LAST week I had the opportunity to listen to Election Commission deputy chairman Dr Azmi Sharom and commissioner Dr Faisal Hazis speak about electoral reform in Malaysia.
In a talk titled "Electoral Reform: How Far Are We?" organised by the Unimas Academic Staff Association, they took turns to share about what the EC is currently doing, such as working on the Undi18 amendments, cleaning the electoral roll and improving the voting process, as well as other reforms they plan to do.
Not only did they know what they were talking about, they clearly cared about implementing reforms.
It was genuinely refreshing to hear EC commissioners speak with such conviction about the need to reform the institution and its functions to become more independent, impartial and transparent.
For instance, to increase transparency in the election process, Faisal said the EC had given more access to election observers, appointed NGO representatives as polling station heads and election workers, speeded up the release of results and live-streamed the vote count on Facebook during recent by-elections.
Other initiatives included setting nomination and polling days on public holidays - "No more polling on weekdays!" - checking whether the 70,000-odd voters on the electoral roll aged 90 and above are still alive, introducing a new automated system to alert the EC when a person dies and investigating all unique addresses which have 15 or more registered voters.
On the whole, Faisal said, the EC's electoral reform plan focused on six key areas - electoral boundaries, voter registration, absentee voting, election offences, election process and the EC itself.
"We're also looking at introducing a parliamentary committee for electoral matters because at present, the EC's proposals have to be put forward to the Cabinet.
"The EC should be answerable to Parliament, not the Cabinet," he said.
While positive progress had been made, Faisal cautioned that there was a long way to go in electoral reform. "Change is not easy. It is not a short-term project."
He identified political will, public pressure and an independent and impartial EC as the key success factors for reform.
On political will, he noted that electoral reforms were contained in Pakatan Harapan's manifesto but "the window of opportunity is quite small. We don't know if in 10 or 20 years' time, there will be political will for reform."
This is why public pressure is important, he added, along with the need to constantly monitor the EC. "But as long as we are there, we will continue to push for reforms."
On his part, Azmi pointed out that it would take different levels of effort to achieve reforms, with the toughest being those that required constitutional amendments and the requisite two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass them.
Next were reforms which required legislative changes, such as amending an existing law or making new laws, followed by changes in regulations and finally administrative changes.
"Things like voter registration and the electoral roll come under administrative changes, it's what the EC can do," he said.
Azmi also observed that good changes come with challenges, citing lowering the voting age to 18 as an example.
An estimated four million people aged 21 and above are currently not registered as voters, while there are about 1.5 million youths aged 18 to 20 years old now.
"If the next general election is held in 2023, there will be approximately eight million new voters and they are most likely to be in the urban areas.
"So the imbalance in the number of voters between urban and rural areas will grow," he noted.
The main takeaway from the talk was that these EC commissioners are clear about what they want to achieve and what they can do. They recognise that there are challenges but they are committed to reform.
With a similar commitment from civil society and concerned members of the public, the outlook is promising for electoral reform to be achieved in Malaysia.
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