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Electoral reforms taking shape – but more people must step forward

The new Electoral Commission line-up in the new Malaysia

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While we are delighted with the fresh air of democratic reforms, the quest for electoral reforms is not without obstacles, writes Danesh Chacko and SV Singam.

The watershed 2018 general election marked a historic leap forward in the path of electoral reforms.

The election outcome proved that, despite high levels of boundary rigging and polling day malpractices, an electorally aware population could overwhelm all electoral odds.

After the dust from the election had settled, noticeable changes in the electoral mood became visible during a subsequent string of by elections.

The leadership change at the Electoral Commission and the inclusion of NGOs like Tindak Malaysia have facilitated the evolution of democratic reforms.

Tindak Malaysia, a loosely held electoral reform group, was formed around the time of the 2008 general election, which began the change process.

Comprising professionals from many fields, the group has popularised the mass training of polling, counting and barung agents (Pacaba) since 2008. Our volunteers were taught how polls should be properly conducted. That laid the groundwork for containing electoral fraud during polling.

The new government has revamped the top leadership of the Electoral Commission. No longer seen as adversaries, we together with other NGOs like us, now work with the Electoral Commission to implement various electoral reforms according to the constitution.

One of the major hallmarks of the change in the Electoral Commission is the inclusion of several more NGOs in the electoral observation program (Pemerhati).

For the first time in history, Bersih 2.0, our parent group, was invited to observe the first by-election after 2018 general election. This breakthrough enabled us to give constructive feedback on election management.

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Tindak Malaysia received our first formal invitation to be election observers in Cameron Highlands. We deployed four trained volunteers to observe key aspects of the by-election. This opened the eyes of our volunteers to the flagrant violations committed by political parties on both sides and the improvements implemented by the Electoral Commission. It also enabled us to document our detailed feedback for future electoral enhancements.

Subsequently, we deployed a bigger crew to witness by-elections in Semenyih and Rantau.

Building on this improved relationship, we suggested to the Electoral Commission to consider some of our experienced volunteers to be presiding officers. These presiding officers wield significant influence and authority to ensure the fairness of the entire polling process.

Our volunteers, thoroughly trained in election laws, can be effective presiding officers and ensure that the polling day process is conducted with the highest integrity.

The Electoral Commission was open to our suggestion, and we secured our breakthrough in Semenyih (February 2019) when one of our senior trainers became a presiding officer. In Rantau, two of our volunteers became presiding officers. Electoral Commission officials were enthusiastic and proactive in encouraging our recommendations for presiding officers.

The new members of the Electoral Commission were receptive and genuinely interested in our historical and current research on boundary changes and electoral roll discrepancies. For example, the Electoral Commission promptly contacted us when we discovered the presence of suspicious voters in Rantau.

More recently, the commissioners are examining our detailed research on how to improve electoral boundaries and allocate polling stations. This is such a refreshing contrast to the Electoral Commission under the previous government.

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While we are delighted with the fresh air of democratic reforms, our proactive involvement in electoral reform is not without obstacles. The top layer of the Electoral Commission has been refreshed but the lower ranks are still mired in the old bureaucratic procedures.

For example, after our volunteers were appointed as presiding officers, sudden changes were made to the final appointments without sufficient communication. We needed to scramble to deploy people able to absorb the changes. This was a surprise since the very same bureaucrats have engaged us well in discussions about the election process and voter registration.

Another challenge is the Malaysian public. The wave of enthusiasm that came with the 2018 general election has vapourised. We realised this when our calls for observers in the Cameron Highlands, Semenyih and Rantau by-elections didn’t generate even a single sign-up from people outside of our group.

Having delivered regime change in 2018, the public are now sitting back to enjoy the fruit. They have failed to understand their ongoing role in the evolution of democratic reform. We need public support in the effort to clean up the electoral roll.

We are witnessing a dramatic overhaul to our electoral system. A credible Electoral Commission that has won public confidence is spearheading reforms.

We in Tindak Malaysia are honoured to be part of these reform activities. We are currently working on improving the electoral system through our strategic advice on constitutional amendments, our proposals to enhance transparency and correct past malpractices, and our participation as election observers.

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We will continue to work with all groups and contribute our best to bringing about reforms to make our election process more mature.

Danesh Chacko and SV Singam are Tindak Malaysia core team members.

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