Friday April 6, 2012
Making sense but ruffling sensibilities
Roaming beyond the fence
By TUNKU 'ABIDIN MUHRIZ
Reactions to the Parliamentary Select Committee’s recommendations are still unfolding but some will be nearly impossible to enforce.
ONE of the most refreshing statements from a Malaysian Prime Minister in my lifetime was Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak stating soon after taking office that “the days of Government knows best are over”.
I would dispute the contention that the Government had ever known best – but still it signified a clear intention to move away from the authoritarian mode of leadership familiar to my generation.
The transformation programmes and New Economic Model were manifestations of this, despite some disappointment in the implementation.
The Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform was another example, specifically praised (together with the promised abolition of the Internal Security Act) by United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon in his speech in KL recently.
Reactions to the PSC’s recommendations are still unfolding but were already explosive from the moment the Speaker refused to allow the inclusion of a minority report.
True, one can find examples to support this, but it would have made little difference as the three Pakatan Rakyat members disagreed on four of the 22 points: Extending the postal vote to media personnel (as opposed to both media and EC personnel), the proposal to pre-register voters at age 20 (as opposed to lowering the voting age to 18), increasing the minimum campaign period from seven to 10 days (instead of 21) and automatic voter registration to be further studied (as opposed to being immediately implemented).
On April 28, the Bersih coalition plans to assemble for a third time (the decimal point is just superfluous) against the PSC’s recommendations.
In an official “response to the Electoral Reform PSC recommendations” they explain their disappointment.
I am broadly in agreement with the reformers even though some recommendations will be nearly impossible to enforce (for instance there will always be complaints about what constitutes “access to free and fair media”).
The major exception is the idea of state funding for political parties based on the results of the previous elections, because firstly, we technically vote for individuals and not parties, and secondly, even if we do de facto vote for parties we do not do so with the intention of rewarding them financially. Thirdly, Malaysian citizens should be free to donate to political parties as they see fit; coercion is unnecessary and indeed undemocratic.
Apart from that, two of the PSC’s recommendations are particularly interesting.
The first is mandating at least four years before the date of the subsequent election. The right to refuse dissolution is currently held by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong precisely to prevent frivolous snap elections.
Fixing a minimum period reduces flexibility – there could be good reasons why an election should be held before four years, such as where a Prime Minister has lost (or has not yet acquired) the confidence of a majority of MPs, which is the fundamental criterion for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong appointing a Prime Minister.
The second interesting recommendation is that Sabah and Sarawak ought to receive the same number of seats each as the peninsular states combined. This point has been badly worded in the press because some people think the intention is to make Sabah and Sarawak have the same population-to-seat ratio as in the peninsula.
This makes arithmetic sense but ignores the historic basis of our country in which Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and the Federation of Malaya were each equal entities in the forming of Malaysia in 1963.
This touches on the concept of federalism, which necessitates, in my view, the inclusion of the Dewan Negara in discussions about parliamentary reform, since that chamber was originally explicitly set up to represent the states – although the subsequent addition of appointed senators vastly diluted that role.
Another of the PSC’s recommendations – studying how to improve the current first-past-the-post system – could also have ramifications for the upper House.
Debates in many other countries have accepted the principle that both simple plurality and proportional systems have advantages and disadvantages, and I suggested in a paper published by IDEAS earlier this year that the Dewan Negara could adopt a proportional system should it become an elected house, with a mechanism to ensure it does not challenge the supremacy of the Dewan Rakyat.