The Penang Revelation


LEFT to their own volition many Malaysians will not make the effort to get themselves registered to vote, as evidenced by the huge number of them – 3.6 million!

The present system tolerates it and the authorities are reluctant to think outside the box. So in this country, you are free not to register as a voter or if registered you need not go and vote. You see, we pride ourselves on being good citizens of a democratic country in which we can do what we like, subject only to some law or adat or taboo.

But we are not being smart in respect of one thing: the nation of which we are part of is losing a sizeable number of voters who could have made a difference in the quality of governance and composition of our government. At times like these, we need effective leadership in all things and a clear direction forward. In this task we need to produce good politicians, if not statesmen, ranging from the local government councillors to state legislators and parliamentary lawmakers.

Serious concern

Last week in Penang, there was a great revelation. The chairman of the Election Commission, Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof, was quoted as saying: “Melayu paling ramai tidak daftar mengundi.” Exactly how many Malays make up the 3.6 million Malaysians not on the electoral rolls, he didn’t say.

That Penang Revelation sparked a serious debate couched in emotive language among Malay intellectuals and NGOs. It lasted for several days. Even the Minister of Information, Communication and Culture Datuk Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim chipped in, saying Malays must be made to realise that the right to vote would ensure continuation of Malay political power.

Some vernacular papers went to the extent of saying that the Malays would lose political clout and end up as mere political observers, as a result of this “couldn’t care less attitude”, Anglicised as tidapathy.

Possible solution – automatic registration and mandatory voting.

What is true of the Malays would also be true of the Bumiputera in Sarawak and Sabah; many of them will become mere observers of elections rather than full-fledged partakers of them, if the present system of voter registration is retained indefinitely.

In Sarawak alone, there are 400,000 citizens who have attained the age of 21 years, the voting age, but who are not registered as voters. The majority of them, I would guess, are Bumiputera. And their numbers keep increasing by the day.

One academician has offered a solution: penalise those who do not register themselves as voters. Professor Datuk Dr Kamarudin Kachar, you are my friend. Whomsoever will they vote for is not the main issue – that they have the power to vote, and use it, that is!

I’d go even further to suggest that a law be enacted to make registration of voters automatic soon. Any Malaysian upon attaining the voting age shall be deemed a registered voter for the purpose of  election laws, all built into the IC registration system.

The majority of Malaysians, those in Sarawak included, are law-abiding; they will go and cast their votes if there is some legislation to say they must. This is the time when contending candidates in an election need not dish out a lot of money to entice voters! Cases have been known of voters, both in town and in the rural areas, who are  ereluctant’ to cast their votes unless they are provided with “funds for their meals and transport to and from the polling station” as it’s called. For a day, they prefer not to use their own money if they can help it. After all at the end of the day, their votes will benefit the YBs more than the voters, they reason. There are, of course, voters who have other reasons for voting. Such is the political culture we have developed for the past many years.

Violation of human rights?

I know both the professor and I are up against the Human Rights Commission in Malaysia, who think that this act of forcing people to register and vote is a violation of human rights. The response to that is that curbing of this particular human right, if such an act is regarded as a travesty at all, would be worth the deprivation, for the good of the country as a whole.

The Human Rights Commission activists should look at the other side of the same coin. The right to vote on that side of the coin is also a human right, isn’t it? The right to go through the red light is also a human right but the traffic law says you will have to stop, thereby curbing your right to do what you like. It is so inconvenient lah, you would say, but that is the small price you will have to pay in the interest of your own life and those of other road users.

This law on automatic registration and compulsory voting will ensure that all Malaysians, including the Malays and the other Bumiputera in Sarawak and Sabah, get a chance to exercise their respective rights to vote into the legislature the representatives of their choice.

The present method of voluntary registration does not work well as evidenced by the huge number of backlog of Malaysians who are not on the registers. The practice of authorising political party functionaries to help register those Malaysians is open to abuse in the sense that they are likely to be biased against those who are not potential supporters of their political organisations. It is an expensive method; the cheapest is still automatic registration. All that is needed is for parliament to enact a law to this effect. That’s what parliament is for, isn’t it?

I have been flogging this dead horse in this column several times; I would now like to hear from my readers what they say about the above subjects, together or conjunctively. Let us continue with the debate until we are blue in the face. Something good may just come out of it. Who knows?

Hopefully, people having similar concerns may also chip in ideas to improve the present electoral system in Malaysia, other than exponents of Bersih 2.0.

That revelation in Penang may just spark an interest in those walking in the corridors of power to look at real reforms to the electoral system in this country.

Repeating by way of emphasis, it is the automatic voter registration and the compulsory voting which are of immense importance to the country in the long run, not only for Malay politics, but also for the political future of all Malaysians who jointly own this great nation.