The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) welcomes the Penang government’s circulation of its white paper on the “top-up women-only additional seats” initiative in the state legislative assembly on 26 November.
Both the bold initiative and the practice of tabling a white paper for major government policy in the legislative assembly are commendable and should be emulated by other states and even the federal government.
According to the white paper, the introduction of “top-up women-only additional seats” aims to ensure a minimum of 30% assemblywomen in the legislative assembly through the appointment of “non-constituency supplementary members”.
These members would be appointed to the chamber only if there is a failure to elect at least 30% assemblywomen in the state election. The allocation of seats of supplementary members among the parties contesting in the Penang state general election will be based on the parties’ vote share in the state election.
Bersih supports this temporary special measure to accelerate women’s representation in the law-making chamber. Women constitute half of the electorate but only one out of seven MPs and one out of eight state assembly members is a woman, putting Malaysia third from the bottom in the world.
Despite a 150% increase in assemblywomen (from two) in Malacca’s newly elected legislative assembly, five women out of 28 assembly members is still far behind the international standard of a minimum of 30% women representatives. This was proposed 26 years ago in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 1995.
Malacca is a strong and timely reminder that we need to introduce some special measures, including gender quotas, to accelerate supposed gender equality in our political participation, which is permitted by Article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw), an international convention adopted by Malaysia 26 years ago too.
Since gender quotas are hard to implement under a single-member constituencies first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, and Article 117 of the Federal Constitution disallows states to switch to electoral systems with multi-member constituencies, Penang’s TWOAS is a clever move, more than increasing women’s representation.
It is effectively introducing a single-ballot mixed-member majoritarian system by adding the party-list “top-up women-only additional seats” on to the FPTP system. This both improves proportionality in the state legislature and introduces issue-based representation.
As a long-time advocate for electoral system reform, we hope TWOAS’ will be successful and will alleviate many Malaysians’ fear of the unknown in electoral systems.
Bersih calls upon the four states that have implemented or plan to implement an appointed members system – Sabah, Terengganu, Pahang and Malacca – to relinquish the practice of making them bonus seats, appointing politicians from the government parties to amplify the government’s majority, as made clear by Barisan National chairperson Zahid Hamidi in his announcement after the Malacca state election.
Instead, the states should emulate Penang in convert ingtheir appointed seats into top-up seats proportionally allocated to all parties, since every state in Malaysia lacks women lawmakers. All states can endeavour to fulfil the international obligation undertaken by the federal government to ensure sufficient representation of women in policy and law-making.
Bersih also calls on the federal government to resume the progress of electoral reform. According to the oral answers given by the minister in Prime Minister’s Office (Parliament and Law) on 25 November, the government has established a special cabinet committee to study the recommendations for the improvement of electoral systems.
However, there has been no further news and details revealed about this committee, established in December 2020. The public should be informed and involved in the progress and proposal made by this committee. Any proposal for electoral reform must also push for sufficient women’s representation in the federal Parliament.
The federal and state governments must see it as one of their core duties to ensure half of the electorate are sufficiently represented rather than being left out in the policy and law-making processes. – Bersih