Tuesday 18 September 2012

Introducing referendums in Malaysia — Galvin Wong

SEPT 18 — Since Pakatan Rakyat (PR) took over Selangor and Penang in 2008, much has been done to make both states more democratic. Among such reforms that have garnered attention in Selangor is the passing of the Freedom of Information Enactment Bill. In Penang, the push for local government elections and an anti-party hopping law has been well publicised and brought up to the national level to be debated.

In this article, I argue that one potentially democratic reform that can be introduced by either PR or Barisan Nasional (BN) is to begin holding referendums. A referendum simply means a direct vote by the people on a certain issue. These votes can be a yes/no vote or a vote featuring many more choices.

Let’s first begin with a short historical narrative. Referendums are foreign to Malaysia. We have never held one since Malaysia was formed in 1957. However, one referendum has been held related specifically to our formation. During the 1960s when Singapore was still a British colony, they held their own referendum to decide whether or not they wanted to join Malaya. A total of 71.1 per cent of people voted in favour of joining Malaysia if Singapore retained a degree of autonomy.

As has been shown through history, referendums should be held especially when a country is at a crucial crossroads. One can argue that during those times there were no elected MPs to represent them, which explains the need for a referendum. But we no longer need it now due to the fact that we have a representative democracy.

In order to argue against this, I am going to highlight the flaws of our representative democracy system and link those flaws to why referendums are needed.

A representative democracy features MPs who are elected and given a mandate by the people to represent their voices in Parliament. During elections, political parties would release manifestos and candidates would state their personal stands on certain main issues. People elect a candidate based on whether or not an MP’s or a party’s stands are similar to theirs.

This is where the problem arises. Political parties and candidates only address current issues. They do not address future major issues for the simple reason that they are not psychic and cannot look into the future.

This means that when a major issue that was not previously addressed during GE appears during an MP’s political term, he/she has to make a decision that needs to represent the people. But how accurate is his/her choice really? Does he/she cover the whole constituency seeking insight from the people, does he/she hold opinion polls in constituencies? The probable one would be the former, but even then it’s still a possibly highly inaccurate way to gauge public opinion.

Secondly, our strong political culture of toeing the party line makes decision-making that reflects the people’s voices even harder for MPs. An example of such culture is Tunku Abdul Aziz, who claimed that he was forced out from the DAP for failing to agree with the party’s stand on Bersih 3.0. Regardless of what an MP thinks is best for the constituency, he has to follow what the party says. This would probably result in constituencies whose opinions are not heard at all.

Thirdly, because of the severe case of malapportionment (the large difference of voters in rural and urban voting constituencies) and possibly gerrymandering in Malaysia, there may be situations where the majority of votes in Parliament only reflect the minority of people in Malaysia. MPs who form the majority of votes in Parliament might be representing constituencies with fewer people. And MPs from large constituencies in terms of people are the minority in Parliament although the total number of people in their constituencies is much more. I have not done a piece focusing on this problem but one can find a brief overview in the IDEAS submission to the parliamentary select committee on electoral reform.

One question that may emerge from this is if our type of democracy is so inefficient and flawed at representing people’s voice, why don’t we just change to a direct democracy? The answer is simple. We lack resources to pull of voting on every issue. What must be done is to move away from a strong toeing-the-party-line culture and to equip our MPs with more resources in order for them to properly gauge the public’s opinion.

But I digress. As mentioned earlier, the three reasons combine make a very solid case for referendums to be held in Malaysia. Especially in decisions that have a substantial impact on the country’s future.
What then is a decision that has a substantial impact on our country’s future?

Not much study has been put into this by anyone in Malaysia, but questions that address crucial changes in our current political system (for example, should we move away from a representative democracy?) should be put to the people. And most if not all changes in our system are only possible through a constitutional amendment that is at this moment only able to be amended by Parliament and in certain cases assent from Rulers in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.

I propose that referendums should be introduced into our political system and constitutional amendments should be an area that should be covered. It is fairly clear that referendums are probably the most democratic way for a country to go about making a decision and therefore it is only fair to the people for our leaders to implement them. One country that uses the referendum system to amend their constitution is Australia.

In conclusion, this is clearly a general article aimed at throwing out an idea to make Malaysia a much more democratic state in the future. It only addresses briefly why and in which issues a referendum should cover.

Perhaps, in the near future, this would be an issue raised and debated on the national level. And it is my hope that when a decision is made, the decision will be one that will come from the rakyat and will benefit them immensely.

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