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.
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|
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;
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.
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. 
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.
 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.