Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Electoral roll clean-up: Is our intuition reason enough? ― Jason Lai and KW Chen

OCT 29 ― As the Najib administration’s expiry date looms closer and closer, bringing with it the imminent 13th general election, calls for a clean-up of the electoral roll from various quarters of civil society as well as opposition political parties have also grown correspondingly shriller and frantic.

Merdeka Center, in an independent survey conducted earlier this year, found as many as 92 per cent of the people polled were of the opinion that there is great and urgent need for this to be done before the election happens.

A legitimate democratic process is predicated on an intelligent and well-informed electorate who is able to make a sagacious decision when choosing their government. This is evident in the intense focus on the presidential election in the United States, where a mature democratic electorate demands correct and accurate information from the candidates, failing which they will be torn apart.

This principle should be no less important to Malaysia as we aspire to be a truly world-class democracy. And for this to happen, it is important to temper passion with reason and to let our decisions be informed by passion, rather than just emotions.

Informed by facts not emotions

Intuitively, the state of the electoral roll is highly suspect. However, as a responsible voter, we should not be satisfied with our intuition alone. The personal integrity of every responsible voter should compel him or her to verify every claim made by politicians.

So it is essential to ask where our perception that the integrity of our electoral roll is questionable originates from. Are viral Facebook posts a reliable source of information? Or is it a case of a self-perpetuating cascade that may potentially exaggerate the dismal state of our electoral roll, resulting in a possible over-investment of limited resources to correct errors that may not actually exist or impact our elections?

We are certainly not indifferent towards isolated genuine mistakes that have found its way to the media’s attention. However, it remains our contention that ultimately our overall judgement on the state of the electoral roll should be informed by thorough studies that provide facts and data, and not speculation or rhetoric.

For this reason the recent release of the findings of the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project (MERAP) is to be greatly applauded.

Critical look at MERAP’s findings

The MERAP team led by Dr Ong Kian Ming, as well as his funding sources, should be lauded for investing their effort and precious resources to apprise the public on the nature and the magnitude of the problem with our electoral roll. After all, how will an elected government claim legitimacy if the integrity of the elections is jeopardized by an electoral roll plagued with problems?

Nonetheless, despite high expectations and great anticipation the report, which is available online for free, raises more questions than answers.

A number of points raised by MERAP were not adequately substantiated and have the potential to lead readers to inaccurate conclusions that what may be genuine technical glitches are intentional exploitations of the system. Some of the pertinent questions the report raises that need to be addressed are as follows:

Are old voters likely dead?

“One proxy for the presence of dead voters in the electoral roll is to look out for very old voters.” – (Section 1.1, MERAP)

MERAP reported that 65,000 voters were over 85 years old and over 1,000 voters were centenarians. This inference should be approached with due caution. Indeed, the assumption that very old voters are likely dead can be erroneous when the elderly population is in actual fact inherently large in Malaysia.

The 2010 national census reported that over 479,000 people are over the age of 75# and approximately 150,000 people are beyond 80 years old.

Moreover, improved health care has certainly contributed to longer life expectancy and therefore, it may not come as a surprise to know that a majority of the very old voters may still be alive today.

In view of this, the inference that old voters are dead can only be acceptable if the proportion of the old voters that have passed away is unacceptably large. This data was unfortunately not found in the MERAP report and the reader is left wondering about the legitimacy of this claim.

Having said that, it is quite unequivocal that the 19 registered voters whose ages surpasses that of the oldest Malaysian on record (at 105 years old) are undoubtedly dubious.

Does having the same name preclude different individuals?

MERAP was successful in detecting voters with identical names, birth dates and birth places (state). However, the number of such occurrence, hovering at about 20 instances for each name, should only come as a surprise if the duplicate names are very rare or unusual, such as “Farhanitrate”.

Other names the MERAP team took exception to in the report were, for instance, “Fatimah binti Ismail” and “Fatimah binti Abdullah”, which they argue are to too similar and therefore must be a reference to the same person. Malay names are constructed by giving a first name followed by “bin” or “binti” (meaning “son of” or “daughter of’” followed by the father’s name. “Fatimah”, “Ismail” and “Abdullah” are by no stretch of the imagination uncommon names and the probability that the permutation of these names, while restricting the last names to male names only, coinciding with another is definitely not inconceivable. It is therefore imperative that the MERAP team also backs these claims of irregularity with data showing the frequency of babies born on the same day who bear the same name.

The additional note made by the MERAP team that the last eight digits of the Malaysian IC number of these duplicates did not differ much was uncalled for. The format of the Malaysian IC is such that the number will not differ for the first six digits if the duplicates indeed share the same birth dates.

The next two-digit birth place code has no real measure of “differences”, given the non-random nature of the codes. The final four-digit code indicates the bearer’s gender. Given the MERAP team’s sample space for comparing IC numbers, only the last four digits can be tested for randomness by gender.

In their report, no formal probability testing was conducted to substantiate the claim that these so-called duplicates are deliberate rather than coincidental, leading the reader to wonder if this judgement by the team was merely a highly subjective ‘eyeball’ exercise.

Does having the same old IC number implies the same person?

Another concern found in the report was the presence of people sharing the same pre-1990 IC number but having different post-1990 IC number. The implication is that these may be individuals enjoying the privilege of having two or more different post-1990 IC numbers which affords them multiple voting rights. However, this assumption rests on the supposition that prior to 1990#, every single person in Malaysia held a unique IC number.

Given that prior to 1990 computer databases were notoriously unreliable and the internet was still in its infancy stage, the task of generating unique IC numbers was very much in the hands (and at the mercy) of fallible administrators.

Therefore, the possibility of two or more persons sharing the same pre-1990 IC numbers is not implausible at all. Due diligence demands that MERAP should also investigate these 233 cases more thoroughly to conclusively rule out that the irregularities are not due to clerical errors.

Are all foreigners automatically illegitimate voters?

“If we met 10 random ‘Italians’ who are Malaysian citizens, wouldn’t we expect most of them to be born outside Malaysia and subsequently became naturalized Malaysian citizens? Instead ... majority of these foreign voters are born in Malaysia.”(Section 1.12, MERAP).

Without getting into complex semantics, MERAP has defined a foreigner simply as one whose ethnicity is recorded as anything but the three major ethnic groups plus the orang asli ethnic groups.

It is not the purpose of this section to question the contentious Sabah’s IC project, rather to question the MERAP team’s need to lump other foreigners such as Koreans, Afghans, Italians, etc. into the one and the same category.

While the report suspects foreigners are holding Malaysian blue ICs which indicate Malaysia as their birth place, no effort was made to back these claims with solid data identifying what proportion of these foreigners are beyond age 20 and if they are second generation Malaysians, i.e. those of aforesaid foreign ancestry born in Malaysia.

Indeed, it will not be the least bit surprising if the presence of ‘foreigners’ are in fact due to second generation Malaysians, given our colonial history as well as the subsequent migrants who have managed to set up households, albeit these may be small in number.

Therefore, it is highly irresponsible to conveniently associate all such ‘foreigners’ with the scandalous Sabah illegals as it jeopardizes the legitimacy of some ‘foreigner’ voters who may be bona fide Malaysians!

Is government agency electorate registration machinery failure in some a failure in all?

“What is of particular concern is the presence of many newly registered voters without house numbers and street names whose applications start with the letter ‘J’ indicating that they have been registered by a government agency which is not the Election Commission.” (Section 1.14, MERAP)

Finally, MERAP pointed out that there are many irregularities with government agency-assisted voter registrations. In the electoral records, a code is assigned to identify the agent through which a voter was registered.

For government agency-assisted registrations code “J” is assigned. Given the MERAP team’s occasional zealousness to report actual figures, the opportunity to clear any ambiguous notion of the word “many” should not be missed. It is most crucial for them to report the exact proportion of voters with code “J” that is erroneous to give an idea of a base rate. A sweeping statement was made which is most unacceptable:

“As of Q3 of 2011, new voter applications with the registration code ‘J’ numbered 42,540 in the state of Selangor, many of them in marginal constituencies.”

Indeed, without the base rate, how can anyone assess the magnitude of the damage done to the electoral roll in Selangor through government agencies?
Good and honest reporting avoids ambiguities

When actual figures are substituted with ambiguous relative adjectives, this report is a statistician nightmare. It should be a grave concern that the use of ambiguous adjectives will bloat the claims beyond more than it should. As an example, Section 1.3 of the report finds voters with the same name and address but fails to describe the magnitude of this error with actual figures.

To be fair, MERAP occasionally appeals to figures to drive their point, for example Section 2.7: “Out of the 3,950 who entered into police and army forces at age 31 years old and above, a total of 1,355 could be traced from their civilian IC to their postal voters ID and the findings are remarkable.”

Nonetheless, it is perplexing to figure out what could possibly be MERAP’s intention to omit crucial figures that could describe the magnitude of some significant irregularities.

Throughout MERAP report, there existed many of what statisticians call testable hypotheses, some of which were highlighted above. In fact the subheadings of the above sections were framed deliberately in the classical academic tradition of hypothetical questions which avail themselves to testing.

Given that the purpose of MERAP is empirical in nature, it was rather disappointing that the team has failed to seize the opportunity to conduct formal statistical tests to evaluate whether these errors were random, which is to say genuine administrative errors, or governed by certain patterns which would suggest pre-meditated intervention.

The essence of these tests which have potential to reject the default null hypothesis—that errors were random—will have a strong bearing in mounting pressure on the Elections Commission (EC) to take appropriate measures.

Having university tenure absolves all conflict of interest?

MERAP’s response to the EC’s concern that there is conflict of interest on the part of Dr Ong is surprising when they unashamedly refused to acknowledge its obvious existence. Academic work is always accompanied by a statement of conflict of interest.

Ong’s affiliation with the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) cannot and will not be written off simply by virtue of his tenure in a university. If such a case is tenable, then all academic work from universities are essentially free of conflict of interest, which is obviously ludicrous.


The MERAP report was at best a preliminary document that lists possible exploit mechanisms that can derail the purpose of the elections. Considering that the electoral roll still holds old records which likely suffer from the effects of the migration from physical paper to electronic databases, due benefit of the doubt should be given.

At the same time, the EC must express sincerity in addressing inherent clerical issues to prevent further exploitation of the electoral roll and facilitate clean and fair elections.

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