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Malaysia’s electoral system



FREE and fair elections are essential to a democratic system of governance. Citizens have the right to choose who they want to govern them, and elections are a way for voters to hold those they elect accountable.

Malaysians choose representatives for two levels of governance – Members of Parliament (MPs) at the federal level and state assemblypersons in the state legislative assemblies.

Under the constitution, the maximum term of the Dewan Rakyat is five years, after which it is automatically dissolved and elections are held. Usually, the Dewan Rakyat is dissolved before its five-year term is complete. This happens when the prime minister advises the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA) to dissolve Parliament, and the YDPA decides to do so.

Once Parliament is dissolved, a general election must be held within 60 days.

How do elections take place?

The Election Commission (EC) runs the election process. Under the constitution, the primary function of the EC is to conduct elections to the Dewan Rakyat and the state legislative assemblies. The EC also prepares and revises the electoral roll for elections. It is also further responsible for reviewing the division of constituencies and recommending changes. The EC should be a nonpartisan entity.

Upon dissolution of Parliament, the EC issues writs to the returning officer of each of the 222 constituencies to hold an election. The returning officer is an officer selected by the EC to run the election process in a particular constituency. The EC then publishes a notice of the writ in the Government Gazette setting a date for nomination and a date for polling.

On nomination day, anyone who wants to stand for election can file nomination papers with a constituency’s returning officer. Candidates must also pay a RM10,000 deposit if they want to contest a Dewan Rakyat seat. Objections to a candidate can be made during a specified time on nomination day, and the returning officer makes a decision on the objection.

At the close of the nomination process, if there is only one candidate nominated for the constituency, the returning officer will declare that candidate to be elected to the Dewan Rakyat. If there is more than one candidate nominated for the constituency, the returning officer will declare that a poll must be taken.

Once the nomination process is completed, the campaign period begins and continues until the eve of polling day. On polling day, voters cast their votes at various polling stations. At the close of polling, the votes are counted and the candidate with the most votes is the new MP. This is the first-past-the-post system. MPs are elected based on the highest number of votes obtained, even if the number of people who voted for them does not represent the majority of voters in a constituency; for example, when there are more than two candidates contesting, or when voter turnout is low.

A ballot box at the entrance of the Election Commission

A ballot box at the entrance of the Election Commission

What is the difference between a by-election and a general election?

A general election occurs when the Dewan Rakyat is dissolved and elections take place to elect MPs for each of the 222 constituencies in the country. A by-election occurs when a particular seat in the Dewan Rakyat becomes vacant.

Such a vacancy can occur when:

an MP dies;
• an MP is disqualified from being a member of the Dewan Rakyat;
• a seat is declared vacant because the MP has been absent from every sitting of the Dewan Rakyat for a period of six month months without leave of the Dewan Rakyat, and the members of the Dewan Rakyat have decided to declare the seat vacant.

Are there an equal number of MPs from each state/ territory in the Dewan Rakyat?

No. The constitution provides that the number of MPs for each state and federal territory shall be as follows:

State/ Federal Territory Number of MPs
Perlis 3
Perak 24
Penang 13
Kedah 15
Selangor 22
Negeri Sembilan 8
Kelantan 14
Terengganu 8
Pahang 14
Melaka 6
Sabah 25
Sarawak 31
Johor 26
Kuala Lumpur 11
Putrajaya 1
Labuan 1
Total 222


Any Malaysian living in Malaysia who is at least 21 years old can take part in an election to become an MP. There are also factors that disqualify a person from standing for elections and from being an MP. These are:

persons of unsound mind;
undischarged bankrupts;
anyone who holds a public office for profit;
anyone who fails to lodge a return of election expenses as required under law;
anyone convicted of an offence in Malaysia and sentenced to a jail term of not less than one year, or a fine of not less than RM2,000. Disqualification ceases after five years from the date the person is released from custody, or when the person’s fine is paid or if the person is given a free pardon;
anyone who voluntarily acquires citizenship of another country.

The constitution also does not allow a person to be an MP and a senator at the same time. But it does allow a candidate to contest a parliamentary seat and a state seat concurrently.

Must a person belong to a particular political party to stand for election to be an MP?

No. Candidates who do not belong to any particular party are known as independent candidates.

How are senators chosen?

Any Malaysian living in Malaysia who is at least 30 years old can become a senator. A senator is appointed for a three-year term and each senator can only serve two terms. Except for the minimum age, the criteria for a person to be appointed as senator are the same as that for being an MP.

The Dewan Negara consists of 70 senators, of which 44 are appointed by the YDPA. Of these, the YDPA appoints two to represent the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, one for the Federal Territory of Labuan, and one for the Federal Territory of Putrajaya.

In appointing the 44 senators, the YDPA shall select persons who, in the monarch’s opinion, have rendered distinguished public service or have achieved distinction in commerce, industry, agriculture, cultural activities or social service, or are representatives of racial minorities, or are capable of representing aboriginal interests.

The remaining 26 senators are appointed by the 13 state legislative assemblies, with each appointing two members. The constitution does state that Parliament can provide for the 26 senators to be directly elected by voters instead. However, Parliament has not provided for this to happen.

People queuing to cast their votes during the 2009 by-election in Kuala Terengganu

Who is eligible to vote in Malaysia?

a Malaysian citizen;
at least 21 years of age;
on the electoral roll, which means that the person must register to be a voter with the EC;
a resident in the constituency in which the person wants to vote, or is an absent voter (see below for definition of “absent voter”).

A person may be disqualified from voting if he or she:

is detained as a person of unsound mind;
is serving a jail sentence; or
was convicted in any part of the Commonwealth of an offence and was sentenced to death or imprisonment for more than 12 months, and has not served out this sentence.

What is an “absent voter”?

Under the law, an “absent voter” is a citizen of at least 21 years of age who is:

a serving member of the naval, military or air force of Malaysia, the Commonwealth or any other country;
in the public service of Malaysia or any state who is on duty outside Malaysia;
engaged in full-time studies at any university, training college or higher educational institution outside Malaysia;
the spouse of any of the above, who is living with his or her husband or wife outside Malaysia.

An absent voter is entitled to vote as a postal voter. [1]

Are there other categories of people entitled to vote as postal voters?

Yes. These are members of the police force, members of the EC, and election officers who are on duty on polling day.

Can the outcome of an election be challenged?

Election results can be challenged by presenting an election petition to the High Court on particular grounds, such as:

bribery, intimidation or any misconduct that affects the result of the elections;
violation of election laws and regulations which affects the result of the elections;
corrupt or illegal practice committed by the candidates or their agents;
the candidate is found to be disqualified from contesting.

The election petition can be presented to the High Court within 21 days after publication of the election results in the Gazette. If the judge decides the elections to be void, the EC will give notice of a fresh election for the constituency concerned.

[1] Update: The EC has broadened the definition of voters who can vote by post through regulations gazetted on 21 Jan 2013. Malaysians residing abroad may now vote by post on the following three conditions: that they first be registered voters; have been in Malaysia for not less than 30 days in the last five years before the dissolution of Parliament and the state legislative assemblies; and are residing abroad. This however, does not apply to voters living in Southern Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and Kalimantan. Additionally, media professionals are also now eligible to cast postal votes.

This essay first appeared exclusively in Understanding the Dewan Rakyat, together with other analyses on how our government works. The book also contains the profiles of the current 222 MPs and how they and their parties would vote on key issues of democracy. The book was launched by Speaker of the House Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia at the Dewan Rakyat on 23 March 2011. It is available at PusatLoyarBurok.

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14 Responses to “Malaysia’s electoral system”

  1. ellese says:

    Good straight facts. What the public is unaware of and which causes unnecessary misconception is the polling process. From the registration until the polling and the right to object. The public is wholly misinformed on this. Do a matter of fact reporting like this without spinning, please.

    • JW Tan says:

      Unbiased reporting is a myth. There’s only reporting bias that fits your own, and reporting bias that doesn’t. ‘Spin’ is your shorthand for the latter.

      For facts, you can consult Wikipedia. Sometimes other places group facts in convenient packages – like this essay.

  2. Many Malaysians are upset with the ruling party. Unhappy with the system. Disgusted by the corruption and abuse of power. However, not as many have registered to vote. Not as many think that their vote can make a difference.

    No Malaysian should think that he or she is too small to contribute. One vote is never too little to make a difference. We must stand up for what we believe in. This is our country. Our home for us and our next generations. Let’s all of us make a small favour to this country and vote wisely in this coming general election. Let’s make Malaysia great again!

    • Kong Kek Kuat says:

      @ Happily Speaking

      You left out “racist” and “Malayish chauvinist”.

      I wonder what the other non-Melayu BN lackeys have to say about this:

      A-nak ke-cil ma-in a-pi,
      Terba-kar hati-nya yang sepi,
      Ai-r ma-ta da-rah bercamp-ur keringat,
      Bumi di-pijak milik o-rang.

      Ne-nek moyang kaya ra-ya,
      Tergadai sluruh harta benda,
      Akhibat seng-keta sesam-a ki-ta,
      Kita le-nyap di arus zaman.

      Indahnya bumi ki-ta i-ni,
      Wa-risan berkurun lama-nya,
      Hasil me-nga-lir ke ta-ngan yang la-in,
      Pribumi merintih sendiri.

      Ma-sa depan sungguh ge-lap,
      Kan lenyap pristiwa sema-lam,
      Tertutup-lah hati, terkunc-i ma-ti,
      Maruah pe-ri-badi dah hi-lang.

      Ki-ni kita cuma tinggal kuasa,
      Yang a-kan menentukan bangs-a,
      Bersatulah hati, bersama berbakti,
      Pulih kem-bali harga diri.

      Ki-ta sudah tiada ma-sa,
      Maju-lah dengan maha PERKASA,
      Janganlah terlalai, teruskan usaha,
      Melayu kan gagah di Nusan-tara,
      Melayu kan gagah di Nusan-tara,
      Melayu kan gagah di Nusan-tara.

      I wonder what the Indonesians and Bruneians have to say about this.

      Hidup UMNO! (Lembu dan condo!)
      Hidup Melayu! (Melayu siapa!? Anak saya!)
      Hidup Malaysia! (Kita sapu semua!)

    • Aero says:

      A regular Joe with no political inclination would really wonder what sort of mockery you are implying. Now what factors drive people of strange conscience to be anti-government?

      “Taxpayers’ money” insinuating issue? One thing we have to realize is that the government does not rely solely on the rakyat’s money to survive. There are import export, economic reforms, loads of other means to collect revenue. When an opposition party harps on taxpayers’ money, I can only conclude that these very people are only viewing things monetarily, with no significant regards to other things in life. They then continue to gain support by poisoning the minds of other people with that very fallacy.

      Of course, to entirely dismiss corruption in any governance is simply an act of pure fantasy; even the Swiss have their cases of corruption, despite all its good image. Politicians are not saints, as do businessmen in mega projects or even your local sundry shop Ah Pek [know]. Great news is that our current Malaysian leadership even goes to great lengths to further bolster anti-corruption practices via our MACC.

      Apparently when certain individuals point out there exist a “chauvinist” approach of the current government, there can only mean that those individuals are chauvinistic as well with regards to their race. Takes two to tango anyhow. Perhaps the term “majority” does not ring any bell to them. Perhaps these people only want the helm of leadership to be wrestled by their people who are outside the circle of the majority, which sadly defeats the purpose of democracy. To change these? Back to square one: accusation upon accusation; fallacy upon fallacy. I would not be surprised at all.

  3. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    Altogether now… one… err two… one… two…

    “Madu, di tangan kanan ku, Pakatan…
    “Rrrrracun, di tangan kiri ku, BeeeAnnne…
    “Aku dah tau, mana, satu, peeeliiiihaaaaaaaan ku.”

    One more time…

    “Ang pao, di tangan kanan ku, Pakatan…
    “Syaitan, di tangan kiri ku, UMNO…
    “Aku dah tau, mana satu peeeeliiiiiihaaaaaan ku.”

  4. ellese says:

    Happily speaking, you see too many shadows. Many don’t see as much shadows. In economics terms we are still well. I don’t want us to go back coz we are still forging ahead. If you want we can use the numbers and stats available to debate. There are major issues but we need to balance out. Just be issues based and focused and you can see the the bigger picture. I however agree with your ideal of a two party system. But very disappointed with our current two party system. No one talks on policy issues and commitment. Too much partisanship and hatred. This is a major failing of PR. They ask people to vote because of BN and not because of what they want to do. In my estimation we will be worse off with policy making [in disarray] and infighting. […] There’s no direction by PR coz they’ve committed none. A two party system should have pushed the parties to work for our benefit but PR has bungled this big time. We’re going to see gridlock after gridlock like we see in US with PR. And Anwar leading us does not bode well. In 98 his economic thrust was appalling putting the rakyat’s interest last, to be polite. But to me it was not only idiotic but treasonous when he didn’t […] care at all about our plight. We can debate on this if you want.

    • JW Tan says:

      People in opposition-governed states tend to feel that they are much better off (admittedly this is my own anecdotal straw poll carried out over a long time). That’s good enough to give PR a shot at national government. I’m a firm believer that all politicians should be thrown out of office after serving two terms anyway – otherwise they get comfortable and forget who put them there.

      Now if we had opinion polling at state level, I’m sure this would be clear. But we don’t, for some reason.

  5. ellese says:

    Dear KKK,

    I think you’re insulting our intelligence. There’s no point but pure partisanship. I can easily rebut the following without thinking. The is worse than the last time when I caught you spinning your confusion. So this is my reply to such infantile writing. Do write giving support and basis.

    “Altogether now… one… err two… one… two…
    “Madu, di tangan kanan ku, BN…
    “Rrrrracun, di tangan kiri ku, Peeee Aaaaarrrrgh…
    “Aku dah tau, mana, satu, peeeliiiihaaaaaaaan ku.”
    One more time…
    “Ang pao, di tangan kanan ku, BN…
    “Syaitan, di tangan kiri ku, DAP…
    “Aku dah tau, mana satu peeeeliiiiiihaaaaaan ku.”

    Let’s have a more intellectual debate. KKK is an example where our two party system has gone wrong as I wrote in my reply to happily speaking.

    • Kong Kek Kuat says:

      @ Ellese A

      I think for the first time in my life as a Malaysian, this coming election actually feels significant, like an el clásico: Will the diving, cheating, hypocrite Barcelona win and fool the world again, or will the victimised Real Madrid (because José Mourinho is the manager) win?

      Haha… intellectual discussion? Go tell that to […] UMNO laa.

      • JW Tan says:

        Perhaps not a good omen for PR, but Barca has romped away with La Liga this season.

        And I think you insult the current Barca side, the finest club football team ever, by comparing them with our marginally competent, corrupt, ethno-centrist, semi-dictatorship of a government.

        • Kong Kek Kuat says:

          @ JW Tan

          Barca is the finest club football team ever because they have the Elections Commission… sorry, I mean the referees, helping them. They wouldn´t be so strong if they were playing in a free and fair elections… sorry, I mean free and fair game.

  6. Better My says:

    In in genuine free and fair election, as pracised most of the time in developed countries, you don’t feel cheated by perceived fraud [by the] govt. You [would] have the best party to run the country for a better [Malaysia].

  7. Adam says:

    The basic principle of a democracy is one person one vote and this principle must form the basis of the electoral system. I believe the original rule of 15% maximum difference of voters between constituencies has been removed and this has caused the present absurd situation of Putrajaya having only 6K voters while many urban constituencies have 100+K voters. This glaring discrepancy must be addressed before we even call our system a democracy.

    Somebody is unfairly playing with the rules to their advantage and this gerrymandering has to be stopped.

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