“Protests are actually a part of that check and balance. And if you don’t listen to the people, I think they have a right to be on the streets.” That was Maria Chin Abdullah, chairperson of electoral reforms group Bersih 2.0.
Malaysians known enough of the group behind those mass protests that any question today about Bersih has to be about its effectiveness. Academics laud it for encouraging more people to vote opposition. Ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) believe it’s a nuisance. The opposition milks its audience to drive home a political agenda.
This time, however, Bersih is making headlines for taking the Elections Commission (EC) to court over electoral fraud, specifically gerrymandering and malapportionment.
Simply defined, the former means the drawing up of a legislative map that favours a political party or, in this case, the government. The latter, creating electoral districts with divergent ratios of voters to representatives.
The group’s cause is an important one: the redrawing of electoral boundaries can easily grant BN the win it so desperately needs. So in the run up to GE14, Bersih is pushing for voter awareness and also a high turnout at the polls.
Question is, will the group take to the streets to further its cause? Maria speaks to us on the role the group will play in the coming elections.
Our conversion, edited for brevity and clarity, follows.
So people know Bersih 2.0 for its rallies but you are also monitoring delineation exercises. Tell us more about that.
Well, we have been working on delineation exercises since four years ago. It took us a while to learn about it, the technicalities, the constitution and what it entails.
So we put together a training programme, to equip people on identifying the boundaries and where are the violations.
Someone also helped us to digitise the maps, both existing delineated boundaries and the new ones, so now we clearly see where the discrepancies are happening. For example, your roads maybe divided into half like what happened to the Subang parliamentary constituency, where one side is Seri Setia, and the other side is another place.
And slowly, we are seeing more and more people beginning to understand what we have been saying over these four years. That’s why last time we brought up around 30 objections, now we have about 836 objections, and not just in the peninsula.
So 836 multiply by 100 voters, we have had over 80,000 people willing to sign and give their ICs – and you know how Malaysians are with their ICs – and say we are objecting these boundary changes, especially malapportionment and gerrymandering.
I’ll give you a current example. My constitution, Petaling Jaya Utara (PJU) which is under Tony Pua (DAP), made a very strong argument against the EC exercise because it increased the number of voters from 90,000 to 150,000, and renamed PJU as Damansara.
And then you have Sivarasa Rasiah (PKR-Subang) and his constitution which is just next to each other because PJU extends and stops at Tropicana. After that, it is Bandar Utama, Mutiara Damansara, Kota Damansara – all those are called Subang.
But after this exercise, the whole of Bukit Lanjan – meaning Bandar Utama and its surrounding areas – are parked under PJU. That's about 150,000 voters to one MP and three state assemblymen or thereabouts.
So, Sivarasa’s constituency has been reduced from an original three to two state seats – Kota Damansara and Paya Jaras – which also means his voters are reduced to some 70,000. Paya Jaras has an army camp and that was the place he lost because of the introduction of the camp, so the chances of him winning are slim because of this move.
Then Subang is renamed as Sungai Buloh and Sungai Buloh is made up of Paya Jaras and Kota Damansara. The interesting feature about Kota Damansara is that some of the people living in the squatters of Old Klang Road have been transferred to all these high-rise flats.
There are lot of issues there because people are either mainly Umno or PAS supporters – so a hard fight there. Then Kelana Jaya is no more, and that will be called Subang instead. It’s very confusing, right? See what they have done?
Umno and Barisan Nasional usually win on small seats which has less voters, and that's what is happening. So they give you PJU but they take back Subang or, now, it’s Sungai Buloh. They will pack PJU and then crack Subang/Sungai Buloh. That's what they are doing: malapportionment.
As for gerrymandering, your constitution is split into two state seats and PJU is expanded to three state seats. In the end you manage more people but it’s still one seat.
Okay, what does this mean for the average voter? Why should we even bother?
One, your representative – and if we take PJU as an example – has to manage 150,000 as compared to before and even that he is already in a very big constituency.
From 90,000 to some 150,000, what kind of policies do you expect him to come up with? Because he now has so many people making demands and to service constituents, it has to be at a manageable number of people that you really represent those who vote you in.
The other thing is this: the representative is now being determined externally, it’s not by your vote anymore. So while you may want Sivarasa there, the way it has been delineated is that you will not have him as it is already determined not by you the voter, but through this delineation exercise.
Also it's not just PJU and Subang. We found it in Malacca and everywhere else. and we have taken these to court. What went through was about 11 and we lost all of them.
How did you obtain data on all these election problems?
From the electoral roll. Last time you could buy the soft copy, but now what the EC does is provide them for state governments and political parties, so that’s how you are able to analyse the addresses.
Then you send people down to the ground to check, because once you bring these up on the soft copy, you will see one address and several people in that address. So you will send someone to check whether these people are still there or not.
And that's how people discover that a building or house has 100 people or even dead people still “living” there. The EC has said it has cleaned up the roll. But after cleaning up, others appeared again.
Now, however, there is less of this because the EC knows that people are checking. But, it is still packing people into certain areas.
I would say the BN together with the EC are covering all angles. One is the electoral roll, the EC manipulates it. Two, the registration. It is slowing down the process so much that it is disenfranchising the 3.5 million who are not registered. Even registering is a process.
You have to go through a month of whether people object to you, and if they object, you must appear to say what colour is your gate and things like that, and if you miss that, you go back to registering again. You are kicked out and have to redo the whole process, which is ridiculous.
Then the other thing is the army camp. When we exposed that, the camp was not there, but they transferred thousands into that army camp. There was no mention about no army camp and that empty land but EC accepted these thousand over people as rightful people living there, but in an empty land?
Are we talking about Sembrong, Hishammuddin Hussein's seat?
Sembrong, Bera and Segamat.
I mean, the EC is covering all grounds to make sure that a certain party wins and with the first past the post system, it disadvantages a lot of people – small parties as well as the opposition – because it is not about the popular vote anymore.
GE13 showed that you can win as many popular votes but seats count.
So will you take to the streets? I mean, what role will Bersih play during GE14?
Well, taking to the streets is not in our present agenda at the moment. The worry is that people won’t come out to vote, that we won’t hit as high as 83% like GE13.
I think we want to focus on that: to ask people to come out and vote. I know that some people want to boycott the elections. But boycotting at the present moment, given our political situation, means giving the vote to whomever is the incumbent.
And I don’t support boycotts. On my Facebook, I have said I won’t support boycotts because Malaysia is in a unique situation, and we have a unique political situation where we have to demand every voter to come out, vote and stake your claim over your representative.
Even if we don’t get the results we want, we have to show that there is that popular vote that shows the electorate want something different. So there shouldn't be a boycott of elections regardless of how unhappy we are.
In an ideal world, that’s desired. But how do you convince voters, especially young voters, to show up if the opposition themselves are no different from Barisan? The anti-voting group has been saying that there’s no fresh blood, no creativity. These are valid sentiments.
I agree that all these are valid. But is there an alternative? I agree that we could have a better alternative, a fresh hope to give people. But we are not having that, and I don’t see it coming in this next few months.
So what do I do? As a voter, I would still vote. People have to realise that for over 60 years, we have had no change of government. But now it seems that change of government is such a bad thing; it's a taboo to change the government.
Still, the public has to tell the government that change is healthy for the growth of democracy in this country and it's healthy to have fresh ideas. They may not be better than Umno or Barisan, but the opposition has ruled Selangor and Penang, so those are some example of what they can do.
And a change of government will show that it is all about competition. If you lose this time round, it will make the loser do better the next time. That is what we want. So if the opposition is no good, we vote them out. That is the power of the vote.
But if we don’t vote, we will have the present government, because the stakes are all stacked for the present government. So now the question is, what do the people want and what can they do?
The last bastion in terms of democracy is your vote. And you want to give that up? Then there is no hope.
But why should you champion these unpredictable democratic ideals when we are doing economically well?
I believe that is a myth. You can say we have high growth, but look at our debt. How are we going to pay for our debt? And everyone knows that we don’t have the money to pay for our debt.
So you can boast about growth, but can that growth pay for our debt? And it's not hundreds of millions. It's in billions this time round. So how are we paying this debt? That's my question.
And if you look at the recent MEF statement that 50,000 people are going to be retrenched this year – that's a warning sign already that your growth is not working. Manufacturing is the backbone of this economy and that sector is retrenching 50,000 people – that's serious.
Okay, you can say that its automation but automation has been in for years. Surely you would have adjusted.
Felda is also something of a concern. If you are growing, why is Felda in such a situation? You should be able to resolve that. But it’s just not about mismanagement. Growth figures can be manipulated but it still doesn’t answer our debt problem.
Now, for the record, define an independent EC.
First, they should not be under the PMO. If you look at India's model, it is really independent: it has its own budget, even though it draws from the national budget, and it manages its own budget.
And it's really about a culture, the commission must have the principles that it is going to be independent and brave enough to say what other people don’t like to hear and do what other people don’t like it doing.
So I had this conversation with the former EC chair of India, and he told they have a million over staff to run the elections and even that one person who is a very remote area, the commission will actually send people to make sure this person registers and votes.
It doesn’t matter where you are, it will actually try to reach as many people to increase the voting percentage. That’s one thing.
The other is to make sure that everybody understands what it means to vote and where to vote. Gerrymandering and apportionment may still be there, but at least it is not done in such a way as to give a clear advantage as what is being done in Malaysia.
I’m not saying you can have zero gerrymandering and malapportionment, but you can’t do it because you want one party to win in the next election. Then you are rigging the election results.
That's the objection Bersih has over this redeliniation. It is not about voters' right to determine the representative when you do this. You, as the EC, has taken a biased stand and has done whatever in your powers to actually manipulate the elections.
Let's talk about Bersih as an organisation. How non-partisan are you?
What are the issues we are fighting for? It’s electoral reform, clean and fair elections and also human rights – the rights for expression and assembly. And anybody who believes in what we are fighting for can join us.
Every rally, we also send out invites to political parties, including BN, and they do reply – that’s the beauty of it. So we do send them out, we seriously do, but they don't come. Of course, the opposition will come, and we have no problem with that because they are also voters, and if voters support our cause, why not?
And you don’t fight with allies. For me, if you want your cause to come through, you don’t fight with your allies.
That said, will Bersih still be that check and balance if the opposition comes to power? These are your allies, after all.
Definitely. It doesn’t mean that if they come into power, they will not do what the Barisan government does, so there is still a need for check and balance in civil society. In fact, the role will even be bigger because the expectation is for them to bring in the reforms.
And what do we mean by reforms? An independent EC with its own budget and power. It must have a say over how elections are run.
Curious, do you think the exclusion of PAS from Pakatan Harapan had a negative affect on your rallies?
No, I don’t think so. Because if you consider Bersih 4, that didn’t affect us. People still came and we still had Malay supporters. Not in big numbers, definitely. But even if you look at PAS, their numbers aren’t that big either.
Previously in the last three rallies – 2006, 2011 and 2012 – yes, we depended on PAS for security. They came and they mobilised. This time round, we had to do the mobilising.
And while it didn’t reach a wider Malay audience, Bersih 4 gave a different impact, in the sense that this was the biggest rally we’ve had and it was an overnight one. But, yes, it’s a pity PAS took that position but it brought out other supporters to us.
Then you have Bersih 5, which was a testing ground of whether we could still reach out to people and we proved we were able to. Otherwise our convoy wouldn’t have gained that kind of momentum despite the likes of Jamal Yunos and the red shirts fighting with us along the way.
But, you know, we didn’t have any incidences in Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang. Jamal and his group only attacked us mainly in Selangor and Johor. The other states, namely Penang and Kedah, there were a bit. In Penang, it wasn’t quite an incident because they turned in motorbikes but didn’t disturb us.
I mean for people to turn and dare to show up despite knowing that we will be meeting up with the red shirts is a brave thing to do. And these are ordinary people. We are not talking about the activists who were there, but ordinary people who were brave enough to say they weren’t afraid.
Right, and my last question to wrap this up: you have a lot of women participating in civil society but that representation doesn’t translate into politics. We don’t see that many women in Parliament. Why?
It’s mainly because of the political parties themselves. It is still a very patriarchal kind of organisation in each party, and this includes the opposition as well. They are not interested to have women standing, in my opinion, and this is both sides of the divide.
Of course, DAP and others say they do try and it is in their constitution, but you have to show the numbers. And you cannot have new faces to run against giants. How do you expect these women to win?
Also they don’t provide specific training for women to give them that confidence, the understanding and the resources to compete. So of course you will not see the results, and that most of the seats are dominated by men? They are not going to give way to women.
Unless we are talking about what is known as mixed proportional representation, because our numbers are low.
For me, the merit argument for me holds no water because we have so called been going on merit but it didn’t give us the numbers by way of female representation. So how do you slightly fast forward this is to give them that advantage to actually take up candidacy and possibly win?
That has to be done and only then, we will have an equal sharing of powers. But at the moment I don’t think the political parties are willing to allow women to share power.
I have trained women as candidates, and they tell me the same thing: it's hard to even ask to be candidate because there are no seats. How can there be no seats? Those who are not functioning should be removed, seriously.
There are lot of MPs and state assemblymen who are not functioning and I don’t know why they are being kept there, but they should be removed and replaced not by just any women, but capable ones.
After all, if they don’t pull their weight, vote them out. It is still by voting system.
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