On the 31st of August, 2007, Malaysia celebrated 50 years of independence from British rule. The British ruled Malaysia for their own benefit, exploiting local inhabitants – Malays, Chinese and Indians – to make Britain wealthy. When they left, the hero of independence Tunku Abdul Rahman became Prime Minister under a constitution which promised Westminster style democracy. It promised that while the Malays, the Monarchies and Islam would be protected, all citizens would be citizens of a new, democratic nation.
Westminster democracy has at its core that the people are entitled to choose those who govern them in free and fair elections. This means not only that elections be held, but that the parliament elected should be broadly representative of the votes taken in the election. People must also be free to vote for who they wish without risking penalties to do so. Another assumption is that all parties will have access to and be treated equally by the media.
Malaysia’s democracy has become plainly deficient in each of these respects, despite the fact that elections are held every 4-5 years.
1) The composition of parliament should be representative of the votes cast at the election. This is demonstrably not the case in the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia’s lower house of parliament), which consists of 219 seats. 198 of these (90.4%) are controlled by the government, effectively rendering Malaysia a one-party state until the next election is held. This is despite the government only winning 63.9% of the vote. When one considers the individual parties that make up the government, the unrepresentativeness becomes even more obvious. UMNO (the party of the Prime Minister) won just 35.9% of the vote – yet controls half of the seats in parliament (49.8%). PAS, the opposition party that won the largest number of votes (15.2%), has just 7 seats in parliament (3.2%). Both these parties have mainly Malay Muslim supporters. Looking at the two parties mainly voted for by Chinese, the government’s coalition partner MCA won 15.5% of the vote (about the same as PAS) but won 31 seats (14.2% of the parliament, while the opposition DAP won 9.9% of the vote but has just 12 seats in the parliament. The multi-ethnic but mainly supported by Malays opposition PKR won 8.9% of the votes but just 1 seat in the parliament. By contrast the government coalition partner MIC won just 3.2% of the vote, but holds 9 seats in parliament, more than PAS who nearly 5x as many Malaysian’s voted for.
This means for every seat in parliament the following number of Malaysians voted for them:
UMNO – 22,782 voters
MCA – 34,652 voters
MIC – 24,616 voters
DAP – 57,278 voters
PAS – 150,211 voters
PKR – 617,518 voters
(Any errors in calculations are typos – source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysian_Parliament)
These figures speak for themselves. They show that UMNO and the MIC are greatly overrepresented in the parliament according to the support they actually received in the elections. The MCA, and the opposition parties who are in fact voted for by more than 1/3 of Malaysians – even in a landslide election like 2004 – are grossly underrepresented. Chinese who vote for the MCA, and even more so the DAP are treated unfairly by getting less representation that their votes deserve. However, clearly the people most cheated in Malaysia’s parliament are the 1.7 million (mainly) Malays who voted for either PAS or PKR, who got just 8 seats for their votes compared with 109 for the 2.4 million (mainly) Malays who voted for UMNO. This is despite the claims that UMNO makes that is stands up for the interests of Malays – in fact, it cheats them of fair and honest representation more than anyone else.
Among the reasons for this state of affairs, the most important is the drawing up of electoral boundaries is done so that Malays in UMNO voting areas have electorates with much smaller numbers of voters that those in PAS voting areas. Urban areas which vote for the opposition generally have huge numbers of voters for each electorate. This is called gerrymandering, a term which means manipulating electoral boundaries to favour one group of voters at the expense of others.
2) People should be free to vote for who they choose without fear of recrimination. When Malaysians go to vote, a serial number is recorded on their ballot paper that potentially allows who they voted for to be traced back to their name. This has particular implications for government servants, many of whom believe that if they vote for the opposition this will prevent them from career advancement. I personally know many Malays who have told me they simply don’t vote because they don’t want to vote for UMNO but are afraid to vote for the opposition because they fear for their government careers. The traceability of votes back to people also encourages vote-buying, something which is impossible where votes are secret and anonymous.
3) Fairness in the media. The Malaysian mainstream media is dependent on the government to issue licenses to allow them to keep publishing. One former NST journalist (a friend) told me that although the papers uncover many scandals about the government – including corruption on a grand scale at the highest levels – they dare not publish for fear of using their license. In the political context this means that not only are the press highly restricted in criticizing the government, they are expected to not give air to the views of opposition leaders. This usually means that while the views of government ministers are presented mostly without comment, opposition leaders are seldom quoted in the newspapers and almost never seen on television. This press bias is evident to anyone who has ever seen the media operate in a genuine democratic environment – elections are not free and fair if the government controls the main means by which ordinary citizens gather their information.
All these reasons explain why more than 40,000 Malaysians braved road-blocks, chemical-laced water-cannon and tear-gas to peacefully present a petition to their Ruler (the Agong, the leader of the nation’s Sultans and constitutionally the government’s boss) asking for a chance to have their votes count. This blogger believes that ALL people regardless of ethnicity, religion or place of birth deserve to have their votes count. The Malaysian government has been in power for 50 years, and frankly, some of their members are taking the people of Malaysia for fools. I believe they are reading Malaysians wrong, and that the people are starting to realize that they deserve to have a real choice in who governs them, not have that choice made for them in the back-rooms of UMNO. Malaysia’s independence heroes did not fight to be liberated from British tyrants to see their great-grandchildren made fools of by locally-born tyrants such as those who now appear to control UMNO.
To those 40,000+ who showed their love for Malaysia by standing up for true ‘merdeka’, I salute you.
To borrow from Shakespeare’s Henry IV:
And gentlemen in Malaysia now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That struggled with us upon Malaysia’s day