Real issues behind ethnic representation
Writer: Wong Chin Huat
Published: Fri, 06 May 2011
After the Sarawak state elections, Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians of all sizes and shapes talked about ethnic representation.
The message targeting ethnic minority is simple: if you abandon us before everyone else, you will be abandoned.
This message is perhaps the art of political enslavement at its best, and not aiming at only the minority.
“No Representation If You Vote Opposition!”
If ethnic minority voters dare not vote for change unless they know the majority group would do the same, the minority group becomes captive by the status quo.
Case in point was the Penang Chinese voters after 1990. DAP was expected to take Penang with its “two-coalition system”, but Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Semangat 46 did badly outside Kelantan and Terengganu, resulting in major defeats in Penang.
The Penang Chinese voters found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place – DAP, which won 14 seats, were three seats away from forming the state government, while the Chinese representation in the state government was seriously weakened. To avoid losing the only chief-ministership in the hands of the non-Malays, they swung back to BN in a big way for the next three elections, leaving only one seat for DAP.
Now, if the minority group becomes too scared to demand for change, then unless and until the majority group unanimously opt for change, no change is possible.
That’s what happened in 1999. When more than half of the Malays wanted to make Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad the parliamentary opposition leader, the Chinese voters who had chosen to maintain Chinese representation in the government after 1990 saved Umno.
So, if this “no representation if you vote opposition” threat by Umno, MCA and SUPP works, no party alternation is possible until things go so bad that all ethnic groups in unison.
But where is democracy if all groups have to vote together?
Many “idealists” lament about ethnic voting, but in reality there can be no multiparty democracy without division.
In fact, the word “party” comes from the word “part”, which means “factions” and “divisions”. If there are no rival social groups, there won’t be a firm basis for political parties.
Hence, every group – be it on the basis of ethnicity, faith, economic class, geographical region, lifestyle, etc – must be allowed to vote differently from other groups if their members wish so.
Three levels of ethnic exclusion
Ethnic exclusion from the political system can happen at three levels.
At the first level, an ethnic group is denied franchise or the right to stand in elections.
At the next level, thanks to the electoral system, the ethnic group cannot win any representation in legislature even though they can and do participate in elections.
Finally, at the third level, the ethnic group wins representation in the legislature but is excluded from the executive. The more powerful the executive is vis-à-vis the legislative, the more important it is for the executive to be inclusive.
Now, for ethnic exclusion to be really effective, it must happen at all levels of governments: national, state and local.
Unless an ethnic minority group is too dispersed geographically, and the electoral system is too unfair to deny it some effective remedy, an ethnic group should be able to win at least some legislative representation at lower-level governments.
Imagine in 2008, if the non-Malay voters had swung so decisively that MCA, MIC and Gerakan lost the 20 parliamentary seats they have, would the non-Malays be unrepresented in the country’s political system?
Pakatan Rakyat, which would represent the vast majority of the non-Malays and a significant number of Malays, would have 102 seats against BN’s 120 seats, making it a really powerful opposition to check on the federal government.
The non-Malays would also win strong representation in the administration of Penang, Selangor, Perak and Kedah.
How can they be marginalised? Not unless both our Parliament and federalism fail miserably.
Now, look back at Sarawak. Why should the urban and Chinese voters worry about their exclusion from state executive power?
By giving solid support to Pakatan Rakyat, they would have been able to control their own municipal governments in Kuching, Sibu, Miri, Bintulu and Sarikei. Their legitimate interests would have been well taken care of by these municipal governments.
And if the constituencies are partitioned fairly, Pakatan Rakyat should have won around 40% of the seats in Sarawak state legislature, making it a formidable opposition. How could the White-haired Rajah bully or ignore these voters?
The threat of ethnic exclusion by Umno and its satellite parties therefore is a reminder of three things we desperately need: Decentralisation (including local elections), parliamentary reform (to allow more meaningful role of the opposition), and electoral reform (to ensure fair distribution of seats).
Succumbing to the blackmailing tactics of electoral politics means that we allow all Malaysians to be politically enslaved.
To be a free nation, we must have decentralisation, parliamentary reform and electoral reform to ensure no group should ever be intimidated. And we must demand all these not only from the BN, but also Pakatan, which has promised us local elections.