The Impact of Undi18 and AVR on Constituency Sizes

THOMAS FANN , Bersih chairperson
29 Jan 2022 09:37am
Photo Source: Thomas Fann
Photo Source: Thomas Fann

With the implementation of Undi18 and Automatic Voters Registration (AVR) as of Jan 16 this year, an additional 5.8 million voters will be added to the current 15.3 million eligible voters, bringing the total to 21.1 million on our electoral roll. Compared to GE14’s 14.9 million, that’s a whopping increase of 41.6 per cent.

How are these new voters distributed? Would all 222 Parliamentary seats and 600 State Legislative Assembly seats see a proportionate increase of 41.6 per cent or thereabout? From the available data I have so far, it seems that the spread ranges from 20 per cent to 80 per cent, with mostly urban constituencies seeing the highest increase due to Undi18 and AVR. This is far from fair distribution and made worse the already very disproportionate constituency sizes we have in Malaysia.

According to the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) report in 2017, Malaysia has one of the worst electoral boundaries in the world with vastly unequal constituency sizes (malapportionment) and boundaries that does not follow administrative boundaries or irrationally dividing up villages or housing estates (gerrymandering). These are structural manipulation of electoral boundaries to skew electoral outcomes in favour of certain political parties even before the first vote is cast for an election.

The last delineation exercise in 2015 (Sarawak), 2017 (Sabah) and 2018 (Malaya) did not restore the constituency sizes to “approximately equal” or “maintain local ties” as required by the 13th Schedule of the Federal Constitution in Section 2(c) and 2(d) but instead made it even worse.

For example, the variance between the smallest seat and biggest Parliament seats in Selangor was one to 3.4 between P.92 Sabak Bernam (37,318) and P.109 Kapar (144,159) before the 2018 delineation exercise by the Election Commission. After the exercise, the ratio became 1 to 4.4 between Sabak Bernam (40,863) and the largest seat P.102 Bangi (178,790).

With Undi18 and AVR, Bangi, already the largest Parliamentary seat in the country, saw its voter base ballooned to over 295,000, and will be over 300,000 by GE15. Sabak Bernam has over 51,000 voters, making the disparity between the two, 1 to 5.8. This is just intra-state malapportionment within Selangor. If we compare Bangi with P.207 Igan in Sarawak with 28,000 voters post-Undi18 & AVR, the ratio is 1 to 10.5 times. In short, the voters in Igan are worth more than 10 times those of Bangi and the vote value of a voter in Sabak Bernam is almost 6 times more than those in Bangi.

Does it make any sense to interpret the constitutional guidelines to have constituencies “approximately equal” or even if you allow for a “measure of weightage for rural constituencies”, to have such malapportionment? It is like saying the value of the British Pound (RM5.64 to GBP1) is the same as our Ringgit, or to 1 Thai Baht is equal to 1 Ringgit. If that is true, please pay my wages in British Pounds! It is utterly illogical, dishonest, unjust and unconstitutional.

What can be done to rectify this situation?

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The Federal Constitution states that the period between delineation exercises must not be less than 8 years, meaning that for Sarawak it would 2023, Sabah 2025 and Malaya 2026. But a delineation can be triggered within the 8 years if:

(1) The territory of Malaysia changes. Invading a neighbouring country like Singapore or losing Sabah to the Philippines or Sarawak going independent should do the trick.

(2) A new federal territory is declared. Perhaps remaking Pulau Jerejak a penal colony again and place it under the Federal government?

(3) Adding (or taking away) Parliamentary seats by amending Article 46. This is the usual and less “nuclear” path normally taken.

Another lesser known fact is that a statewide delineation can be triggered if the State Legislative Assembly (DUN) add or remove the number of seats within the Assembly. By delineating DUN seats, you would also be changing the boundaries of the Parliament seats since by law the DUN seat boundaries cannot cross Parliament seat boundaries.

But would triggering a delineation exercise now resolve this extreme malapportionment and gerrymandering so that we can hold GE15 with better electoral boundaries?

As mentioned earlier, legally it is possible to trigger an early delineation but with each passing day, it is becoming practically impossible if we want new constitutionally compliant boundaries by GE15. The law allows the EC to take up to 2 years to complete a delineation exercise and the EC has shown that they can do it well within a year and a half, as was done the last time. But the 14th Parliament’s term will end 16 July 2023 and GE15 must be held within 60 days from that date. Time is literally running out to trigger a delineation before GE15.

The more important question is, “Will we have fairer boundaries if there is a delineation exercise?” Sadly, the answer is probably “No”. Manipulation of electoral boundaries is almost as old as this country and it is conducted by the only body that is entrusted with this task – the Election Commission. Though the constitutional guidelines are there, the “Saya Yang Ikut Arahan” (I who follow orders) bureaucrats have constructed excuses to prop up the gross injustice and violates the spirit of the Constitution on boundary delineation.

The reason for such servitude and lack of independence (backbone) is that the members of the EC are all appointed by the Agong on the sole advice of the Prime Minister and the EC is considered an agency under the PM Department. The funding comes from the PM and the staff from the civil service. Commissioners are usually those retired from the civil service at 60 of age and they serve until 66, the mandatory retirement age at the EC. In my opinion, not the best pool to look for “boat rockers” or reformists.

We need an independent EC or better still, an independent and separate Boundary Commission to handle this most important task of the election process, the fair delineation of electoral boundaries. Independence without accountability can become a runaway train. It would be right to place the EC under the oversight of a multi-partisan permanent Parliamentary Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to ensure minimal interference from the Executive.

The loser of malapportionment are the voters of super-sized constituencies like Bangi (295K), Kota Raja (238K), Damansara (237K), Iskandar Puteri (219K), Tebrau (217K) and Klang (208K). Not only are their vote value worth much less than fellow voters’ in other parts of Malaysia, they are grossly under-represented. Can you imagine a single MP trying to serve and represent the will of over 200,000 voters?

Smaller seats are not only easier to serve and represent but also when it comes to vote-buying, it’s cheaper and as such more likely to see money, patronage and even identity politics being played out. This explains why the incentive to use race and religion will continue, and the resistance to political financing law to control the flow of funds into parties will always be there regardless of who comes to power.

So, what can we to do? Are we forever condemned to be pawns of politicians who uses their position to game our electoral system in order to stay in power? Is there nothing we can do to break their hold and reset our nation to the true spirit of a democracy, where we have a government of the people, by the people and for the people?

I know it is an uphill climb to bring about fair boundaries and other reforms but change can happen one forward step at a time when we vote. We vote for candidates and parties who are truly committed to reforming our electoral and political systems. Let them pledge clearly, publicly and categorically in their manifestos. Reject those who are ambiguous or silent about restoring the rights of voters and fixing our broken system. Let the Rakyat arise, especially the 58 percent of voters who are under 40 of age. Let us vote, vote, vote.