Race-based voting a step back

A tow truck driver carries flags of all political parties in this filepic from the 13th General Elections

I am immensely thankful that I represent a diverse parliamentary constituency. Serdang is racially diverse comprising 49% Chinese, 40% Malay, 11% Indian and 1% other voters.

While a majority of voters are middle class, my constituency also comprises the low cost flats in Impian Ehsan, the upper middle income homes in Bandar Baru Bangi, the Chinese New Villages of Seri Kembangan, Balakong and Cheras Batu 11, the Malay traditional kampung in Sungai Ramal and the Mines Resort where former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad lives.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and New Era are also in my constituency with Universiti Tenaga Nasioanl (Uniten) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) just next door, while Balakong probably has the highest number of industrial estates among all state seats in Selangor.

Having voters from a variety of racial, religious, economic and educational backgrounds has exposed me to the various problems faced by the different communities and interest groups. It has forced me to think about how policies affect groups differently. It has made me consider the possible reactions from different groups to the statements I make publicly.

Imagine then my surprise at Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim’s proposal for voters of one race to vote for a representative of the same race. His exact proposal was one person, one vote, based on race. The reasoning for this proposal was that the system would reduce racial tension and improve harmony.

In case it is not clear, let me explain why this proposal would increase rather than decrease racial tensions. If a Malay representative is voted into office by Malay voters, there is no need for him or her to reach out to voters of another race. The same would be true for Chinese, Indian, Iban and Kadazan representatives. There would be no electoral incentives for a Chinese rep to visit a mosque or for a Malay rep to organise a Deepavali event.

In Parliment and in the national political landscape, ethnic polarisation would worsen since elected reps would try to “outdo” each other to see who could more genuinely represent their own race.

If this electoral system had been in place in pre-independence Malaysia, the Alliance, the predecessor to the Barisan Nasional, would probably have not existed.

In the 1955 pre-independence elections, where the electorate was 84% Malay, the Alliance fielded 30% non-Malay candidates, mostly from the MCA. Later, when more Chinese were given citizenship and registered as voters, the Alliance was able to benefit by sharing votes or “vote-pooling” across ethnic lines. If the electoral system was based on racial voting and representation, then there would have been little need for Umno to work with MCA and Gerakan.

Indeed coalition politics would be very different if this system was used. Multi racial coalitions like Pakatan Rakyat and BN would not exist or would look very different from what exists today.

South Africa used to practice a kind of system where blacks voted for black representatives, coloured for coloured reps and whites for white reps. And we all know how that story ended.

Fiji also had seats reserved for ethnic Fijians and Indians voted in by Fijian and Indian voters. Not surprisingly, the more extreme of the Fijian and Indian political parties ended up winning the majority of these seats. Incidentally, Fiji has been ruled by a military government since 2006 and recent plans to restore elections will likely see an end to ethnic voting and ethnic representation.

At a time when we should be moving towards a more inclusive political system, it is deeply concerning that a minister would make such a proposal.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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