Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

During elections, people tend to be more inspired to voice their opinions on politics, governance, and democracy. Campaigning hasn’t officially started in Malaysia, but it’s encouraging to see that ordinary citizens have been so aggressive in recent weeks in pushing for various government reforms.

Bersih (clean), an electoral reform movement, surprised the government when it successfully mobilized thousands of people in the streets on April 28. It was reported to be the biggest rally ever held in Malaysia. But before Bersih, there were several “people power” initiatives that deserve recognition, such as the Occupy Dataran Merdeka, the student march against the “inefficient and exploitative” national school loan program, and the popular indignation against the operation of a rare earth refinery in the town of Kuantan.

Bersih has three demands: the resignation of the Election Commission, the cleaning up of the electoral roll, and the presence of international observers at the general elections. The government claimed that it had already addressed the concerns raised by Bersih, but its response didn’t impress protestors, who were violently dispersed by the police. The fact that Bersih managed to gather a record number of protesters in the streets of Malaysia and in other cities around the world should be placing genuine pressure on the ruling coalition, which has been in power for the past 55 years, to rethink its tactic of nonchalantly dismissing all reform advocates as proxies of the opposition.

Despite the insistence of its leaders that Bersih is nothing more than an electoral reform movement, it has already evolved into a credible and powerful network of citizens who want to remove the nondemocratic aspects of Malaysia’s system of government. In fact, the campers at Occupy Dataran and the student protesters early last month openly advocated the demands of Bersih even though their campaign and activities aren’t directly related to Bersih.

What bound the campers at Occupy Dataran, who simply wished to reclaim the public space where the grassroots can gather and discuss the meaning of transparent governance, and the Bersih participants, was their shared commitment to expose the anti-people and anti-democratic policies of the government. The student protesters who are complaining about excessive fees in the student loan program are similar to young people in the Bersih march who are frustrated with the structural weaknesses of the electoral system. Many students who supported the march for free higher education also joined the Bersih event.

Another outstanding example of citizen protest in Malaysia is the campaign against the operations of Lynas Corporation, an Australian company that was permitted by the government to construct the world’s largest rare earth refinery plant. Residents living near the plant have petitioned the government to stop the operations of Lynas because of safety and health concerns. So far, the government has failed to convince the residents to support the project. Protests have already erupted in Malaysia and even places like Australia to show solidarity with the communities that will be affected and displaced by the controversial investment.

Change is being demanded by a significant constituency that has already emerged in Malaysia. We’ve already seen the manifestos and the tactics of this rising movement in recent weeks, and this force has the potential to influence the results of the general elections this year. This force can become stronger if it can combine the broad appeal of Bersih, the passion of the campers at Occupy Dataran, the youthful idealism of student protesters, and the grassroots initiative of the anti-Lynas campaign.

The question now is whether this force can defeat the battle-tested ruling coalition, which has access to state resources and superior political and election machinery?

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s Dubious Voter Numbers

Malaysian election reform coalition Bersih (Clean), which gathered more than 50,000 people together in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last year, will hold another sit-in protest this weekend in frustration over the failure of the government to implement key electoral reforms. Dubbed Bersih 3.0, the gathering will push for the resignation of Election Commission officials, who are accused of orchestrating a clever cover-up of a fraud prone electoral system.

The assembly is expected to be a major political event despite the insistence of the organizers that it’s not trying to undermine the leadership of the ruling coalition, which has been in power in one form or other for the past 55 years. However, the presence of opposition personalities at the event could further bolster the claim of government supporters that Bersih is an initiative of partisan political forces.

But whatever Bersih’s affiliation with the opposition, whether real or imagined, this shouldn’t weaken the argument that Malaysia’s electoral process needs to be more democratic and transparent in order to avoid the suspicion that voting results can be easily manipulated in favor of administration candidates.

One of Bersih’s demands, which is to clean up the electoral roll, is actually supported by many analysts, who have uncovered inconsistencies in the voter registration database. For example, a surprisingly high 90 percent of ballots cast through the postal voting system have favored the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. Furthermore, 42,000 voters whose status as citizens can’t be verified by the government are still registered.

Since the victory by the opposition in Selangor in 2008, voter registration in that state has increased by 22 percent (more than 340,000 voters) compared to the national average of only 16 percent. Meanwhile, opposition parties are also perplexed by the fact that there are 1,000 people registered to vote who are 100 or older, while one “voter” was apparently born in 1853.

Ong Kian Ming, project director of the Malaysia Electoral Roll Analysis Project, believes that at least 3.4 million cases, or about 27 percent of the electoral roll, need to be validated. He found, for example, that 3.1 million voters have conflicting details for their voting constituencies, and he also questions the 65,455 “foreigners” on the electoral roll, the majority of whom are located in Sabah, a province notorious for giving foreigners fake documentation papers. Finally, he says he wants to probe the removal of 106,743 voters and the registration of 6,762 new voters, which was done without a public announcement last year.

These election numbers are expected to be raised at the Bersih rally this weekend. Hopefully, the government won’t resort to violence again, as it did at last year’s Bersih event. What the government and the Election Commission should instead do is explain the perceived irregularities in the electoral database. And if they can’t defend the statistical anomalies, they must immediately acknowledge the errors and assure the public that all the dirt in the electoral roll will be cleaned before the general elections.

Written for The Diplomat

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