Real work starts now after passing of Undi18 bill

MALAYSIA'S electorate just got bigger now that both Houses of Parliament have approved a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18.

Popularly known as the Undi18 Bill, the amendment also allows automatic voter registration and makes 18 the minimum age for elected representatives.

In a historic show of bipartisanship, all 221 MPs present in the Dewan Rakyat on July 16 unanimously voted to pass the amendment.

Then on Thursday (July 25), the Dewan Negara passed the Bill with 47 votes, or two more than the required two-thirds majority of 45 votes.

With no abstentions or nays in either House, doubtless all political parties appreciate the rationale for lowering the voting age. (Although it was somewhat disingenuous for the Opposition parties to insist on automatic voter registration as a condition for their support; it's not as if they couldn't do this when they were in power for 55 years.)

Lowering the voting age, along with automatic voter registration, is a welcome move that will broaden democratic participation and bring Malaysia in line with most countries around the world.

This is expected to add 7.8 million voters to the electoral roll once the amendments come into effect.

But of course, amending the law is just the first step, especially in relation to automatic voter registration. This isn't going to happen automatically, and it is here and now that the real work starts.

As Sarawak-based civil society organisation Persatuan Pemangkin Daya Masyarakat (informally known as ROSE) puts it, now the responsibility and job lie with the experts in the relevant agencies, including the Election Commission and National Registration Department, to "sort out the technicalities" and implement the amendments.

ROSE also called on the government and related agencies to implement automatic voter registration and other amendments in time for the next Sarawak state election, due in 2021.

It noted that the number of registered voters in Sarawak in the 14th General Election last year was 1.22 million. With the lowering of the voting age and automatic voter registration, this is estimated to increase by 820,000 to 2.04 million voters.

But the EC says automatic voter registration unlikely to be ready before the state polls.

Chairman Azhar Harun said it could take 18 months or longer to be implemented, as the EC would have to establish a new system involving data from the NRD, Prisons Department and Health Ministry. It also has to clean up the electoral roll, in itself a massive exercise.

"It would be good if the new provisions can be implemented by then as a pilot project, but we also don’t want the state election to be a testing ground.

"We must ensure everything is truly ready first,” Azhar was reported as saying on June 19.

While it would have been nice to have the changes in place for the state election, what's more important is for the system and procedures of automatic voter registration to be done properly, with no glitches or loopholes upon implementation.

In this respect, it's commendable that the EC will not rush matters and will engage stakeholders in the process.

Besides the nuts-and-bolts of implementation, lowering the voting age should be accompanied by voter education, not only for the young but for Malaysians generally.

Greater voter awareness and political literacy, not just in the hows and whys of elections but also in matters of principles, ideologies, values and governance, are key to meaningful civic participation.

Another issue that needs addressing, as ROSE pointed out, is the malapportionment in electoral constituencies.

In the 2016 Sarawak election, for example, the largest state constituency (Pelawan, an urban seat in Sibu) had nearly five times the number of voters than the smallest (Sadong Jaya, a rural seat).

This is a longstanding problem which could be exacerbated by a big increase in the electorate size.

With an expanded voter base, the delineation of constituencies should be reviewed to minimise the discrepancy in size and ensure that voting is more equitable.

Undi18 has been passed, but more work on electoral reforms needs to be done for it to be meaningful.

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