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Watching our elections

An 88-year old voter casting her vote in the Hulu
Selangor by-election

ELECTION watchdogs have become a regular feature in Malaysian polls since at least 2005. In that year, Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel) monitored the Pengkalan Pasir by-election. Mafrel was even officially recognised by the Election Commission (EC) in 2007 as an independent elections observer.

Indeed, Mafrel wasn’t the first elections watchdog. Another group, the National Institute for Electoral Integrity (NIEI) was formed earlier following the 1999 Reformasi movement. Other watchdog groups have also since sprouted. There is the Malaysian Voters’ Union (Malvu), Sarawakians for Free and Fair Elections (Safrel), the Malaysia Election Observation Network (MEO-Net), My Election Watch (MEW), and the Sibu Election Watch (SEW). Several other civil society groups have also incorporated election advocacy and monitoring into their training programmes.

Membership of these groups may overlap. Nevertheless, what does their emergence say about citizens’ awareness, and public confidence in the EC? What role do they play in a democracy and of what value are they to the public? Additionally, how credible are they if they aren’t recognised by the EC?

Grassroots demand

“Can you recall a by-election where there wasn’t a complaint about the electoral roll or postal votes? More recently, there are complaints about voters being moved out of the constituency, or their polling centres and voting localities changed,” says Mafrel chairperson Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh in a phone interview.

“On that basis, I think that’s why more election watch groups are coming up. It shows that the EC still has room for improvement.”


Watch groups are tapping into the public’s low confidence in the EC and training volunteers to become polls observers. MEO-Net coordinator Ong Boon Keong says training has been conducted in Sarawak since September 2009 in preparation for the state elections, which must be called by June 2011.

“There’s growing citizen interest in elections and democracy but there’s been little avenue for those who are non-partisan,” Ong says in a phone interview.

It is about helping citizens “take ownership of elections”, he adds. Similar citizen-based movements began earlier elsewhere in the region, and are active in Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia.

The tasks for election watch groups are plenty. They include monitoring polling stations, campaigning, media coverage, and cross-checking the electoral roll with actual voters on the ground. Ong says the largest number of local election observers ever mobilised in Malaysia was 600 during the 2008 general election. In contrast, volunteers number between 100,000 to 200,000 during Indonesian or Thai elections, he says.

EC accreditation and credibility

Unsurprisingly, election watch groups are criticised as being pro-opposition since most of the faults they point out are committed by the EC and the BN. However, Mafrel did take both sides to task in the Hulu Selangor by-election.

That didn’t stop the EC from withdrawing Mafrel’s accreditation, however, for the recent Hulu Selangor and Sibu by-elections. The EC said Mafrel failed to submit reports to the commission on previous by-elections it had monitored since 2008. Report submission is a condition for accreditation.

Ong feels that the 20 conditions tied to accreditation are meant to dissuade watch groups from applying. Among other rules, observers cannot enter the polling room and cannot watch vote-counting, nor can they take photos for documentation except with permission.

Watch groups may lack standing among state authorities and segments of the public without EC recognition. However, they themselves feel it’s not critical to getting their work done in a country where the government regularly discredits civil society groups.

Syed Ibrahim
Syed Ibrahim says EC accreditation is “not critical but important”. “Our presence inside the polling station could prevent certain things from happening. But accreditation is not critical to the extent that we cannot monitor things happening outside the polling station, such as incidences and complaints of bribery or cheating during the campaign.”

However, there was a time when EC accreditation mattered. Mafrel used to be allowed inside the polling stations. This access was removed after the Permatang Pauh by-election in August 2008, Syed Ibrahim notes.

Foreign or local?

Malaysia shut its doors on international election watch groups after the 1990 general election when polling was observed by the Commonwealth Observer Mission. Even then, the mission was not allowed to play its proper role by making official reports on the elections. The government stance towards independent foreign poll observers is usually disdainful and it insists that the EC does not require any scrutiny.

Some think that it’s time for Malaysia to allow international observers in again in the interest of credibility.

Political observer Dr Mavis Puthucheary says in the absence of international observers, domestic watch groups are important. However, foreign observers may carry more clout with the EC because of their international standing. “Given the kind of situation we are in now, it’s up to public opinion to pressure the EC that watch groups are essential in ensuring free and fair elections. Otherwise, the EC will always have the final say,” Puthucheary says in a phone interview.

Malaysia’s rejection of foreign observers also speaks of its lack of sincerity about being transparent, adds Ong. He notes that even less developed countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia have election laws that give foreign observers a role in strengthening the polling process.

However, whether foreign or local, the EC‘s current position reflects its closed mindset towards independent monitoring in general.

Ambiga Sreenevasan

Allowing international observers might boost the government’s image. But Syed Ibrahim feels that home-grown observers are more effective as far as advancing democracy among fellow citizens is concerned.

And that is probably the most valuable thing about local watch groups at this juncture. Despite the setback with Mafrel’s accreditation, the election monitoring movement is gaining momentum with the relaunch of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih 2.0. This time round, Bersih is a totally partisan-free alliance headed by former Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan.

Bersih 2.0 secretariat member Faisal Mustaffa says the coalition is in the process of getting registered as a society, while conducting voter education on election law. A particular concern is the redrawing or delimitation of electoral boundaries, an exercise allowed every eight to ten years under the Federal Constitution. Speculation is that the BN government will likely conduct it next year ahead of a snap poll.

A particular concern is delimitation of electoral boundaries


Can Bersih and local election watch groups gain enough momentum in the short period left before the next general election? Is their revival a phenomenon that might portend the outcome of the 13th general election in the same way the massive Bersih rally in November 2007 foretold of the “tsunami” that struck in the 2008 polls? Few in power predicted the impact of civil society in the elections then. But they now know they were mistaken in their assumptions.

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10 Responses to “Watching our elections”

  1. Ellese A says:

    Good move. However another thing we need to make the public aware about is the polling procedure.

    Not many know that for each procedure there will be witnesses from all contesting parties who have the right to object. The political parties send representatives [to witnesses], from the opening of the empty transparent ballot boxes to the [casting of ballots] by voters. Then, to sealing of ballot boxes and the counting of votes. The number of votes must be verified by the representatives. All these are done before political parties’ representatives who can object. If there is this awareness, the public would know that its impossible [for votes] to be tampered [with].

    To me there are only two possible issues. One is the [electoral] roll and the other is postal votes. On the latter, it must be accepted that our service[personnel] must be entitled to vote. To argue that they are of lesser voting value is nonsensical and in fact out of line since they protect the nation. An argument against them simply because they vote for BN is appalling. Since counting of postal votes is done before each political parties’ representative, the issue now is how to witness the voting.

    But here lies the practical problems. Though some can be witnessed, how do you witness those in jungles or on vessels, for example. Alternatively, we can have a long election period and ensure that at least a day is allocated so that they are entitled to vote at a place [where witnesses can be present].

    The other is the [electoral] roll. We need to look at other precedents. People move around greatly and should be entitled to vote at places they stay though not updated [according to] the IC. The key thing is that EC must ensure [their names] appear only once. If [technical] systems are the problem, then it’s worth spending the money.

  2. Leithaisor says:

    With the recent reports of transfers of Hulu Selangor and Sibu voters to different voting stations and even to constituencies outside their original constituencies, highly questionable postal voting practices ( as in “six ballot slips issued, 24 returned”) and previous reports of gerrymandering by way of redrawing of electoral boundaries, the EC has much to answer for.

    Elections are the means for the rakyat to express their voice democratically. One person one vote, and just one vote, not zero or more. Everything must not only be clean, but seen to be clean. The EC itself must clearly be seen to be acting in that similar fashion.

    The behaviour of its officials in Sibu – claiming that the Form 15 has been issued and calling Pakatan observers “biadab” for wanting to ensure that the postal votes are handled properly, is in my opinion cause for official disciplinary action. Especially when there was already solid evidence that impropriety was afoot – witness the extra ballot slips returned and different signatures for the same witness, for instance.

    Instead of taking action themselves to double check the postal voting procedures, the EC officials look more like they are trying to hinder closer checking.

    Such [behaviour] does not engender trust and confidence in the EC. Quite the opposite.

    And on hind-sight, it adds a lot of weight to the doubts of those who question why MAFREL was denied official observer status in Sibu.

    An elected wakil rakyat can only stand tall and claim that status if he was elected fairly. Anyone who won through of gerrymandering, through highly-suspect transfer of voters, through phantoms and “extra” postal ballots, has no rightful claim to be an elected representative.

    Any government formed on the basis of such practices is illegitimate.

    Demi maruah negara, the EC has to demonstrate clearly that it is fair and clean.

  3. ong bk says:

    Congrats for a good report. Just a minor correction: The Commonwealth election observers came in 1980 – not 1990 as reported.

    A point to make is: election observers gain ‘the public’s accreditation” by doing their work, i.e. sending a mission to where an election is held, recruiting and training locals to handle their own elections, keeping a sharp eye on the election operation (when everyone else are looking at who wins). And finally, to come out with a report/findings with substantiation of evidence. Credibility with the public gets observer groups going – not SPR’s “accreditation”. The 20-point restrictions for accrediting observers make a mockery of election observation by any standards in our region!

  4. ong bk says:

    To Ellese A,

    Just to point out some misconceptions:
    1. Postal voters don’t freely vote BN – they are conditioned by a few factors to seemingly vote BN:
    a) They are NOT allowed access by Opposition party campaigners, so they only receive one-sided information. There is no informed choice here
    b) There are instances, where their superiors who are said to campaign on behalf of BN, use the dubious argument that civil servants must support government of the day – which does not mean it is the same thing as supporting the ruling party; many civil servants are subject to similar indoctrination.

    2. Postal voting as practiced in Malaysia is a misnomer. Postal voting as understood in the rest of the world is for voters who are not in their constituency on polling day and thus need to vote ahead [to have] their vote sent back. In Malaysia we have police and military voters who are registered and live in the constituency but are forced to vote by postal vote. EC itself has admitted there is no element of `posting’ involved, thus their suggestion to do early voting instead. Actually, those who work outside their registered constituency cannot vote by postal vote – except students studying overseas or civil servants;

    3. The postal votes procedure is highly contentious on a number of grounds:
    a) The polling is conducted by the police and military – not EC as provided by the Constitution!
    b) The postal voters are allowed to bring their vote back – thus making it possible for postal voters to “sell” their votes to others. [This is] illegal under our electoral laws. So there is a clash between the postal vote regulation and the Election Offences Act.

    4. Most postal voters, easily 95%, are not serving on vessels and in jungles during polling day. These are a minority. Why ask all police and military personnel to vote the postal way when only a minority of them are outside their registered polling area? Take into consideration that the spouses of the above personnel don’t follow their husband to go on vessels or to jungles!

    The way things are done in Bangladesh can be of good reference to us. Police, military and EC personnel are allowed to vote at where they are working on polling day – they do so after everyone has voted. It just takes no more than 5-10 minutes! There have not been any security lapses arising from this. I wonder why the EC and BN government insist on using such an elaborate, difficult and unfair procedure to enable the police, military and now even temporary EC workers to cast their votes?

    They are not doing it to ensure that the election is free and fair – and that it is seen to be so. Among others, they keep non-partisan election observers away from keeping an eye on these already unfair procedures! What have they got to hide?

  5. ong bk says:

    Correction: the Commonwealth observers came to the 1990 elections in Malaysia, after then PM Dr M agreed at a Commonwealth HOG meeting in KL to invite the international observers in late 1980’s.

    Sorry for mistake in earlier response.

  6. Ellese A says:

    Dear ong,

    1. Statement number one is too sweeping. I had an occasion to witness postal votes counting personally. Nearly one fourth went to opposition in one constituency. I think Pakatan has to face the fact that servicemen in particular police would unlikely vote for them because Pakatan has made them a punching bag all the while. They have been ostracised, castigated and humiliated by Pakatan and Pakatan cannot now blame the servicemen for not supporting them. I’ve been visiting some servicemen’s camps recently and my take is that the BN goverment provide a very good living condition for them. If Pakatan wants their votes they have to change tact. Appreciate them at least. At the rate Pakatan is going I believe it’s a loss cause by Pakatan even if they are allowed to vote like normal voters.

    On point number 2, it’s interesting but not accurate. In fact overseas like Switzerland, UK, US, etc postal votes are perfectly acceptable. I even understand in UK since year 2000++ voters are entitled to ask for postal votes without providing reasons. They have found by doing this you get a higher number of voters’ participation. Come to think of it, it’s quite good as well, as voters are given the liberty to decide how to vote which need not be on the polling date.

    On your point 3, as mentioned above in certain developed democracies the postal votes are posted by the voters themselves without supervision. At the end of the day it’s properly accounted papers and votes. The key question is whether servicemen receive their votes. If they do they are entitled to post it themselves by seal or may not even return it. It’s their prerogative. But if they have not received it than it’s a serious allegation.

    On point number 4, I believe it’s not even an issue in certain developed democracies. If servicemen complain that they have not receive their papers or the numbers do not add up then it’s a serious allegation. The fact they don’t vote for Pakatan must be acknowledged. They have been treated badly. Pakatan can still win them but must at least show that they care.

  7. Ellese A says:

    It’s been two days since I retorted Ong. Why is it not published?

    Editor’s note: We don’t publish on weekends, and Friday was a public holiday (Wesak).

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  8. ong says:

    Some response to Ellese A:

    1. There are reasons for servicemen to vote BN – it is their choice. But why don’t we allow them information from both sides to let them be really free to make their choice? I find it very disturbing that some one can find reason for a one-sided voting pattern without bothering about if the choice is a free one! Maybe BN has given a “good living condition” to the servicemen (this is highly contentious claim), but I think allowing them a free vote is the best way to show appreciation to these citizens of our country.

    2. On point 2 the argument made by me was not against postal votes per se but its manipulated version in Malaysia. Postal votes can indeed help voters outside their constituency to vote – but Malaysian voters in this category are NOT allowed to use postal vote – except overseas students and civil servants. But servicemen registering in a constituency and physically find themselves in the constituency are made to vote by postal vote – this is objectionable. Definitely this is not part of the “good living condition” provided by the current government. It is cynical voter manipulation on a big scale. Let’s agree to return free choice to the servicemen and their spouses as well as ordinary voters who may need the postal vote service. We cannot ignore the denial of free choice to Malaysian voters while singing songs about the good points of postal voting – which is only practiced in some “overseas” countries. If the voters have free choice surely it help to boost the voting rate. The way it is done here in Malaysia is not to boost voting rate through postal votes – but to suppress the voting rights of many voters.

    3. It is very strange why the writer keeps referring to postal voting in some “developed” countries as though the manipulated system in Malaysia can be justified by referring to some partially similar practices between the two systems. E.g. the writer said that it would be a serious allegation if the servicemen received their vote. Precisely he/she cannot ascertain this – as this part of the postal vote in Malaysia is not observed by party agents or other election observers. In the Sibu by-election the media and political parties were allowed to inspect the sending of postal ballots to the servicement for about 10-15 min only – the process was not monitored from beginning to the end.

    4. The reference to “certain developed countries” is puzzling – why not refer to the rotten practice in Malaysia?

    Anyway the point that the writer really wants to say is the pro-BN vote by servicemen is due to alleged “bad treatment” by PR. The writer [needs] to provide evidence to his/her really serious allegation. It seems to be a desperate attempt to justify the ways the servicemen who are made to vote BN under un-free conditions. Why not address such a truly astrocious problem for once? For all the calls by the writer to PR to show that they care the writer simply refused to address the issue that the opposition parties are not given access to this class of voters. What a shameless way to ignore the voting rights of the servicemen while trying to distract attention from the issue by blaming the PR without showing any proof and making arguments which refer to “overseas” practices far away but skirt around the lack of freedom for the servicemen in the country.

  9. Ellese A says:

    My vote is up to me. I don’t want to be supervised. There’s no need. Most important is whether I receive the voting form. If not, then there’s a ground for complain. If I do, it must be properly sealed. The total number of votes must be correct. It’s already being practiced. I don’t see any reason why you should object. If you can accept this, then there is no issue of manipulated votes.

    Dear Ong, my reply is as follows:

    1. Please clarify why the service[people] have not been able to vote freely? Has there been coercion or force? If so, it would be great if you can provide one specific incidence. All I’ve heard so far is merely hearsay and cannot be substantiated.

    2. Instead of arguing they did not vote freely, your point is that they do not have access to Pakatan’s propaganda’s information. This is another issue for debate, but unfortunately this assertion is not totally true. Most of the young generations I’ve met in the camps are fully aware of Pakatan’s message. In fact, I dare argue that it is because of this message that they will not favour Pakatan. I’ve written elsewhere one year ago that this leftist agenda by Pakatan has in fact alienated many people including them. Most of them value service and honour to the country. They die for the country. For agama and tanah air.They have history and pride that you don’t share. Their values are different. Here among us we talk of migrating. We talk of leaving the country behind. We condemn the country by demeaning our flag and national anthem. There is no limit to our abuse. We demean them for being corrupt and trigger-happy. Yet you expect them to favour you. Need I say more?

    3. On postal votes, you don’t seem to get my point. I think we should follow the west. The objective is to increase voters voting. If I want to post my votes so what? How I want to deal with it its my business. I don’t need to be supervised. Most important is that I must get my vote in, otherwise it’s a serious offense. It must be sealed properly and the number of votes must be correct. It’s been done in the west. I don’t see any reason why you should object to it. If you can accept this there is no issue of manipulated votes as claimed by you.

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