IN the watershed 12th Malaysian General Election (GE12) in 2008, opposition parties won 82 of the 222 parliamentary seats and 194 of the 505 state assembly seats.
A Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on Electoral Reform, comprising members of both the opposition and incumbent government, was established in October 2011 to look into: cleaning up the electoral roll; an improved postal ballot system; the use of indelible ink; longer campaign periods; free and fair access to mass media for all parties; the strengthening of public institutions; and an end to corruption.
The PSC tabled its report in April 2012, and the Election Commission agreed to implement seven of the 10 proposals, including the use of indelible ink and the cleaning up of electoral rolls.
In May 2013 for the 13th General Election (GE13), some 13.3 million of the 17.9 million eligible voters were registered to vote.
Of this, 11.3 million decided on the composition of the new Dewan Rakyat (Lower House) and the state assemblies, with the exception of the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, which holds state elections separately.
GE13 was further evidence that Malaysia was firmly on its way towards an electoral democracy.
For the first time in Malaysian history, the opposition even got more popular votes than the ruling coalition, although in the British-legacy, first-past-the-post system, it fell short of obtaining a majority to form Parliament.
Despite claims of abuse of government machinery by the opposition, GE13 further consolidated a political system defined by two parties – the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH), both with strongly institutionalised parties.
In fact, in GE13, opposition parties won 89 out of 222 parliamentary seats at the national level.
The Democratic Action Party (DAP) with 38 seats claimed a very strong position within the Chinese community.
The People’s Justice Party (PKR), with 30 MPs, is more multi-ethnic in outlook and composition compared to the other opposition parties in the country – though it is still perceived to predominantly represent Malays.
The Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS, which won 21 parliamentary seats, claims it has the hearts and minds of the Malay heartland.
Putting things in perspective; the incumbent National Front (BN) government under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak introduced a slew of legal reforms to undo draconian laws and promote political participation and democratic principles among Malaysians.
Najib’s BN government also introduced the new Peaceful Assembly Act that allowed for any form of public assembly without a permit.
New revisions to the Universities and University College Act now permits students to join political parties.
The government later announced that the 1948 Sedition Act would be replaced by the new National Harmony Act and promised greater freedom of expression.
Many forget that in April 2010, Najib’s government was the first to establish the Committee to Promote Inter-Religious Understanding and Harmony to address long-simmering conflicts amongst religious groups.
The long-despised and much abused Internal Security Act (ISA) which was widely used by the previous administration to jail critics and suppress dissent, was repealed and replaced by the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA 2012).
In addition to reforms, the BN government also introduced various programmes addressing the wellbeing of the poorest 40 percent (B40) of the population.
Initiatives under the 1Malaysia initiative which grants free basic medical services; internet centres for the urban poor; subsidies at specific provision stores; subsidised housing; allocating a payment of MYR500 (US$127) to poor households per annum; schooling aid of MYR100 (US$25) to each pupil; as well as a book voucher scheme of MYR250 (US$64) per person for pre-university students and undergraduates are just a few examples of the many targeted programmes in place for the poor.
Under Najib’s administration, greater funding has been allocated to vernacular education, and other community-centric programmes specifically addressing the needs of the Chinese and Tamil community in Malaysia.
As Najib said at the Banyan Tree Leadership Forum in September 2017:
“Let us not forget that Malaysia has the longest and most consistent record as a democracy in Southeast Asia. It is a genuine democracy and no one is guaranteed election, no matter how high their position.
“It is the people who have the final say ― which is how it should be in a democracy.”
* Dr. Sivamurugan Pandian is a Professor in Political Sociology in University Sains Malaysia
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent