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Elections and democracy in Malaysia

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Democracy cannot be restricted to participation in elections once every four to five years or to a group of ‘professional politicians’ acquiring power. Rather, it should be about the conscientisation and empowerment of the rakyat, writes Francis Loh.

Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, Malaysia’s politics is more institutionalised than in the neighbouring countries. We have operated under a single Constitution for more than 50 years (although it has been amended more than 60 times).

Elections have been held continuously as scheduled (although local level elections have been suspended, and then abolished in 1976). The major ethnic-based parties have been in existence since Independence in 1957. Indeed, the same coalition has ruled multi-ethnic Malaysia since 1957. Hence much discussion of Malaysian politics has centered on elections, the ebb and flow of the ethnic-based political parties, and on the ethnic factor that undergirds these parties and politics in Malaysia generally.

Perhaps influenced by these institutional continuities, amidst political turbulence in neighbouring countries – Red shirts vs Yellow shirts and a potential coup d’etat in Bangkok, apart from the continuing violence in southern Thailand; reformasi in Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia but ethno-religious violence in many outer islands; martial law, then People Power, then a sequence of presidents including one who was impeached and a former president currently accused of corruption – there has been a touch of Malaysia Boleh, and perhaps too much feel-good about our democratic credentials.

Competing definitions of democracy

For former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia is a democracy plain and simple because we hold regular elections. For him, all those criticisms from within and abroad are irrelevant because there is no need to imitate ‘western-style democracy’. On 1 October 2011 (The Star), A Rashid Rahman, the former Election Commission chairman, also insisted that Malaysia is a democracy because our leaders are elected and our elections ‘free and fair’.

However, Bersih 2.0, a coalition of 62 NGOs, finds Malaysia’s practice of electoral democracy wanting. So they submitted their ‘Eight demands for electoral reform’. And when the Malaysian government refused to listen to them, they called for a Walk for Democracy on 9 July 2011. The way the Malaysian government dealt with this call – by resorting to arrests of supporters, banning the wearing of yellow T-shirts, declaring Bersih 2.0 and their proposed Walk illegal, banning some 98 Malaysians from entering Kuala Lumpur on that eventful day, and then arresting Bersih leaders and other Malaysians who took part in the Walk – highlights that Malaysia’s ‘democracy’ is flawed.

Indeed, civil society organisations (CSOs) in Malaysia time and time again have highlighted not only the shortcomings of the electoral system, but the coercive legislations – the ISA, the Societies Act, the Trade Unions Act, the Police Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the UUCA, etc – that essentially stymie any form of effective opposition. Here, their focus is on the denial of fundamental liberties – the right to assemble, to associate and to express one’s self – to ordinary citizens in between elections. Accordingly, the State overwhelms civil society, while within the State, the Executive dominates over the other branches of government, namely the Judiciary and the Legislature. Nor is the press and mass media a check on the Executive; the latter via the major political parties own and control the mass media, hence the appellation, ‘the mainstream media’.

For Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), six of whose leaders were arrested and detained under the Emergency Ordinance in June 2011, their dissatisfaction goes beyond calling for electoral reform. Their overall goal is to usher in a more egalitarian society wherein the lower classes are awarded decent living wages and better working conditions by employers, while the State looks after their other basic needs like housing, education for their children and health services. As well, they strongly oppose the neo-liberal economic policies that the BN government has adopted which has led, among others, to privatisation of public amenities and social services. For the PSM and its supporters, indeed for many in Malaysia, economic democracy at the workplace is vital too.

Looking beyond elections

Hence over-confidence in our democratic credentials is misguided; for we should subscribe to a wider notion of democracy. Although our procedural democratic institutions – especially the regular holding of elections – are in place, we might in fact lag behind some of our neighbours in terms of economic democracy and a more participatory democracy in between elections. Put another way, the be-all-and-end-all of democracy is not elections. Accordingly, Dr Mahathir’s notion of democracy is found wanting.

To understand the relationship between elections and democracy better, let us look at the book Elections and Democracy in Malaysia, edited by Mavis Puthucheary and Norani Othman, (Bangi: Penerbit Uniersiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2005), for me, the most comprehensive volume currently available on studying elections and the electoral system in Malaysia

This volume is divided into four parts. Part I investigates the nature and scope of competitive electoral politics in the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak, and at the local government level (before local authority elections were abolished). Part II looks beyond formal electoral politics to discuss how human rights, environmental and other civil society organisations engage with the electoral process. Other chapters then discuss the relationships between the women’s movement, the Chinese education movement, and the Islamic NGOs with electoral politics.

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Part III then studies the constitutional provisions and other legal arrangements which circumscribe the electoral process in Malaysia. Specific chapters investigate the role of the Election Commission, the electoral delimitation exercises, and the extent to which the electoral rolls may be considered clean and up to date. Part IV considers how elections are conducted elsewhere and proposes ‘an agenda for reform’ so as to enhance prospects for democratisation.

The structure and organization of the chapters in the volume, as well as the substantive contributions themselves, stress two related points. Here, I paraphrase from Professor Mavis Puthucheary’s excellent Introduction.

First, elections should not be regarded as separate discrete events but as components of a political system that is dynamic and changing. And second, while elections have to be seen within their legal framework, those electoral laws themselves need to be seen within their broader political context. Election studies that neglect this wider socio-historical context tend to assume that, provided electoral laws are strictly followed and there is a competent and honest Elections Commission to manage the elections, democratic elections and democratic governance will follow as a consequence.

By contrast, successful elections cannot be separated from the basic principles and wider issues of good governance, accountability or transparency, and human rights (p. xix).

Significantly, the contributors to the book avoid a formalistic and legalistic approach to the analysis of the electoral system. Instead, attention is also given to the struggle between the incumbent to use the electoral institutions to their advantages, but also resistances to that from the opposition and other social groups outside the system.

Elections can domesticate and deny democracy

This is a good reminder that elections are not the be-all-and-end-all of democratic governance. Although a crucial aspect of promoting democracy, we need a wider perspective of what democracy entails. Indeed, in a comparative study of elections in Southeast Asia, the influential political scientist Benedict Anderson has highlighted how elections are Janus-faced, meaning two-sided. When preceded by democratic ferment, there develops much expectancy and the people believe that they can influence the political situation for the better. By participating in elections and sending their representatives to parliament, they hope to influence policy-making in their favour. This is the bright side of the coin.

The shadowy side, however, is that elections can be used not only to legitimise those in power, but they can be used to domesticate, to institutionalise and to routinise demands for democratic politics. Put another way, elections can be used to deny us democracy!

Moreover, elections also reduce us down to the level of individual voters, negating the collective power of the social movement. In this regard, recall how Dr Mahathir, during the height of Reformasi, associated the social movement with chaos and instability, and challenged those involved in Reformasi to form a political party and to contest against Umno-BN in the polls. This distinction between engaging in the polls as individual voters and via political parties versus engaging in the struggle spontaneously as part of a protest movement is beautifully captured in the title to Hishamuddin Rais’s collection of essays in a volume entitled Pilihan Raya atau Pilihan Jalan Raya.

Bersih 2.0, Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring

The insights mentioned above are reminders on how elections, like parties, are located in between the State and Society. It is the Umno-BN State’s desire to institutionalise participation into ‘sites’ and procedures that are constrained and well-defined, which the State can also control and dominate via laws and regulations. Electoral laws and procedures, the electoral contest between the different parties, and the ballot box, therefore, circumscribe the scope of our engagement and participation in politics.

At this point, it is evident that the State, rather than Civil Society, has the upper hand. Due to several Constitutional Amendments since 1957, the Election Commission has lost its autonomy and consults the prime minister before it conducts electoral delineation exercises. Nowadays, it is Parliament that amends that part of the Constitution to increase the overall number of seats for each state which the Election Commission then re-delineates by shifting the boundaries. The numerous amendments to the five election-related laws have resulted in an electoral process that is biasedly pro-incumbent, namely Umno-BN.

No doubt thanks to the Walk for Democracy and bad publicity world-wide, the Umno-BN government was forced to set up the parliamentary select committee on electoral reform, which held public hearings in different parts of the country during 2011. As a consequence of these hearings, the Select Committee has recommended several changes for Parliament’s consideration, including use of the indelible ink, earlier postal voting for the Army and Police, and a longer campaign period. These proposed changes – a result of pressure applied by Bersih 2.0 and other civil society groups – might facilitate the restoration of the autonomy of that ‘site’ between State and Civil Society where formal elections are held.

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That said, the deepening of democracy in Malaysia requires that the NGOs and other civil society organisations continue to engage in more people-oriented participatory politics, also referred to as non-formal everyday politics. This refers to the important ‘small p’ politics that must be consolidated in between elections. It is a continuation of the ‘big-P’ Politics of Power centered around formal elections held every four to five years to determine which Political Party comes to Power at the centre. Taken together – ‘small p’ politics and ‘big-P’ politics – we have a more comprehensive definition of politics, and of democracy.

It is fortuitous that the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ (OWS) movement picked up steam in several cities in the US, and in other cities beyond the US during the latter half of 2011. It needs reminding that the OWS movement emerged during Barrack Obama’s presidency. Just three years after coming to power, many young Americans who had rallied to his call ‘Time for a Change’ came to the conclusion that Wall Street continues to dominate over policy-making in Washington. For the OWS demonstrators, the emergence of the so-called ‘NYC general assembly’, was a means to move beyond the elections in order to bring back democracy to the US. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement was ‘small p’ politics complementing ‘big-P’ politics’ in order to consolidate democracy.

And of course, there is the ‘Arab Spring’ to remind us of how the electoral process in the Middle-East was a sham. So the people had to resort to street demonstrations like in Tahrir Square in Cairo to get rid of the Hosni Mubarak regime and to bring about democratic reform in Egypt.

Five dimensions of democracy

Perhaps the last words on ‘elections and democracy’ should be given to the Koreans who have struggled long years against a military regime before instituting a system of electoral democracy in the 1980s. Under this electoral system, the former Nobel Prize laureate for Peace, Kim Dae Jung, who had been imprisoned by the military authorities was subsequently elected to office as president of South Korea.

The subsequent displacement of the democratic forces by more conservative parties previously associated with the military regime and with big business has forced Korean academics to think vigorously of what democracy and elections mean to them. One of the most succinct and common-sensical definitions I have come across is the following: for Sonn Hochul, a Professor of Political Science in Sogang University, Seoul, there exist five dimensions of democracy.

First, there is ‘political democracy’ as usually advocated by liberals. Here, we refer to civil liberties and political rights including the franchise for all adults, the regular holding of competitive multi-party elections, and checks and balances between the three branches of government.

No doubt, free and fair elections are important. For this reason, we should ensure that the electoral rolls are clean, up-to-date and free of ‘phantoms’. The postal voting system should also be made available to all, not simply those serving in the uniformed units, and their spouses. There should also be adequate time allocated for campaigning, equal access to the usual and new media, and to electoral funds too. Of course, the independence of the Elections Commission should be restored and it should not be resorting to mal-apportionment and gerrymandering in the delineation of electoral boundaries.

Rotation of power between two major coalitions would help to deepen our political democracy. The party out of power can prepare better policies while the party in power will be encouraged to move towards good governance characterised by competence, accountability and transparency; and regular consultation. A word of warning, however, as Schumpeter once indicated: for even when the best procedures are put into place to ensure ‘free and fair elections’, it is most likely that we end up with a set of elites in power.

It is useful to cite Benedict Anderson, mentioned earlier, again; he refers to these people as ‘professional politicians’. Perhaps the most representative of this breed of people are the American politicians. They are well-educated, well-dressed, slick talkers and even well-informed of policy matters. They are good in fund-raising to ensure their re-election, and know the ins and outs of campaigning. Often they cater to the needs of their financial backers by lobbying for particular interests. But they also know how to address the interests of the ordinary voters to ensure their re-election. However, they have little time for reform, let alone enhancing democracy. Put another way, would there be much difference if the Opposition comes to power? In America? In the UK? In Malaysia?

Second, there is ‘economic and social democracy’, a basic aspect of social democracy. In comparison to civil liberties, this refers to rights such as freedom from poverty, that guarantee minimum economic and social standards of living enabling a person to live in dignity. More than that, as various social groups compete with one another in a political democracy by mobilising the power resources that they have access to, political democracy can be reduced to a non-democracy when wealth is distributed too unevenly. Economic and social democracy, therefore, should always accompany political democracy if we desire meaningful democracy. (The Nobel Prize Laureate for Economics, Prof Amartya Sen has argued that political democracy, rather than undemocratic regimes, will also enhance economic and social development better)

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Third, is ‘workers’ democracy’ or ‘workplace democracy’ that radicals struggle for. This form of democracy is often ignored in capitalist society. Hence we have a situation where all democratic principles and citizenship rights stop at the gate of a factory or firm on the grounds of private property. Consequently, the workers are denied any form of self-management. Alienation sets in. The workers only feel liberated when they leave the workplace to go home, or when they are on holiday, if ever. From this perspective, a capitalist society which privileges private property and profit making is basically non-democratic. Realising workers democracy is particularly problematic because the top-down authoritarian social relations in the factory or firm are not even recognised to be within the ambit of democratic reform in most societies, as in America or Japan.

Fourth, there is the democracy of everyday life. The question of democracy is not confined to ‘Big P’ power relations involving those in authority in the State or in corporations. It also involves everyday forms of social relations involving ordinary people, wherein for example, women, minorities, people with physical or mental disabilities, or with different sexual preferences, are discriminated. Perhaps this dimension of democracy might be called ‘cultural democracy’. Our democracy will be deepened and enhanced when we begin to accord ‘others’ the same dignity and respect that we grant ourselves. Also, there is a need to persuade ordinary people to engage in politics on a regular basis.

An autonomous public sphere can facilitate a more participatory democracy and combat the prejudices that are disseminated by our schools, religious bodies, cultural organisations and mass media. Changing attitudes will take a long time, no doubt. Perhaps these initiatives towards cultural democracy can be linked up to local authorities, the lowest tier of ‘Big P’ politics?

Finally, there is a realm of international democracy. Clearly, we shall only begin to enjoy greater democracy when the global order is no longer dominated by the Western powers, particularly the USA, who with their TNCs control the global economy and international affairs generally. They establish exclusive bodies like the OECD and Nato which set the global agenda. As well, the US and its Western allies dominate the multilateral economic agencies like the WB, IMF, WTO, and even the UN.


As we approach GE-13, special attention must be given to political democracy. It is important to ensure that GE-13 is conducted ‘free, fair and clean’ as Bersih 2.0 and the civil society organisations have advocated. For this reason, Aliran has been part of Bersih 2.0’s steering committee. Aliran has also prepared a comprehensive submission to the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reform (which has been reproduced in this and previous issues of Aliran Monthly). As well, we support the consolidation of a two-party system wherein a rotation of power between the Pakatan Rakyat and the Barisan Nasional occurs regularly.

But we must go beyond elections. To deepen our democracy, socio-economic justice must also prevail. There is no point in rotating power between two coalitions if the socio-economic plight of the majority is not addressed. By this we do not mean giving out pre-election handouts of RM100 or RM500! We mean restoring the dignity of the rakyat by providing them with regular jobs with decent salaries, affordable housing and health care, access to the basic amenities, educational opportunities to the highest levels, reliable and cheap public transportation, and greener and cleaner living environments, not urban ghettoes or rural slums. There is little gained by giving the rakyat the vote if a small percentage of the population dominates the country’s wealth and financial resources.

A ‘cultural revolution’ must also take place among the rakyat so that we are respectful of our diversity – ethno-religious, gender, regional, etc – and give special attention to the marginalised indigenous peoples, the disabled, the elderly, etc. We must learn to be inclusive, not exclusive.

The other aspect of this cultural revolution is to engage in ‘small p’ politics on a regular basis in between elections. Democracy cannot be restricted to participation in ‘Big P’ elections once every four to five years; even less overly concerned with acquiring Power by a group of ‘professional politicians’. Rather, it should be about conscientisation and empowerment of the rakyat.

Finally, we must also be vigilant of how the global system is structured and push for global reform too, lest the global system and the international bodies continue to be dominated by a small group of nations led by the US, the EU and Japan, and their MNCs.

Dr Francis Loh is president of Aliran. He is also a Professor of Politics in a local university.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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17 Mar 2012 10.04am

Someone said GE13 will be dirtiest mother of all elections. The signs are there appearing on a regular basis with all “independant” institutions working hand in hand with the ruling coalition. Do not forget the message “By hook or by crook’ from pm. Pakatan need to have a fine tooth comb to ensure no stones are left unturned on the possible dirty methods methods. Those from Pakatan who were ex-bn should know the methods. Even if you need to pay for information from insiders or outsiders of other unknown tricks. “A bird in hand is worth 2 in the bush”. Pakatan should strengthen their influence and hold onto those states won in GE12. Until they are absolutely sure of retaining those states, there is no reason to capture other states and losing what they have. Your resources and strength will be diluted against the other side who have the whole govt. machineries. You need to break the strangle hold they have on those rural voters. Expose more on the corruptions to them on the kind of money that can be used to uplift their livelihood. Nowadays… Read more »

17 Mar 2012 5.55am

As I said before : Voters can identify which MPs and Assemblymen do not support lowering of the election deposits from RM$15,000 to RM$15.00 so that any and everyone as if democratically correct INSTEAD of just the rich and ‘professional politicians’ can run for election. I believe you guys know what they did to some of us would be indies, nearly ‘killed’ us with the psyche establishment so they can pretend to mourne the loss a an ‘activist’! Thats Pakatan to boot, given the cold shoulder selfishness thus far! BN of course is outright apartheid and worse, but Pakatan’s attitude is very dangerous and criminal considered against the context of democracy or even human rights and the way they treat would be allies. The Bar Council also colludes, they cynically and selfishly turn their backs on the non-profitable or non-viable candidates or participants in democracy they can’t relate to and also refuse to run for election on the above issues and 3 items. Am still around and far worse for wear now, if there is no person who would advise or speak for me (send 1… Read more »

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