There is a strong case for change in our electoral system. | Source: The Star

Instead of packing to migrate overseas or to the jungle, Matthew Yap defies our Home Minister’s orders and suggests various possible alternatives to our electoral system.

Our new Home Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has recently made remarks that are criticised by many quarters as anathema to national unity. This was what he said:

“If this group wants to accept the list system or the single transferable vote system as what is practised in republics, then they should migrate to such countries to practise their political beliefs,”[1]

He then defended those statements by contending that:

“I actually said those who are not confident of our political system to berhijrah to countries with political systems that suited them.”[2]

His rationale behind those statements is that since Malaysia inherited the Commonwealth system, those advocating for a different electoral system such as in the United States or otherwise should migrate there.[3] After heeding his advice by reading those words ‘in context’ and the full report by Utusan Malaysia,[4] I must say that reading them as inciting racial discontents seems to stretch those words a bit. Nevertheless, he is quite adamant that the British-rooted ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system is beyond challenge. I seek to argue that his arguments and reasoning are flawed and there is a strong case for change in our electoral system.

The first point I intend to make is, on what basis can he say that the Commonwealth system adopts the FPTP system? It is common knowledge that many Commonwealth countries have abandoned the FPTP system and replaced it with non-FPTP majoritarian voting systems or proportional voting systems. For example, in Australia, members of the Australian House of Representatives are elected by the preferential voting system[5]. This is how it works:

Let us imagine a ballot paper in Permatang Pauh. Under the preferential voting system, voters cast their votes by means of preference:

(1) Datuk Seri Anwar bin Ibrahim (PKR) 1
(2) Abdullah Zawawi bin Samsudin (Bebas) 2
(3) Mazlan bin Ismail (BN) 3


As Datuk Seri Anwar bin Ibrahim was given a number 1 preference, that vote would be counted for him. This applies to all other ballot papers where all of the number ‘1’ votes are counted for each candidate. In the event that Datuk Seri Anwar bin Ibrahim secured more than 50% of votes, he would be elected as MP for Permatang Pauh. However, if none of the candidates secured more than 50% votes (let us say Datuk Seri Anwar bin Ibrahim has 40% number 1 votes; Abdullah Zawawi bin Samsudin has 35% number 1 votes; and Mazlan bin Ismail has 25% number 1 votes), then the candidate with the fewest votes (i.e. Mazlan bin Ismail) would be excluded and his 25% votes would be transferred to other candidates. Votes would then be allocated to the remaining candidates based on the number 2 preference and the process will continue until one candidate secures more than 50% votes.

The advantage of the preferential voting system compared to the FPTP is that every single elected MP will have a clear mandate of more than 50%. Unlike the position in Malaysia, where the FPTP system used in GE13 has returned nine MPs with less than 50% of popular votes. [6] For example, in Cameron Highlands (P78), the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, G. Palanivel was elected to that constituency despite 51.96% of voters not votingfor him. Such a problem in the FPTP system will arise when a particular constituency is contested by more than two candidates, as occurred in those nine parliamentary seats. In GE13, 90 parliamentary seats were contested by more than two candidates. If the other 81 MPs had not attained a significantly large majority in GE13, there would be more MPs who were elected with less than 50% of the popular vote. An extreme scenario can be seen in the last UK general elections where 433 MPs (66.77%) were voted into the Commons with less than 50% votes.[7]

More examples of Commonwealth states that have abandoned the FPTP system can be given. In India, although the House of People (Lok Sabha) adopts the FPTP system,[8] 233 out of the 245 members in the upper chamber, the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), are elected by members of the State Legislative Assembly through the STV.[9] The party list system is used in the National Assembly of South Africa[10] and the Sri Lankan Parliament.[11] In Hong Kong, a mixture of voting systems is adopted, e.g. 30 Geographical Constituencies are returned by the list system of proportional representation;[12] 24 ordinary Functional Constituencies adopt the FPTP system;[13] 1 District Council (Second) Functional Constituency applies the list system of proportional representation[14] and 4 Special Functional Constituencies use the preferential elimination system of voting.[15] These examples show that the connection between FPTP and Commonwealth countries is tenuous. It also reveals the fact that states with a constitutional monarchy such as Australia and New Zealand[16] need not operate an electoral system based on the FPTP.

My second point is this: It is a shame for the Minister to tell Malaysians to migrate to other countries in order to practise their political beliefs when reforms can and should be considered. In the UK, despite opposition by the Conservative Party and the Labour Party (who currently dominate 94% of seats in the Commons) on electoral reform, an Alternative Vote referendum was held on 5th May 2011.[17] The proposal for electoral reform was defeated but were the 6,152,607 people who voted for the proposal told to leave the UK? In a country that respects minority and opposing views such as the UK, the Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, would not have told the British people to migrate to the United States just because they opposed the FPTP system.

There is a strong case for change in our electoral system. | Source: The Star

Thirdly, the Minister also said this in his article to Utusan Malaysia:

“Jika benar setia kepada negara kena terima sistem politik yang membentuk kerajaan sedia ada kerana sudah termaktub dalam Perlembagaan Persekutuan.”[18]

If that’s the case, then why has the Federal Constitution been amended by the BN Government more than 600 times since Merdeka Day?[19] If the Federal Constitution has been amended before, there is no reason we cannot amend the Federal Constitution to adopt an electoral system that is more fair, just and proportionate. In addition, the Federal Constitution does not explicitly mention that Malaysia must adopt the FPTP system in parliamentary elections. The true legal basis of the FPTP system derives from section 13 (1) of the Elections Act 1958 (revised 1970). There is no reason why that section cannot be amended for the purpose of having a better electoral system when Parliament has the power to amend federal laws. In support of such a view, the Federal Court in the controversial decision of PP v Kok Wah Kuan (I must qualify that I have much reservations on this decision) has held that:

“…in determining the constitutionality or otherwise of a statute under our Constitution by the court of law, it is the provision of our Constitution that matters, not a political theory by some thinkers.” [20]

In other words, amending section 13(1) to include alternative voting systems would not be unconstitutional even though it is against the Westminster model of government.

From a long-term perspective, electoral reforms should be considered. The current status quo is unsatisfactory as the BN government does not have a clear mandate from the electorate.[21] This is significant as the current government’s legitimacy is doubtful. Under legal terms, it is true to say that BN has a simple majority in Parliament. However, looking from a political perspective, it apparently holds a ‘technical’ majority which does not command the support of the masses. It is my view that such a status quo will continue throughout subsequent elections if we continue to use the FPTP system under circumstances when constituencies are drawn arbitrarily.

In my view, the preferential voting system adopted by the Australian House of Representatives is a good alternative. The voting method is easy and intelligible to every Malaysian. If there was a case for electoral reform, I would suggest that we should adopt this voting system instead of the FPTP system. What about other proportional voting systems? The STV system is complex in terms of voting and counting the votes, and I personally think it would be difficult for Malaysians to understand how it works at this stage. On the other hand, the party list system, especially a closed list system, would allow political parties to have too much control over the candidates who would serve in the Dewan Rakyat.

It is fair to say that matters such as gerrymandering, vote buying, electoral fraud, indelible ink, etc are more pressing, thus requiring greater attention for the time being. However, the case to reform our electoral system remains compelling. Above all, electoral reform will not damage our constitutional traditions. The following quote from Vernon Bogdanor, an eminent British constitutional scholar well expresses the point I’m trying to make:

“…proportional representation in New Zealand (New Zealand abandoned the FPTP system in 1996) has proved perfectly compatible with that country’s traditional political institutions.”[22]

As such, I would strongly urge the government to establish a Royal Commission, just as how the UK Government has established the Jenkins Commission on the Voting System, to make further considerations on these matters. That should be the proper and mature way of dealing with such issues rather than just telling people to migrate to other countries or to move into the jungle.

[1] Clara Chooi, ‘Not wrong to question BN’s ‘minority’ rule, Guan Eng tells Zahid Hamidi’, The Malaysian Insider (21 May 2013) <> accessed 22 May 2013

[2] Farik Zolkepli, ‘Ahmad Zahid: My statement in Utusan not racist, just practical’, The Star (18 May 2013) < > accessed 22 may 2013

[3] Ibid

[4] Datuk Seri Dr Abdul Zahid Hamidi, ‘Hijrah ke negara republik jika enggan terima sistem negara – Zahid Hamidi’, Utusan Malaysia (17 May 2013) <—-Zahid-Hamidi > accessed 22 May 2013

[5] Australian Electoral Commission, ‘How the House of Representatives votes are counted’ <> accessed 22 May 2013

[6] P9 – Alor Setar (48.31%); P78 – Cameron Highlands (48.04%); P113 – Sepang (49.88%); P168 – Kota Marudu (47.16%); P180 – Keningau (44.50%); P181 – Tenom (48.18%); P182 – Pensiangan (45.31%); P192 – Mas Gading (41.06%); P220 – Baram (49.49%)

[7] Electoral Reform Society, ‘The UK General Election 2010: Facts & Figures’ (6 May 2010) <> accessed 23 May 2013

[8] Dr M.S. Gill, ‘The Electoral System in India’ (Election Commission of India) <>  accessed 22 May 2013, p 13

[9] Ibid, p 14; The Australian Senate also uses the STV.

[10] Electoral Act 73 of 1998 (South Africa), s. 57A and Sch 1A

[11] The Parliament of Sri Lanka, ‘The Electoral System’ <> accessed 22 May 2013; see also The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Art. 99

[12] Cap 542 Legislative Council Ordinance (Hong Kong), s. 49 (2)

[13] Ibid, s. 51 (2)

[14] Ibid, s. 49 (2)

[15] Ibid, s. 50 (2)

[16] New Zealand reformed its electoral system from FPTP to mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in 1996.

[17] Electoral Commission, ‘News release: First UK-wide referendum in over 35 years delivers a “No” to changing the UK Parliament voting system’ <>  accessed 22 May 2013

[18] Datuk Seri Dr Abdul Zahid Hamidi, ‘Hijrah ke negara republik jika enggan terima sistem negara – Zahid Hamidi’, Utusan Malaysia (17 May 2013) <—-Zahid-Hamidi > accessed 22 May 2013

[19] Martin Vengadesan, ‘Defending our chart and compass’, The Star (29 June 2008) <> accessed 22 May 2013

[20] [2008] 1 MLJ 1, [18]

[21] BN only received 46.5% popular vote whereas PR received

[22] Vernon Bogdanor, The Coalition and the Constitution (Hart Publishing 2011) p. 23

I am currently a law graduate from the University of Leeds and will soon be commencing my BPTC in Newcastle. I like to comment on legal and political issues and I find them quite interesting, and also...

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