The right to vote for all

Article by: Hariati Azizan

News Source: The Star

However, the overseas voting process is not glitch-free and many countries are still reviewing their laws and processes.

ALTHOUGH he has been a registered voter in Malaysia for almost a decade, pharmacist G. Gan has never cast his ballot.

“It’s not that I don’t want to but I have been in Britain all this while – first studying, and now working. But Malaysia is still home to me, and that is why I want to make a stand at the polls,” he says.

Gan, like many other Malaysians currently studying, working and residing overseas, was excited to hear in August that the Election Commission (EC) was reviewing the regulations to extend postal voting rights to Malaysians working overseas in the next election. Currently, only members of the armed forces, full-time students, civil servants and their partners are allowed to participate in postal voting.

Their excitement grew when the Foreign Ministry said it had forwarded recommendations to the EC on allowing Malaysians to cast their votes at the respective Malaysian embassies worldwide.

Their joy, however, was shortlived when the Government conceded that the logistical problems in implementing it might mean that they would have to miss the coming elections.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has stressed that the Government is not against overseas voting while highlighting the difficulties in implementing the mechanism.

Indisputably, all Malaysians have the right to vote. This is enshrined in our Federal Consti­tution.

According to the World Bank, there are some one million Malaysians living overseas, and all have the right to vote. However, the sheer number is one logistical issue. As pointed out by Najib, there are more than 800 constituencies in the country and over 100 foreign missions in the world. This would make verification during the voting process difficult, and might even lead to vote tampering.

Moreover, according to Wisma Putra, they only have records of about 25,000 of Malaysians overseas. Many are not reachable, something that has caused various problems to the foreign missions abroad during disasters and emergencies.

As a source from the Malaysian embassy in Japan shares, it was difficult to trace Malaysians when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan early this year as many who were residing there at that time had not registered with the embassy. “If we want to allow overseas voting, we would need to conduct a mass registration of the Malaysian expatriates,” he says.

Another logistical issue is the manpower, he adds. “This is a full-time job, so we would need help from the HQ (Foreign Ministry) and the Election Commission.”

EC deputy chairman Datuk Wan Ahmad Wan Omar says the commission is prepared to increase manpower, including appointing more assistant registrars at missions worldwide but this would incur a high cost, on top of the other implementation costs. It was reported that the cost of the general elections would be close to RM200mil. In 2008, it was RM170mil.

MCA Young Professionals Bureau Chairman Datuk Chua Tee Yong, who is also Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister, agrees that the logistic and resource issues need to be resolved to ensure that a proper mechanism is established. One way is to consider how other countries are implementing overseas voting, he says.

Foreign lessons

Currently, some 115 countries around the world allow for some form of overseas voting for their citizens, National Institute for Democracy and Electoral Integrity (NIEI) points out. Like many of the election watchdogs in Malaysia, NIEI agrees that while there are issues to be resolved to allow Malaysians abroad to vote, they are not insurmountable.

However, the historical, social, and cultural contexts need to be taken into account.

Even in the countries implementing overseas voting, the process is not glitch-free and many are still reviewing their laws and pro­cesses as they go. Others are finding the high cost incurred is not matched by the actual voter turnout.

In Indonesia, the government is mulling over the effectiveness of the facility due to poor turnout – as voting day often falls on a workday, most of its overseas citizens choose work over voting.

This is also an issue for the Philippines and even the United States. In the 2006 election, over six million qualified overseas Americans requested for absentee ballot, but only one million registered. Out of the one million, only one-third actually cast their votes.

“The issue definitely requires more in-depth study and discussion. To design the system for the Malaysian overseas to vote requires suitability with the current electoral system that we use,” says NIEI board member Amin Iskandar.

There are various mechanisms that can be implemented to prevent tampering of the ballot, adds Amin.

“We can look at the best practices in other countries, especially the ones which use the same electoral system, such as Britain. In Britain, it is required that the overseas absentee voter be a registered voter there within the last 15 years prior to exercising their right to overseas absentee voting. This can be the mechanism to prevent the issue of phantom voters.”

Chua agrees that Malaysia should consider implementing a time bar for qualification of voters. “In Canada, if a Canadian citizen has been residing overseas for more than five years, he loses his qualification as a voter and is unable to vote. The same applies in Australia where if a citizen has been overseas for more than three years and his name is not listed in the electoral roll, he will be disqualified as a voter.”

South Korea, meanwhile, is going the hi-tech way to protect the integrity of its ballot papers, says Sim Hyun Whoa, the Overseas Election Officer on duty at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Malaysia. This includes equipping their foreign missions with state-of-the-art equipment to ensure that ballot papers cannot be forged or tampered with.

The most important thing is to provide the right to vote for all Malaysian citizens.

“We believe in the principle of every citizen of Malaysia having the right to elect their representatives in an election even though they are not residing in Malaysia,” says Chua.

Malaysians for Free and Fair election (Mafrel) chairman Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh concurs, pointing out that it is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The issue of cost and logistics is irrelevant as it is the responsibility of the Government to facilitate voting for all Malaysian citizens, he says.

“It is the Government’s responsibility to facilitate the right and it is the responsibility of the voters overseas to make an effort to exercise their right to vote,” he says.

“We can study the spread of students and workers to see where the polling stations are needed. Traditionally, most Malaysian students and professionals in Europe are in London, so maybe we can start with that as the main voting point in Europe.”

Syed Ibrahim suggests cutting the cost incurred for security enforcement during the elections to reduce costs.

“From our observation at the polls, there are too many police officers deployed at the polling stations, even for by-elections. Do we really need such tight security?” he poses.

P.Y. Wong of Tindak Malaysia points out that overseas voting is provided by most of our neighbouring countries, including “tiny” Brunei. “It is pathetic that Malaysia does not accord this to our citizens. We have conducted elections for more than 50 years and they cannot sort out such a basic issue?”

As for access to information, the election watchdogs agree that it is irrelevant.

“It is nobody’s business whether the overseas voter is well-informed or not. It is also a poor reflection of the Government’s information machinery if such a situation happens. Have you seen how the Singapore Government issues regular newsletters to their overseas citizens and how they take care of their welfare and interests?” says Wong.

It is up to the individual to keep informed, says Chua. “Even if you live in Malaysia, you will not be up to date with the local news if you don’t make an effort to keep up.”

An academic in Hong Kong, Ang SW, agrees. “Even though I am in Hong Kong, I can make an informed decision at the polls. I read the news online these days, including Malaysian and world news. If politicians think that they can better represent their positions via speeches, then there is nothing to stop them from maintaining blogs to keep their constituents better informed. Moreover, I schedule regular trips back to Malaysia to visit family and friends.”

In many of our professions today, international work experience is not only attractive but also necessary for our training and development, says Ang.

“Describing decisions to remain abroad for whatever period of time as a ‘betrayal’ is unbelievable and ridiculous in this day and age where the internationalisation of the economy puts everyone under new pressures even as it opens up new opportunities,” laments the 33-year-old.

For her and many of her fellow Malaysian expatriates, says Ang, the most important thing is their right to play a part in the future of the country they still call home.

“I would like to vote because returning home to work and live continues to be a viable option in the near future. A Malaysia that has strong democratic institutions with fair and transparent practices will be a lovely place to live in and, unlike what some politicians assert, those of us who are currently abroad have not given up on the country,” she says.


Gaining the upper hand

By Zainah Anwar (article source: the star)
Re-delineation of constituencies often tends to benefit the party in power in many parts of the world.

FROM 1991 to 1993, I spent a lot of time organising election monitoring missions to several African countries that were moving from single-party dictatorships to multi-party democracy.

Most of these countries would have received technical assistance from the Commonwealth Secretariat where I worked to ensure that free and fair elections could indeed be held.

These included enhancing the legal framework, fostering integrity of the election process, promoting independence and transparency of the Elections Commission, and putting in place free and fair regulations and arrangements during the campaign period and on polling day.

Very often, the eminent persons that usually made up the Commonwealth Observer groups were able to pronounce that the results of the elections represented a free expression of the will of the people on polling day, meaning that those who wanted to exercise their right to vote were able to go out and freely vote for the candidate of their choice.

But in many situations, the observers found difficulty in pronouncing unequivocally that the elections had been truly fair. Several kinds of violations could take place, from unfair access to the media to flawed electoral rolls and political bias towards the incumbent ruling party in the re-delineation of constituencies. read more

Selective democracy at work

Article source: The Malaysian Insider (written by, Khoo Ying Hooi)

JULY 19 — The political system in Malaysia is often viewed as being between democratic and authoritarianism. The imposition of draconian laws such as the ISA and other anti-democratic elements indicates that Malaysia is more of a “soft authoritarianism”. After more than five decades of independence, many ambiguities in the actual practice of democracy surfaced and deepened from time to time.

Since 1955, the BN has been the only coalition party dominating the government. The result of the 2008 general election showed some light for political change in the country. Public fatigue with the tired party systems sparked interest in civil society as a means of social renewal. The term civil society subsequently regained its momentum and was seen as a catalyst for promoting democratic values and processes within Malaysia’s wider society and polity. The increasing focus on civil society stems in large part from their potential contribution to democratic governance.

The character of civil society to a great extent is dependent on contemporary political conditions, the character of the state and the relations between the state and society. They are being seen as a watchdog for the political parties and a non-partisan agent pushing for a larger democratic and governance space for the country, although reality remains much more complex in Malaysia.

The rights of Malaysians to participate in civil society, and protection of basic civil liberties, are spelt out at length under the second part of the Federal Constitution, headed Fundamental Liberties. Though virtually all of these freedoms are qualified by an overriding right of the government to decide otherwise if it wishes, in the interests of political order. The steady expansion of executive power since independence has, in practice, left few guarantees of individual liberties.

The working environment for NGOs in Malaysia is not as vibrant compared with other Southeast Asia countries particularly Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia despite the fact that Malaysia is considered as having much better prospects in terms of economic standard.

Nevertheless, the spectacular growing number of social groupings in recent years is fundamentally altering the balance of power and their increased roles are seen as rather unpleasant one for the Malaysian government which is already handicapped from the insecurity and the loss of confidence by citizens.

In Malaysia, NGOs are always seen as opposing the state’s national interest or perceived as a threat. There are many factors contributing to this situation, which has its root in the historical structure and also the administration of the country particularly in legislation. In recent years, there have been numerous attempts by the government to curb the activities of NGOs. There have also been a considerable number of amendments to the law and introduction of new rules to actually restrict the movement of activists, and this has serious impact on their activities.

The Malaysian government also constantly responds fiercely to the rise in the activism field in the country and takes up a defensive approach whenever issues rise. The action by the authorities in the recent Bersih 2.0 episode, no matter whoever ordered it, can’t and shouldn’t be justified. It was an attack on the basic civil rights of Malaysian citizens — the right to voice one’s concern. When groups gather to voice such protests, it’s important to maintain a safe and civil atmosphere, but it is also important to be fair and consistent in enforcing rules.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a famous scholar, in his work “Democracy in America” highlighted that a “weak state” and robust civil associations contributed more to democracy in the country compared with a “strong” state and weak social groupings. How true is that in the context of Malaysia? That is for us to ponder on.

Article source: The Malaysian Insider

UN human rights expert criticizes ‘heavy-handed’ police methods in Malaysia

11 July 2011 – An independent United Nations human rights expert today said Malaysia’s “heavy-handed” control of a demonstration on Saturday risks democracy there, and expressed concern with reports of detention of political leaders.

Media reports indicated Malaysian authorities used tear gas and water cannons against protesters in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Saturday, reportedly leading to one death, several injuries and the arrest of more than 1,600 people.

“The right to freedom of opinion and expression, including in the form of peaceful protests, is essential for democracy,” said Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

“By declaring the demonstration illegal, sealing off parts of the capital in advance and responding in such a heavy-handed manner against peaceful demonstrators, the Government of Malaysia risks undermining democratic progress in the country,” he said in a news release.

“Actions taken by the authorities prior to and during the rally unduly restricted the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.”

Declaring the assembly illegal “based on claims that it is trying to topple the Government or is a risk to national security and public order – in the absence of any credible evidence to substantiate such claims – is also an unnecessary restriction of civil and political rights,” he said.

For his part, El Hadji Malick Sow, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, said: “We remain deeply concerned about the detention of six individuals since 25 June under the Emergency Ordinance, which allows for detention without trial for up to 60 days.”

The Working Group also reiterated its recommendation, made to the Government of Malaysia following a visit to the country in June 2010, to repeal the Emergency Ordinance and other preventive laws, on the grounds that they significantly hinder fundamental human rights, such as the right to fair trial.

The rights experts reminded the Government of its obligation to fully respect the rights to peaceful assembly, association, and expression, as guaranteed under the Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They also recalled that as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Malaysia has pledged to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Mr. La Rue and Mr. Sow are independent, non-paid experts reporting to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Article Source: UN news center