Saturday 27 August 2011

Electoral reform: How does M'sia fare? by JOHN R MALOTT

COMMENT This is the second of two articles about proposals that have been made for electoral reform in Malaysia, counter-statements by the government, and how Malaysia's situation compares to that of other countries.

Allow overseas voting

Many Malaysians have called for voting rights for all Malaysians who live abroad, and not just for government workers and military who are assigned overseas or Malaysians studying in foreign countries.

There are over one million Malaysians living overseas, but according to Election Commission deputy chief Wan Ahmad Wan Omar, only 2,500 of them are eligible to vote.

NONEThe government has not provided any convincing reason why all Malaysians overseas should not be permitted to vote. However, two days ago EC chairperson Abdul Aziz Yusof (left) said that "hopefully" all registered voters living overseas will be able to vote in the next general election.

To date, the government has resisted allowing overseas Malaysians to vote out of concern that many of the Malaysians who live overseas do not support Umno or its coalition partners. In addition, the ethnic reality is that many of the Malaysians living overseas are non-Malay, and likely not to vote for Umno.

So Umno's conclusion is that permitting overseas Malaysians to vote therefore might work against its interests.

There is no clear international consensus on what right citizens who live overseas have to vote in their home countries.

The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network examined the practices of 214 countries and territories. It reports that 115 countries, just a little over half, permit their citizens to vote from abroad. Malaysia is one of those countries. The other 99 countries and territories do not allow overseas voters.

ACE says that 80 of those 115 "OK to vote" countries do not impose any conditions on overseas voting, except that the voter must be a citizen. However, the other 35 countries, including Malaysia, impose restrictions. Those restrictions concern either the reason or the length of time that a person is overseas.

Malaysia is one of a number of countries to impose "activity-based restrictions." Why are you overseas? In Malaysia's case, only diplomatic officers and students abroad may vote. A number of other countries have the same conditions, such as India, Singapore, and Israel.

pulau ketam village head election 310711 votingSome countries, usually those that do not impose "activity-based" or job-related restrictions, impose a time restriction. The assumption is that a citizen who has lived abroad for a number of years and perhaps become a permanent resident in another country should not be eligible to vote in national elections.

Australia, for example, denies the right to vote to any Australian citizen who has lived abroad for more than six years. For the UK, it is 15 years. For Germany, it takes 25 years before a German citizen overseas loses the right to vote.

In short, there is no clear international consensus. Half of the world's countries do not permit overseas voting. But of those that do, Malaysia has some of the more restrictive conditions.

A national discussion about the eligibility of Malaysians overseas to vote therefore would be a useful part of the dialogue on electoral reform.

Provide fair access to media
Well-informed voters - which can come only from the free flow of information about parties, candidates, and their positions - are essential to a healthy democracy. Bersih 2.0 has called for free and fair access to the media for all political parties.

There have been many international reports that support Bersih's position. Reporters without Borders places Malaysia 141st out of the 178 countries in its Press Freedom Index.

The US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices declares that Malaysian opposition parties are unable to compete on equal terms with the governing Umno-dominated coalition because of restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly and association.

The State Department reports that "news of the opposition is tightly restricted and reported in a biased fashion."

Let's take a look at the ways in which information about parties, candidates and their positions are disseminated in Malaysia.

1) The state-owned and controlled media, RTM and Bernama, are supposed to be public institutions for all citizens in Malaysia, because they are supported by all taxpayers regardless of their political affiliation.

In reality, RTM and Bernama have become propaganda arms of Umno and BN. RTM evens uses taxpayers' money to broadcast Umno's political assemblies. RTM and Bernama take their political direction from the prime minister and the Information Ministry. They praise the ruling parties and castigate and demonise the opposition.

In other countries with publicly-owned broadcast systems - for example, the UK, Australia, Japan, and the United States - access is provided to all political parties, and an effort is made to be politically impartial.

EC deputy chief Wan Ahmad has said that he cannot compel newspapers and television stations to report on the opposition. That, of course, is true. It is not within the EC's authority. But it is within the government's authority and therefore a legitimate topic for discussion.

NONE2) In Malaysia, privately-owned newspapers and television stations are owned by companies under the control of Umno, MCA and MIC, and can disseminate their views freely, to everyone.

By contrast, there are no television or radio stations owned by supporters of the opposition, and opposition newspapers cannot be sold openly. They can only be distributed to party members, a clearly discriminatory practice.

3) Wan Ahmad says that despite these restrictions, the opposition and its supporters have access to alternative media sources, meaning the Internet and its websites and blogs. That also is true. But it does not make for a level-playing field. The opposition is forced to campaign with one hand tied behind its back. They have a rifle, but the other side has a cannon.

Some alternative sites clearly are supporters of the opposition. Others (like Malaysiakini) try to provide a point of view that is more balanced than the mainstream media. As a result, their reporting does not always please Malaysia's rulers.

These alternative media outlets therefore have been subject to government harassment, such as the denial of service attacks that were launched against Malaysiakini during the recent Sarawak elections. This too cuts off the free flow of information to Malaysian voters.

Over two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press." Organisations and governments throughout the world have made it clear what they think about press freedom in Malaysia. It is no wonder that Malaysia ranks 141st in the world - even below Zimbabwe.

Ensure an impartial EC

Around the world, there probably are thousands of different ways in which governments at all levels - national, state, and local - organise and conduct elections. Because of this great variety, foreign analysts would not insist that there is one "right way" to organise and manage elections. Instead they would focus on some basic principles.

There are a number of questions that should be asked to determine whether elections are being conducted in a fair manner:
  • Is the organisation that is responsible for conducting the elections impartial, or does it favour one party over another?
  • Can the same be said about the leadership and staff employees of that organisation? Do they carry out their work in an impartial manner?
  • Is the organisation subject to political interference?
  • Are the decisions and actions of the organisation transparent, and are they fair? Do they treat both the government and the opposition equally?
Numerous academic studies conducted by both foreign and Malaysian academics have concluded that over the years, the independence and impartiality of Malaysia's election commission has been lost. In many cases, this is because its independence has been stripped by parliamentary action. So it is not fair to blame everything on the personnel who lead the commission.

However, various unfortunate statements by Malaysia's election officials have only reinforced the view that they favour one party over another. For example:

In 2007, then EC Chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said that "there is only one regime in this country that is capable of running (the country)."
Abdul Rashid went on to say that he was on the same wavelength as his friend, senior Umno leader Sanusi Junid, about what the country needs. "If we don't agree, then we are in trouble, because I run the elections," he said.

kuala terengganu parliament by election spr ec announcement  051208 wan ahmad wan omarEC deputy chief Wan Ahmad (right) has taken to writing articles in Utusan Malaysia, owned by Umno, saying that the opposition is engaged in 'dirty tricks' and trying to scapegoat the EC in order to promote their political ambitions.

Wan Ahmad added, "BN has never attacked or put down the EC. That is the difference between PAS, DAP, PKR and BN."

Critics of the EC say that BN has no reason to attack or put down the EC, as the EC is doing BN's work.

In response to Wan Ahmad's comments, Bersih 2.0 issued a statement saying that the EC "continues to make comments that are less in the spirit of working together towards cleaner elections and more in the spirit of defending an incumbent party against contenders."

Bersih called on Wan Ahmad and the EC to end their war of words with political parties.

"Recent comments that have been made threaten the public image of impartiality that the EC needs to have to maintain public confidence. It is more the job of the deputy chairperson of a political party to make political criticisms than it is the deputy chairperson of the EC."

That is a sentiment with which most of the world would agree.

JOHN R MALOTT was the US Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998, and continues to follow developments in that country closely.

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