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Constituency redelineation after lowering of voting age

  • Lowering of voting age is only a small step in the country's democratic development; a more crucial reform that should follow is the redelineation of federal constituencies.

By Ooi Tze Howe

The much watched Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2019 to lower voting age to 18 was passed in the Parliament with the unanimous support of parliamentarians on both sides of the political divide.

With the adoption of the bill, young Malaysians can look forward to bigger political right to participate in the country's democratic process.

The work to advance the country's democratic development should not stop just that. The amendment bill also includes automatic voter registration, meaning there will be a dramatic change in the country's electorate population structure.

According to EC statistics, there were 3.8 million eligible Malaysians above the age of 21 who did not register themselves as of September 2017.

In addition, the Statistics Department's figures showed that there were 29 million Malaysians eligible to register as voters in 2018, about 16.8% aged between 15 and 24.

After the Constitution is amended to lower the voting age to 18, there will be approximately 1.46 million people aged between 18 and 20 whose names will be included in the new electoral roll. This means that theoretically the number of voters will be increased by more than five million!

If we were to divide these five million new voters equally among the 222 parliamentary seats, each constituency will see at least 20,360 more eligible voters, or almost the total number of eligible voters in the smallest parliamentary seat on the peninsula, Putrajaya.

Judging from the dramatic changes that will take place, lowering of voting age is only a small step in the country's democratic development. A more crucial reform that should follow is the redelineation of federal constituencies.

As a matter of fact, Malaysia's constituency delineation system, in particular voter distribution system, has been excessively distorted for so long.

The Reid Commission originally specified in the Federal Constitution that the maximum deviation in the numbers of voters for the largest and smallest constituencies in a state was limited to 15% of the average constituency size within the state. Moreover, the ratio of parliamentary seats in a state should approximate the ratio of the state's voter number to that of the nation, so that the “one man, one vote” spirit would be maximized.

Unfortunately, the Alliance (BN) government had never conformed to the 15% limit.

In 1962, the Federal Constitution was amended to expand the deviation to 50%, and in 1973, the BN government once again amended the Constitution to completely abolish the this deviation requirement, in a way that boundaries of constituencies could be redrawn as the election commission wished.

Malaysia is practicing the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system in which a candidate is declared winner even with a single-vote majority.

Under such a system, if we compare Peninsular Malaysia's largest and smallest constituencies, Bangi (with 178,000 voters) and Putrajaya (27,000), we can see a shocking seven-fold disparity. This means that each vote of a Putrajaya voter is seven times as powerful as each vote of a Bangi voter. This is a very serious violation of democratic spirit.

In short, given the sharp increase in the number of voters and unfair delineation of constituencies, the next important thing the Pakatan Harapan government must do is to revert to the specified constitutional framework at the dawn of nationhood.

Nevertheless, this can only be done with amendment to the existing Constitution, and will be a whole lot more difficult than lowering the voting age. This is because any change to the boundaries of the constituencies will affect the political interests of parties on opposite sides of the divide.

While opposition parties will fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo, PH component parties may also take the brunt of race politics that may follow the redelineation. A consensus is extremely unlikely.

To bring about the amendment, in addition to internal integration within PH, the support of East Malaysian parties should also be sought.

One thing that can be done is to include a constitution provision to expand the ratio of parliamentary seats of East Malaysian states (now about 25% at 56 seats) to not lower than 33.3%, which is what East Malaysian states have been fighting for all these years to ensure they have sufficient veto power in constitutional amendment and to allow for more equitable status for East and West Malaysia.

If a compromise can be achieved in this respect, getting the constitutional amendment adopted will no longer be a mission impossible.

(Ooi Tze Howe is Professional Fellow of the US State Department.)

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