Voting for more voters

With the Bill to lower the voting age to 18, hopefully other electoral reforms like electing senators, restoring local elections and making the Election Commission more powerful yet accountable can follow. 

I WAS 18 when I began my first year at university in London, and a few months later there was a UK general election.

It was an event that generated much argument and an evolution of political views that no classroom could provide, for one reason: prior to election day, I received an Official Poll Card, denoting my right to vote according to the Representation of the People Acts, specifying where and when to cast my ballot.

It came as a surprise, because I never registered. My Malaysian friends and I discovered that the university had submitted our details to the local council which determined that we were eligible voters, as citizens of Commonwealth countries over the age of 18 living in the UK.

This incited debate: British friends complained that while Malaysians can vote in Newcastle, Britons can never vote in Kota Baru – the supposed justification being “payback for colonialism”. But Malaysians found it surreal to be able to vote in another country before our own.

There was some disagreement as to whether to exercise the vote, but there was a precedent in Malaysians being active in British politics, including Tun Abdul Razak, who was apparently involved in the Labour party.

There was no legal barrier, although some lawyers have argued that Article 24 of our Federal Constitution applies. It states that a Malaysian’s citizenship may be deprived if they exercise a right in another country that is “accorded exclusively” to that country’s citizens.

No problem there, since British law explicitly says Commonwealth citizens may vote.

But the next clause implies that “the exercise of a vote... outside the Federation” is nonetheless deemed to be such an exercise. However, this has never been tested in court, and as can easily be found, many Malaysians indeed voted in UK general elections as well as the 2014 Scottish and 2016 EU referenda. (Also, in 2007, Wan Saiful Wan Jan contested in an English local election.)

In 2010, I participated in the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit where my co-panellist Shahril Hamdan (now deputy Umno Youth chief and co-founder of new think tank The Centre) agreed on the wisdom of reducing the voting age to 18.

Last year, the government’s manifesto promised to do so, and last week the relevant Bill was tabled.

However, this did not contain the element of automatic registration which was also promised and, after demands by the Opposition, the Bill was withdrawn in order to include it, to enable the automatic registration of an estimated four million new voters.

This is unprecedented in Malaysian parliamentary procedure.

But then, two unprecedented things happened in our Parliament within the past year: namely when the Dewan Negara defeated the government’s bid to repeal the Anti-Fake News Act in September 2018, and again in April 2019 when the Dewan Rakyat rejected a constitutional amendment to (ostensibly) restore Sabah and Sarawak as equal to the Federation of Malaya as founding members of Malaysia.

Thus, seen positively, this shows an evolution in policymaking: the minister realises a need for consensus to achieve a manifesto promise, while the Opposition understands the legitimacy and benefits of this reform.

Seen more cynically, both sides are only supporting this reform because they think they will benefit more from the new voters.

From a philosophical point of view, however, there is no good reason to prevent this extension of suffrage.

A democracy should always seek to increase individual rights, especially when they do not diminish others’ rights and freedoms.

However, a common objection to letting 18-year-olds vote is that they are too immature, naive and reckless. This is spurious.

Firstly, 18-year-olds already possess many significant rights, including decisions about relationships (including marriage), career, education and the ability to drive.

Secondly, many adults are considered immature, naive and reckless, and that does not impair their right to vote.

Unless you change the fundamental criteria of suffrage itself, then Malaysia ought to follow international norms and allow voting at 18.

With this Bill, hopefully other beneficial electoral reforms requested by civil society can follow: such as electing senators, restoring local elections, making the Election Commission more powerful yet accountable, and perhaps reforming the method of electing MPs from simple plurality to a preferential system, which I have argued for before.

Some civil society colleagues desire compulsory voting, but to me, forcing people to vote can represent a diminution, rather than an expansion, of liberty.

But most of all, citizenship education is needed at every level of education so that Malaysians grow up understanding the roles of our institutions.

For now, Malaysians who believe in the democratic spirit of our Federal Constitution and conformity to international norms should look favourably upon expanding the franchise.

Indeed, as a single act, it would be the largest expansion of democratic rights since the formation of Malaysia.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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