It has gone to the Senate!

Think of the millions of Malaysians who cannot cast their votes.

WHAT has gone to the Senate?

It may be just a simple question but it was asked in the Senate, the upper Chamber of Parliament, the highest law-endorsing body in the country.

If any problem ever gets a mention there at all, it means that it is something of value to the national interest.

I’m referring to the question relating to automatic voter registration.

Malaysians who advocate improvement to the country’s electoral system, as I do, are grateful to Senator Datuk Seri Syed Ibrahim Kader who asked about the government’s stand on the proposal for automatic registration of citizens as voters the moment they have reached the age of 21 years on the qualifying date.

They would also like to thank YB Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, for answering the question.

The minister had said that if the idea was to be considered at all, Article 119 of the Federal Constitution – about qualifications of electors – would have to be amended, adding, however, that for the time being the government had no immediate plan to deal with this question.

One would have thought that the minister was going to announce the formation of a team of experts to undertake the study, at least, but he didn’t. Maybe some other time, soon.

The disenfranchised Malaysians

I suggest that the government initiate a study of the feasibility of introducing the automatic voter registration in view of the fact that there are millions of Malaysian citizens of voting age (21 years plus) who are not on the electoral roll via the present system of registration and therefore cannot vote in any election.

Depending on how you look at it, they are being deprived – or deprive themselves through indifference – of one basic right: adult suffrage.

As their number increases with time, more and more Malaysians are deprived of their rights to vote.

We must avoid the situation where people have to resort to street demonstrations in order to ask for their rights to vote – rights which can be restored by a stroke of the pen, if there is political will.

If it means amending the constitution, so be it. After all, a functional constitution of a country is meant to be amended from time to time in order to serve the interests of the citizens of that country. Malaysia’s constitution is no exception.

Having done the study, the next stage will be for the government of the day to sponsor the motion in Parliament to amend the relevant provisions of the constitution.

The ruling coalition need not worry about not getting two thirds majority of votes in Parliament in order for the amendment to be passed.

The opposition will support it if they know what’s good for them.

Think about these figures. As of Feb 2012, 3.781 million eligible Malaysians had not registered as voters; out of those some 459,908 were in Sarawak.

A year later, according to figures from the Election Commission, as many as 4.2 million Malaysian citizens had yet to register as electors.

Isn’t this a worrisome problem that calls for a solution?

Under the present system of registration of voters, the figures for subsequent years could easily have increased manifolds because the number of Malaysians attaining the voting age keeps growing every year.

Even at this moment in time, thousands of Malaysians are coming of age – many celebrate their 21st birthdays today.

This system simply cannot cope with the increase.

I don’t know what the statistics would be like now. Ask the Election Commission.

Two years ago, Malay leaders in the peninsula were worried about the huge number of vote-less Malays.

The chairman of the Election Commission, Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof was quoted by the papers to have said: “Melayu paling ramai tidak daftar mengundi.”

The then Minister of Information, Communication and Culture chipped in, saying: “Malays must be made to realise that the right to vote would ensure continuation of Malay power.”

One academician, Professor Datuk Kamaruddin Kachar, even offered a solution: penalise those who do not register themselves as voters.

The MCA was also concerned about disenfranchised Chinese. Out of 4.89 million of eligible voters among the community before PRU-2013, some 1.1 of them had not registered as electors.

As the problem has been in existence for many years and compounded by the steadily increasing number of 21-year-olds, why has it taken so long for the authorities to find a solution? Try automatic registration lah.

Malaysians have been relying on the proper authorities, the Election Commission, to make a move.

Now that there is a hint from the PM’s Department, what’s the commission waiting for?

Propose to the government to introduce automatic voter registration as a solution. If it fails, try another method.

I have been waiting for some MP from Sarawak or Sabah to ask a question similar to that posed in the Senate recently.

I have written about the subject several times for the past three years.

I have talked about it at every opportunity – at coffee-shop sessions, at weddings, during Gawai visits, even during occasions as solemn and sad as funeral wakes – with those willing to land me an ear at all.

That’s why I was elated to read about the subject again this week, knowing that I’m flogging a dead horse.

However, I believe in the saying that “constant dripping wears away the hardest stone”.

Apparently, there is a renewed interest in the discussion or debate over the matter which is of so much importance to the sustainability of our system of government. That’s good.

Sooner or later Malaysians will realise that the existing electoral system of the country will have to be improved from time to time if our own parliamentary democracy is to be sustained for many years to come.

I think the automatic voter registration is one idea which will work towards this end.

This time around the proposal should be discussed in parliament, a more appropriate venue, before it goes to the Senate.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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