That the resolve of a bunch of youth to spoil their votes in the coming general election is not lost on many Malaysians. Thanks to the power of a hashtag – #UndiRosak – and the childish responses from both sides of the political divide.
But the phenomenon of spoilt votes is not new. During the 13th general election (GE) there were 332,297 spoilt ballots, and that was a 2.5 percentage-point increase from GE12. Look through the records of elections past and spoilt votes will crop up.
Unique to GE13 were those handful of seats won – there were either more spoilt votes than the majority or the majority was slightly higher than the number of spoilt votes. Let’s take parliamentary seats as a case study:
From the outset, even if all these spoilt votes in BN-won seats were converted into actual votes for the opposition, leading to an opposition victory, the ruling government would still hold onto parliament albeit with an even slimmer majority.
Some have attempted to explain this spoilt-victory parade. The latest being Rama Ramanathan, a member of the Bersih 2.0 steering committee, who believes that spoilt votes are a “protective measure” frequently adopted by Barisan Nasional (BN).
Looking at the abovementioned list, it is easy to agree with his analysis. For example, Ketereh, Cameron Highlands, Segamat, and Bentong were won by the coalition’s heavyweights, or former in the case of Cameron Highlands. But then one has to explain the opposition-won seats and those spoilt votes there.
There’s certainly a lack of a proper analysis as to why these votes were spoilt. According to Paca (the acronym for polling agent and counting agent) training materials, there are some 22 examples of ballot papers which will be rejected at the counting stage because they have “dirt” in addition to the voter’s choice.
And these organisations believe that “dirt” is usually added by the ballot clerk before giving it to the voter to choose his/her candidate. The term dirt is used because it is how the clerk will explain when questioned.
But this is just civil society speak. A more reasonable answer as to the GE13 phenomenon would be the quality of the indelible ink used. The Election Commission (EC) even admitted after its post-mortem session that the indelible ink washes off easily, dries too slowly and stains ballot papers, thus contributing to higher spoilt votes.
One thing is clear though: it doesn’t take a huge number of spoilt votes to swing the results either way. And because a huge number of spoilt-vote seats were won by Barisan, it’s understandable why the opposition is anxious at the thought of a concerted effort to spoil votes.
But a deep dive into some of these constituencies brought out more interesting findings
Four publicly available reports were canvassed to get a better understanding on the goings-on during election period. They are:
- An Election Observation Report for GE13: Clean and Fair by Pemantau/Bersih 2.0
- Findings of the People’s Tribunal on Malaysia’s 13th General Elections by Bersih 2.0
- GE-13: Election Watch Report by Merdeka Centre
- Was GE13 Free and Fair? An Interim Observation Report on Malaysia’s 13th General Election by Centre for Public Policy Studies and IDEAS
Findings are aggregated below with references made to the reports using the abbreviations B2, B-PT, MC and C-I, respectively.
MC: On April 26, Pakatan Rakyat representatives were spotted giving out daily needs such as rice, sugar and milk to the people.
C-I: The situation at the final tallying centre almost went out of control as DAP supporters started blocking an unauthorised vehicle from entering the centre.
B-PT: Ramakrishnan Suppiah, the DAP candidate, said he found two booklets, without the name of publisher or author, in Malay houses and kampungs. One “DAP RASIS” contained racist inflammatory propaganda including “DAP insults Malays”.
C-I: some observers were denied entry into polling centres. These included observers in Machang, Kangar, Lembah Pantai, Bukit Katil, Batu and Segambut. Observers in Selangor were only allowed to observe the voting process in certain polling streams, and were not allowed to move around the polling centre.
MC: there was an individual wearing a shirt associated with PKR and PAS around the polling stations.
B2: nomination centres that had barbed and dannert wires.
C-I: a political party agent was canvassing for votes during early voting process inside polling centre.
MC: closing time was delayed because voters were still arriving to vote.
B-PT: Abdul Aziz Kadir filed an Elections Petition to declare the results void on grounds of:
- doubt or discrepancies arising from Form 14 and actual number of ballot papers in ballot box
- doubt or discrepancies arising from postal vote and advance vote
- breach of Section 4(d)(offence by an election officer in wilfully preventing any person from voting at the polling station) and 32(b) of the Election Offences Act 1954
- fraud in not using the proper indelible ink.
MC: at SRJK(C) Tiram, an observer heard a voter complaining that his name disappeared from the current electoral roll despite having voted at this polling centre in 2008. At the same polling centre, only two counters available (computer and register books). There were voters that had to queue more than one hour.
B-PT: Alfian Zohri Mohd Tahir, a former journalist with Free Malaysia Today, said he saw three banners with inflammatory content in Tebrau apparently created with the intention to incite violence. They said things like, “A vote for DAP is a vote for PAS and an Islamic state”.
C-I: observers were given a leaflet entitled “DAP Rasis” by activists at an Umno Operations Room.
MC: at SK Alor Pongsu, 9am, there were tensions outside the polling station when an “aunt” or elderly woman was not satisfied with the EC’s management for waiting too long to cast votes. Also election supervisor did not allow observer to be near the polling stream. They were allowed to remain at EC’s booth (Barung) - Sek. Men. Keb Alang Iskandar Bagan Serai.
MC: at 8:45am, a BN supporter entered the restricted zone wearing blue shirt with BN written on it while holding a camera. No enforcement action by security officials but there was no chaos as well.
There was existence of campaigning element on polling day. At 9:05am, free mineral water was given out to BN supporters with BN logo written on the bottles.
At one of the polling stations, SK Taman Sri Sinar, a Pakistani who has two ICs (old and new) tried to vote. He was detained by the police and taken to the nearest station. And at another polling station, SMK Buloh Kasap, only Pakatan Rakyat’s counting agent was present.
B-PT: at SK Kilugus, a polling agent was seen to be using an umbrella with the BN logo at the polling centre. Leaflets and booklets containing allegations against PKR’s Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan Rakyat candidate Lajin Okin were also observed to be made available everywhere on polling day.
C-I: Tabung Ekonomi Kumpulan Usaha Niaga (Tekun), a unit within the Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Ministry, hosted a concert. The event was used to “introduce” the VN parliamentary candidate for Cameron Highlands while concert attendees were seen receiving TV sets and kitchen appliances.
B-PT: Zainal Kaptar, a voter, testified he received RM20 from the BN candidates through the village head.
A certain Norman a/l Kong, an Orang Asli, said the community was told if they did not vote for BN, the government would withdraw free education and hospital services provided.
He said he was afraid to vote opposition as he could not risk being singled out as an opposition supporter, due to the community’s dependence on these services including the free helicopter services for emergency treatment in city hospitals. Another Yok Bim Yok Tihang gave a similar testimony.
B2: on May 2, three days before the general election, PAS candidate Nasrudin Hassan found a plastic bag filled with chicken head and blood thrown into the porch of his house. A note, “Take this pig’s blood”, was found in the bag.
B-PT: the opening hours were cut short to three, from 8am to 11am. One witness, Roland Engan, said the polling station was closed sharp 11am despite the long queue and some electors had already had their names verified on the register.
B-PT: voters in Sekinchan were treated to dinner and a lucky draw at an event titled “Kita Undi BN” (“We Vote BN”) at a restaurant. The lucky draw prizes included bicycles.
This exercise points to problems larger than a bunch of youth wanting to spoil their votes
One thing that stood out while compiling this list is: most of the “spoiler” seats came from either rural or semi-urban areas. Two problems are apparent here and this is symptomatic of Malaysian elections in general.
First, the Election Commission and its handling of the elections needs to be reviewed. It has been subservient to Umno as early as 1962, during Tunku Abdul Rahman’s leadership, when a constitutional amendment was made requiring the commission to submit recommendations on delineation of electorates to the prime minister, who was then free to make any amendments he saw fit, subject to subsequent approval by parliament.
John Funston, a visiting fellow at the Australia National University, observed this “was used to ensure Umno interests were given priority in later electoral revisions.”
And rightfully so. One of the most outrageous acts of the commission was carving out an entirely new constituency, Putrajaya, in 2002. This was done under the leadership of Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, who is now vice-president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the Umno splinter group led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Then there’s also the competence and transparency of the commission, from its use of funds to the counting of votes. It seems the entire electoral process is not taken seriously. Just thumb through any of the four reports cited earlier and this bit is very much clear. Question is, where does one begin?
Second, no one is talking about reaching a wide-spectrum of voters. Bersih to its credit has mooted moving away from the first-past-the-post system towards proportional representation and has been pushing for voters to show up at GE14.
But reforms should also deal with culture and power structures. For example, in India and Brazil, there’s a correlation between voter-education among the poor and illiterate and politicians’ behaviour.
Some of these changes can come by simplifying voting procedures. In Brazil, until the late 1990s, voters had to write their candidate’s name or electoral number on the ballot. These days, they need only type a candidate’s number on a voting machine the size of a cash register and confirm their choice after seeing a photograph. It’s believed that these machines cut the share of spoilt votes from 23% to 11%.
Researchers from Princeton University also studied the phased introduction of voting machines and their effects on healthcare spending and found that regions where they were being used spent more than those yet to make the switch. They concluded that by making the votes of the poor to count, the machines encouraged politicians to cater to the concerns of the electorate.
And this sort of attitudinal change is observed in developing countries with a sizeable urban poor population. In Benin, where it is the norm to distribute cash and promises of patronage during campaign rallies. Electoral watchdogs found that holding town-hall meetings instead cut clientelism among voters.
As for India, a 2011 paper found that the country’s political parties are more likely to field candidates who face criminal allegations in districts where illiteracy rates are higher, and such candidates depress turnout. According to those researchers, shady politicians prefer to stand where it is easier to intimidate opponents’ supporters away from voting.
All these somehow dovetail with all the findings on GE13. In Malaysia’s case, some 6% of the adult population are illiterate. Who are these people and how many of them are voters? Then there are all those talks about vote-buying and promises and even threats among the rural folk and the urban poor.
Look, not too long ago, Maryam Lee, one of the more vocal spoilt-vote activists, was hurled abuses for her cause. The media ran her story, civil society was quick to defend her, and even ordinary Malaysians rallied to her cause.
But regardless of the threats and abuses, should GE14 be called tomorrow, Maryam will still be able to make her stand, have her job and live to dissent another day.
Then there’s Norman the Orang Asli, who very well knows the problems in his constituency and country and believes he should reflect that dissent at the ballot box.
But he has been told that voting for the opposition may lead to serious ramifications that threatens the livelihood of him, his family and his community. His freedom of expression is curtailed and so is his right as a citizen. So much for electoral reforms and spoilt votes, eh?