 8, 2008 general election. In that period, a broad swathe of civil society organisations and opposition parties came together under the umbrella of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, better known by its Malay acronym, Bersih, to push the reform agenda. Bersih’s massive rally in November 2007, which attracted tens of thousands of supporters, all clad in yellow as a symbol of protest, is seen as a watershed event that galvanised public opinion to press for a change of electoral rules. With 2011 being touted as an early date for the country’s next general election, interest in reform is picking up once again. All eyes are set on the next constituency re-delineation exercise, which is due in the same year. Former Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, the new spokesperson for Bersih 2.0, sat down with Sharon Tan and Chua Sue-Ann recently to speak about Bersih 2.0’s aspirations.
Q: Why did you decide to take up Bersih?
A: Actually, when I was approached, it took me all of two minutes to agree to take up the cause of Bersih. The new Bersih, Bersih 2.0, is entirely a civil society movement. No political parties are involved in the coalition and that is the basis upon which I took up the post of spokesperson for Bersih.
I think it is a very important movement for electoral reform. It is basically a movement of citizens for citizens and I believe Bersih 2.0 is critical as a movement at this time in the nation’s history.
After March 8, 2008, it became evident that elections in this country were no longer a forgone conclusion. People were not voting mechanically anymore… I think what it showed is that the people of Malaysia will now use the power of their vote to bring change if they can.
So what we are seeing is the emergence of a Malaysian society that is becoming more aware of the importance of their right to vote. But for that vote to really count, we have to have an electoral system that is fair and clean.
We have had this system for over 50 years and I think it is time for an overhaul. It is time for us to confront what is wrong with the system and to make genuine changes. It is time for us to put our foot down and say ‘look we are not going to accept practices that militate against a true democracy’.
The first step then is to highlight what these malpractices are. Bersih 2.0 would like to engage all the political parties and work with them to make our electoral system a better system. We also hope to work with the Election Commission (EC) in this regard.
Q: What are your plans for Bersih?
A: The plan for Bersih 2.0 is to act quickly on the issue of redelineation. We don’t have a lot of time… because the last re-delineation exercise took place in 2003. (The year) 2011 is when the next exercise may take place.
We have a concern over gerrymandering, which basically means drawing the constituency boundaries to the advantage of one party and to the disadvantage of the other party. For example, you have an unusual concentration of people in one constituency as against another which does not have the same proportion, depending on the possible voting patterns of the constituency.
This appears to have happened in the 2003 redelineation exercise. Some of the divisions don’t make sense. They don’t follow the natural boundary of the local authority or the administrative authority.
Before we can educate the public, we need to know what the true situation is… The first port of call for Bersih is to deal with this issue of redelineation, to publicise it and hope that we can educate the public. Then, they can take part in the redelineation of their own constituencies, which they are entitled to.
Q: There is concern that the general election (GE) may happen very soon. How would Bersih fit into this then? You may not have the luxury of time.
A: Whether the GE happens or not, redelineation can happen from next year because you can’t do it within eight years from the last exercise, in 2003. We don’t have the luxury of time.
The good thing about by-elections is that they do actually bring to the fore the problems that we have with the electoral process.
We want the EC to be independent and fair. I think I have to call a spade a spade. It really doesn’t give an impression that it is independent. Unfortunately, the impression it gives is that it is employed by the government of the day.
If you look at the Federal Constitution, it says in Article 114(2) that in appointing members of the EC, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall have regard to the importance of securing an EC which enjoys public confidence. So I ask you, does the EC enjoy public confidence?
When the opposition goes into any election now, they have to have their eyes open all over the place. They shouldn’t have to. No party should have to feel that way when they are going into an election, that they are going to be tricked at any point.
Constitutionally, the EC must enjoy public confidence and I personally think we must ask the public this question. Do they have confidence in the Election Commission? I would say, speaking for myself, I have a problem with the EC. I say this based on what they do and not what they say.
It is therefore our intention to engage the EC on all these issues. We will be frank. We will have to tell them there is a serious public perception issue. Of course, they have to keep coming out and saying they are independent, but if you have to say it more than once then there is a problem.
We also want to engage the EC on the manner in which elections are conducted. We are completely against postal votes. Why do you need postal votes? We are not at war. Our police personnel and army are right here. They can go and vote in their own constituencies, particularly in a by-election when police personnel from other states may be brought in. The process of postal votes also leaves a lot to be desired.
Q: The EC justified postal voting by saying, we can’t have all our servicemen out of the camp and the camps will be empty.
A: We are not at war. You don’t need to. It does not make sense. They really have to stop this postal votes nonsense. Again, this is one of the ways in which the EC can get back their credibility. (This is) except for the diplomatic corps and overseas Malaysians.
Q: Students overseas report having difficulty in registering as postal voters.
A: Oh, really? I didn’t know that. That’s something we will also take on board. What’s good is that people can give us feedback. That’s what we want because you get stories of people living in the same house but one voting in this polling station and another in that polling station. It doesn’t make sense.
The EC can regain credibility and these are the ways. Get rid of postal votes or certainly modify the process. Stop abusing it. Secondly, they should introduce indelible ink because it stops voter fraud. And the campaigning period, which is very short, should be extended… this whole idea of voter fraud, corrupt practices, the EC must come down hard on them.
In the last two elections, it’s shocking how even the government took part in that, literally promising money in exchange for votes. You can’t call it anything else. Saying, if you vote for me there’ll be a cheque for you, falls within the Election Offences Act, in my view.
The other thing is the electoral roll. You cannot mess around with the electoral roll… Later revision of the supplementary electoral roll can take place but only following strict rules and with the consent of the voter. In other words, the EC cannot just move voters around.
When 233 voters were moved in Hulu Selangor, in my view, it is effectively a redelineation done without parliament’s approval. The EC said it was a mistake. If it’s a mistake, you have to live with it until the next redelineation exercise. They cannot move people around. The electoral roll is sacrosanct. To me, what took place in Hulu Selangor is unconstitutional — 233 people were disenfranchised.
The other problem, of course, is that of the phantom voters. Again, if the EC wants credibility, they should ensure the sanctity of the electoral roll and they must clean up the electoral roll. In Sibu, there was a huge discrepancy in the number of postal votes. You cannot carry out an election like this.
Bersih 2.0 will also push for automatic voter registration. We will also look into reports that the EC is dragging its feet on the registration of voters.
Q: What do you think about Malaysians knowing our rights?
A: I think people know a bit more today because of what you see on the Internet. People know about the apparent rigging and postal votes, so they know some things are not right. But my concern is that they don’t know about the more fundamental gerrymandering that can take place via redelineation because it’s a complex process… I don’t think it’s difficult to educate the public on voter fraud, postal votes and so on.
What will be difficult is to educate them on this process, and that actually is the process that will make the biggest difference to whether we have free and fair elections ultimately.
I think people should stop underestimating the Malaysian public, thinking we’re so stupid and that we can’t see what’s happening. Any attempts at reform must be genuine.
Q: What challenges do you see for Bersih?
A: Our load is not easy. We are a work in progress because we have now nearly 20 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) within our coalition. We are going to try and get more because the whole idea is to get organisations around the country that will take on the education process for the members of the public… We can only try but I have absolute faith in Malaysians that they will participate in this for the good of the country.
Q: Urban voters will be easier. What about rural voters?
A: Yes, that’s a problem, but again don’t underestimate them. That’s why we want to engage the political parties because they have an outreach, they can reach people. All political parties should take this message to the people.
Electoral reform as a whole must be pursued. We have a ‘first past the post’ system. Even in the United Kingdom, they are looking at reform because sometimes the results don’t represent the people’s wishes accurately. You can win the popular vote but you can lose on the final tally. There shouldn’t be such a dramatic difference between the two.
Q: When people think of Bersih, they usually remember the protest and the sea of yellow. Do you think Bersih 2.0 will also go on these forms of expression?
A: We’re obviously going to try to engage and so on, but I don’t discount any peaceful method of expressing our views.
One more thing in which we think change has to come is the media. The representation and access of all parties to the media is critical. It is important that we have an absolutely free press… It immediately tells you that it is an uneven fight. People who have no fear of losing will not fear a free press or people who do not need or want an unfair advantage will allow a free press.
Q: What about a caretaker government?
A: Yes, once an election is announced, there should be a caretaker government so you don’t announce policy changes to get an unfair advantage over your opponent. That’s the point of a caretaker government and that is something we will also want to look at.
Q: Are you concerned that people will look at Bersih as pro-opposition?
A: Don’t forget we have got four opposition (state) governments and we intend to also take them on in respect of local council elections, because we want to push for local council elections. So whether you are opposition or not is irrelevant, completely irrelevant, to us.
It is very possible we will be seen that way. But really, you shouldn’t stop saying what you think is right because people have a wrong impression of you. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. That’s why I say it’s completely a citizens’ movement and that’s what attracted me to it. It’s not politically aligned and we will speak up on every issue pertaining to elections.
One more comment, the way the opposition is treated is shocking. It is absolutely appalling. How can you call yourself a democracy when you send out your agencies to hound and persecute the opposition. People can see it for what it is. Only an insecure government would do that.
Aung San Suu Kyi said, and I quote, ‘It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.’
So I actually think again this is where an independent EC is critical in regulating these issues. Further, when the opposition is persecuted in this way, it means there is no respect for the vote of the people.
[…] Any criticism of the government will be seen as pro-opposition. It comes with the turf. So if people criticise Bersih for that, I won’t die of shock. But it’s not going to stop me from saying what is wrong and what is right, because that’s how they undermine what you say. Not by dealing with what you say, but labelling what you say.
If we don’t do something fast, I think we’re in trouble. One of our main goals is also to get information out to the people. We don’t want the EC to have monopoly in informing people.
Q: What happened to Bersih after the 2008 general election?
A: Yes, it went quiet. There’s a practical reason, actually. A lot of the people who were pushing Bersih then, from political parties, got into power and I think they let it lie for a while because they were caught up with their duties.
But as I said, the Bersih agenda shall stand. And the time for us to act is now.

This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, May 27, 2010.