Malaysia needs a strong Opposition, The Age, 27 Feb 2008

by Michael Backman

SHOULD Malaysians bother to vote? The corollary of this question is: does the Malaysian Government deserve to be re-elected? The answer to the second question is no.

In the past few years, the Malaysian Government has presided over an extraordinary number of scandals that are appalling by any standards: the trade minister’s allocation of car import permits to friends, relatives and supporters; the billion-dollar fraud at the Port Klang Free Trade Zone; the outrageous and much-flaunted wealth of ruling party politician Zakaria Md Deros; the claims that a High Court judge allowed the lawyer representing a rich businessman to write for him his judgement in a defamation lawsuit; an immensely rich chief minister in Sarawak state who is allowed to rule as if it were his; and so on.

The Malaysian Government richly deserves to pay for all of this at the ballot box.

So the next question is: should the Malaysian Opposition be elected to office? Again, the answer is no.

The Opposition is a shambolic assortment of the disaffected rather than a competent, alternative government. In no way is it ready to govern.

All these questions are pertinent because Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has called elections for March 8.

Elections are fought tenaciously in Malaysia as if the South-East Asian country is a fully fledged democracy. But it isn’t. It is democratic in that elections are held, but they are not fair. The ruling coalition has been in power in one form or another since independence 50 years ago. One reason for this longevity is that there are legal and institutional biases that favour the Government.

Malaysian electorates are severely malapportioned. The smallest electorates are rural; the largest are metropolitan. The largest have about six times the number of registered voters as the smallest. This means that the votes of those in the smallest seats count for many times those in the larger seats.

This sort of bias meant, for example, that in the last general elections held in 2004, the ruling coalition won 198 or 91% of the parliamentary seats with just 64% of the votes cast. The Opposition won only 21 seats or 9.6% of the seats compared with 36% of the popular vote.

Had the Parliament reflected voters’ actual voting intentions, there would have been 79 rather than 21 Opposition members elected.

Outright fraud is another way in which Malaysians are cheated when they vote. Tens of thousands of dead people are believed to have voted in the 2004 elections. Exit polling is difficult, but it is assumed that these voters overwhelmingly favoured the Government. Credit must be given when it is due — the Government did eventually remove hundreds of thousands of deceased voters from the electoral roles. But the damage had been done.

Also at the last elections, thousands of Malaysians who turned up on polling day found that the electorates in which they were registered had been changed without their permission or knowledge. Thousands of voters were shifted into Opposition-held or marginal electorates. Absurdly, even family members living in the same house discovered that they had been registered in different electorates. Most Malaysians do vote for the ruling coalition, so the effect of this was to swamp the votes for the Opposition.

Multiple voting is another problem. Indelible ink is used to mark voters when they vote, but it is not compulsory.

Next month’s election is being held a year early. Why? One reason is because Anwar Ibrahim, who was deputy prime minister until he was charged and convicted of corruption and sodomy in the late 1990s, will only be eligible to stand for election after April 8 because of the convictions. The sodomy convictions were overturned because of uncertainty about the dates on which the alleged acts were supposed to have occurred, but the corruption verdict stood.

Anwar is unfit to hold public office, regardless of the Government’s manoeuvring against him. The sodomy issue is irrelevant. The serious charges against him are the corruption charges, which relate to Anwar asking the police to heavy two witnesses into withdrawing their statements against him. On this, Anwar was convicted with irrefutable evidence.

That the deputy prime minister of any country should do such a thing is unforgivable and yet Anwar has his backers, mostly in the Western media.

Most Malaysians found his criticisms of their Government shortly after he was removed from office to be transparently opportunistic, given that he had been a senior minister in the Government for 15 years. But while Anwar is more popular outside Malaysia than inside, he is still a rallying figure for the discontented.

So what should Malaysians do? Firstly, in a country where voting is not compulsory, they should vote. There’s no point complaining on internet blogs but not bothering to vote.

Given the Opposition’s unpreparedness to govern, the Malaysian Government is best returned. But it does deserve a good, hard kick. Even more, it needs a significant and strong Opposition to help it govern better. It needs greater accountability and scrutiny, which a strong Opposition in Parliament will help provide. That is what good governments everywhere have and need.

Of course, tiny Singapore is an exception but Singapore is a country in name only. The reality is that the Singapore Government is a glorified city council.

Malaysia, on the other hand, is a diverse and complex country that wants to be modern. It needs to be governed like one.