Change of gov’t necessary but insufficient for a more democratic Malaysia, electoral and institutional reforms urgently needed

10 May 2018Global Bersih welcomes the historic step taken towards a more mature democracy in Malaysia as Malaysians voted for the first ever change in the governing party since the country’s independence (1957 for Malaya/West Malaysia and 1963 for East Malaysia).

Given the high level of irregularity, gerrymandering, malapportionment and blatant corruption that marred the 14thMalaysian General Election (1), as well as the severe institutional failures revealed by the 1MDB and other recent scandals (2), we call on the incoming government to urgently set in motion the institutional, including electoral, reforms necessary to move towards a democratic and just Malaysian society in which the rights and dignity of all persons are respected, protected and upheld in law and in practice.

Even before the elections, numerous irregularities on the electoral roll were reported by Bersih 2.0 and other organisations. A severely malapportioned and gerrymandered electoral map was rushed through Parliament just before the elections, with the largest constituency (Bangi, 178,790 voters) being almost ten times bigger than the smallest (Igan, 19,592 voters). During the campaign period, open bribery and intimidation were observed, and both major coalitions abused government resources for campaigning purposes (1). There was no meaningful observation of the elections, either by international or domestic observers. The Malaysian Human Rights Commission, which commands strong public confidence, requested to observe the elections and was refused.

Malaysians abroad, estimated by the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs’ Population Division to number 2.7 million (3) – a majority of whom are believed to be of voting age – were massively disenfranchised: First, by the EC’s exclusion of the majority of them – all those in southern Thailand, Kalimantan, Singapore and Brunei – from overseas voting. The announcement only in January of a major change in the voting process – by post rather than at Malaysian missions – and the requirement that those already registered to vote abroad re-register resulted in many being taken by surprise, and finding out too late to take the necessary steps. The requirement to register as postal voters before the date of the elections was known, the extremely short period between the issuance of ballots and the polling deadline, the last minute announcement that an adult Malaysian witness was required, and delays in sending out ballots made it physically impossible for many to vote, and forced others to make considerable efforts to return their ballots in time, at considerable personal expense. Finally, the extremely poor and incoherent communication by the Election Commission, both to Malaysians and to Malaysian diplomatic missions overseas, resulted in an unprecedented level of general confusion about the process (4).

On election day itself, further irregularities were reported, including voters who found on arriving at their polling station that others had voted on their behalf. Lines were unusually long and two voters died, perhaps from medical conditions exacerbated by the long wait in the heat. Many voters were prevented from casting their ballots when polling stations closed at 5pm (1).

Despite the numerous obstacles placed in their way by the Election Commission, including midweek polling and inadequate provisions for overseas voting, it was reported that 76% of registered voters cast their ballots (5). Around the world, overseas postal voters raced against the clock to get their votes counted: ordinary Malaysians who did not know each other organized ‘vote mules’ and ‘runners’ as no delivery service could get their ballots back in time. In New Zealand, DHL offices began referring enquiries to an overseas postal voter discussion group on Facebook (6).

GE14 is a testament to the strong desire of the Malaysian people to bring about positive change and move towards greater democracy through peaceful and legal means of action, and to their determination and courage in the face of numerous obstacles and unpleasant surprises. The popular vote as estimated by Global Bersih (7) seems to indicate that the redelineation may have backfired for the former BN government: PH received 45.7% of the popular vote and won 113/222 or 51% of the parliamentary seats; BN 33.8% of the popular vote and 79/222 or 35.6% of the seats; PAS 16.8% of the popular vote and 19/222 or 8.5% of the seats; Warisan (aligned to PH) 2.3% of the popular vote and 8/122 or 6.6% of the seats; independents and other parties (including one independent in Batu aligned to PH) the remaining 1.3% of the vote and 3/222 or 1.4% of the seats. The number of spoilt ballots does not appear to have been significant.

Global Bersih calls on the new Malaysian government to cultivate and promote a culture of transparency and accountability, and to re-establish the checks and balances to the government’s power that have been severely eroded over the past decades. These include ensuring an independent judiciary; a free media; the right to freedom of expression, of religion, of association and of information; as well as independent and sufficiently empowered bodies to defend the fundamental rights and liberties of Malaysian citizens and residents, to combat corruption and to protect the environment. It is also urgent for the government to repeal the repressive laws inimical to a democratic society that were passed without proper parliamentary scrutiny. The problems with the electoral process at state and federal levels documented by Bersih 2.0, Global Bersih and other organisations must be addressed, and local council elections reinstated.

We also urge the new government to work to rebuild national unity after decades of ‘divide and rule’ politics and government policies, and to ensure an environment which fosters mutual respect and understanding among all Malaysians.

Global Bersih will continue to support Malaysian civil society, the advancement of human rights and the rule of law in in Malaysia, and to strengthen Malaysia’s maturing democracy. We also stand ready to contribute to rebuilding the institutions of governance and urge the new government to work with all stakeholders, including civil society, and to draw on the experience of the international community and of Malaysians abroad, towards this end.

For further information, please contact Global Bersih at:
35 Rue du Rothschild
1202 Geneva Switzerland
(1) Please refer to press releases by Bersih 2.0, Tindak Malaysia and Rise of Sarawak Efforts.
(2) Please refer to reporting by Sarawak Report and the Wall Street Journal.
(4) Please refer to Global Bersih’s previous press releases.
(5) The 76% figure was widely reported, however our estimate gives 81%, see (7).
(Image: Flickr Creative Common User Sitoo)
Erratum The number of Malaysians abroad is 1.9 million (link: We previously mistook immigrants for emigrants in the UN data.

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