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Proportional representation for reform of the political system in Malaysia

by Tan Wah-Piow

Can one effect change without ideas? Where do ideas come from? And where does one seek truth?

Over fine wine offered by my generous hosts, we spent several hours mining the thoughts of Dr Wong Chin Huat. This is how I seek truth, and develop ideas.

This time it’s about Electoral Reform and Proportional Representation (PR). What has this got to do with Singapore? Read to the end for the answer.

Dr Wong Chin Huat is Malaysia’s most well known unconventional political scientist who is also a frontline activist scholar. He regards occasional brushes with the authority as a necessary professional hazard.

“Why are you still wearing black?” I asked. He has been “in black” since 2009.

“I said I will wear black until there is electoral reform in Malaysia,” he replied. He now threatens to dye his hair (colour undecided) in celebration when Malaysia introduces Proportional Representation.

Chin Huat, whose doctorate thesis was on electoral reform, is a founding member of Bersih, the movement for free and fair elections. He remains the resource person for the movement since 2006.

Despite the recent election victory of the opposition, Chin Huat, who works for the Penang Institute, a think tank, is now actively advocating Proportional Representation.

If he is able eventually to persuade Dr Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan government to replace the ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system to Proportional Representation, Malaysia will once again make political history.

Chin Huat regards proportional representation as the best and fairest way to accommodate the different competing ethnic interests, as well as the overlapping class interests which cut across ethnic lines, and the competing interest between East and West Malaysia.

Under proportional representation, especially in Malaysian context, it is unlikely for any one party to gain majority seats to form a government.

Under the FPTP system, horse trading amongst political parties under the Grand Coalition as in Pakatan Harapan, takes place before the General Elections. Such horse trading would also take place after the General Elections under a Proportional Representation electoral system if no one party again majority seats.

“What difference does PR make?” I asked Chin Huat.

Dr Wong said,

“Under FPTP, coordination needs to be done before voters getting to polling booths, hence strategic voting. This creates a lot of stress and anxiety in divided society, leading to the emphasis of communal unity and moral positioning.

Under PR, coordination continues after election and go on throughout the whole government cycle.

Voters can vote sincerely for their parties, and their representatives will then take over the coordination in legislature and government.

This slows down government efficiency but it also greatly reduces stress and anxiety, all things being equal.”

My comment to Dr Wong, is that his proposal for PR is not only relevant to Malaysia, it is also relevant to Singapore as well as the other Southeast countries.

Under proportional representation for example, votes for the opposition would not be wasted as their preferred parties could have a fair representation in Parliament even if the incumbent, for historical reasons, enjoys disproportionate advantage. This is particularly so in Singapore case.

After more sips of wine, I told Chin Huat “When I first read your PR proposal which you mooted before GE14, I dismissed it as armchair idealism.”

“Why should anyone care about Chin Huat’s proposal when the issue of the day was the fear that voters would again be cheated.”

Chin Huat reply was one need to lay the foundation in advance for new ideas, even if the conditions for implementation were absent.

He is of course absolutely right. And now with a government open to reform programs, his ideas might have a fighting chance.

We first met many years ago over dinner at the now defunct Singapore Restaurant in Holland Park, London. He was then a post-graduate student. We discussed ‘ideas’.

Dr Wong Chin Huat had made ‘ideas’ work, and always creating new ideas.

This was first published at Tan Wah-Piow's Facebook account and reproduced with permission.