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Electoral reform crucial for Malaysian reform

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 7 May 2019

There is no doubt that the May 9, 2018 electoral revolution that ended six decades of rule of Malaysia by the Barisan Nasional is now in danger. The winning Pakatan Harapan coalition has stumbled from issue to issue, in the process losing three key by-elections and facing increased voter antipathy.

What the reform coalition must realize is that the key to its transformation agenda is electoral reform. It is the prerequisite for political, economic, market, civil service, and social reforms.

The current electoral system has locked in the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was introduced in 1971 after the disastrous race riots of May 13, 1969 that took hundreds of lives, but which has hamstrung the country economically in the succeeding 48 years.


The original intention was to help Malays participate in the economy along with other races and to develop a Malay professional class through education. However, this positive discrimination policy also facilitated the growth of Malay nationalist narratives into society to the point where the ethnic Malay agenda has dominates political rhetoric, and not just within the political environment. It is one of the major drivers of Malaysian cultural dynamics. To many, this agenda has become hegemonic.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, during his first administration, with his then-deputy Anwar Ibrahim, went on a massive campaign to produce Malay entrepreneurs, providing them with 'institutionally created opportunities" to get rich. We saw the privatisation of the state-owned airline MAS, the development of the Genting gaming complex, the creation of private tollways, public transport and telecommunications, in what has become known as crony capitalism. This cronyism became part-and-parcel of the pathway to becoming a politician in an endeavour to make money, particularly within the ranks of the governing United Malays National Organization, which led the Barisan.

Because Islam is a major part of the Malay identity, a form of political Islam also developed. Political Islam's rhetoric has increased the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims over the last generation. Islam in Malaysia has moved away from the more inclusive forms that were once found in Egypt and Turkey towards a firebrand exclusive Islam more along the lines of teachings preached by fugitive preacher Zakir Naik.

The current Dewan Rakyat (lower house) electoral system, heavy weighted towards the rural Malay regions over more ethnically diverse urban areas, perpetuates Malay nationalist narratives. It is in these heartlands that elections are won or lost, even though 76 percent of the population live in urban areas.

In an extreme example of the electoral weighting of rural areas, one vote in the federal constituency of Igan in Sarawak is worth nine votes in the Bangi constituency in Selangor. In addition, the first-past-the-post voting system which elects the candidate with just a simple majority of votes is inadequate. 'First past the post' voting doesn't gives minority parties with general support across the country any voice in parliament, unless they can win a majority in a constituency. This inadequate system also promotes the primacy of Malay nationalist narratives within today's political system.

In the 2013 election the Barisan Nasional won 59.91 percent of constituencies with only 47.38 percent of the popular vote. The principle of "one vote one value" would more fairly allow the aggregate voting intention of the country to be reflected in the party or coalition winning government of the country.


A fairer voting system would help free the country of unhealthy exclusionist narratives which pit one race against another. With luck, this would encourage inclusive politics rather than the current racial based political rhetoric that's costing the country socially, culturally, and economically.

This is a prerequisite to any development agenda.

Electoral reform cannot stop there. The Dewan Negara, the parliament, has been degraded into a house of convenience for the federal government of the day. It is comprised of 26 members appointed by state legislatures, four representing the federal territories and 40 appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the king. There are no democratically elected members.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.


Originally published in the Asia Sentinel

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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