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Malaysia, Truly Asia? Opening Remarks by Alan Doss

Opening Remarks at the Electoral Reform Roundtable by Alan Doss, President of the Kofi Annan Foundation

Malaysia, Truly Asia?

Kuala Lumpur, 30 November 2018

Speaker, Messrs Chairmen, Excellences, ladies and gentlemen and colleagues.

When the Kofi Annan Foundation first mooted the possibility of organising a conference in Kuala Lumpur on democracy in Southeast Asia some of our international interlocutors were rather sceptical. They argued that Malaysia was descending into authoritarianism, and that the results of the next elections were a foregone conclusion. But we were encouraged to persevere by Global Bersih and we benefited from the willing support of SUHAKAM.

As it turned out the conference was a success. Among the distinguished speakers at that Conference, along with former President Banbamg Yudhoyono, was Surin Pitsuwan who tragically died exactly a year ago today. That conference, in which Surin participated so actively, created an opportunity for civil society and the media to express critical opinions about the prospects for free and fair elections in Malaysia and other countries in the region. Then Malaysia stunned the pundits when, on 9 May, a broad coalition of opposition parties won office, ushering in the first transfer of power since independence in 1957. By contrast, as you know, several countries in Asia have been backsliding on the democratic front.

So, ladies and gentlemen, let’s hope that Malaysia’s ubiquitous slogan “Malaysia, truly Asia”, applies to politics as well as tourism because what happened here holds several lessons for Asia, and indeed for the rest of the world.

First, it illustrates that politics has to keep up with socio-economic change. I think that it is fair to say that Malaysia’s ruling party had not adapted to the great transformations wrought by decades of economic growth, urbanisation and mass education.

Second, it highlights the importance of a united opposition. Malaysia’s opposition parties had never won before in part because they were fragmented. By coming together across religious and ethnic lines, they undermined identity politics and created a credible alternative for voters to embrace.

Third, the Malaysian elections showed that a high turnout can offset a skewed electoral system. Because of malapportionment and voter suppression, the playing field was uneven. Yet with a turnout of over 82%, these structural barriers were largely overcome.

Finally, Malaysia’s elections were a victory for democracy in a region which has become something of a battlefield of political models.

In these elections, Malaysians squarely rejected authoritarianism, one party rule, and corruption. They demanded accountability, transparency and reform. Malaysia illustrates that economic growth is not enough, in the long run, to satisfy an educated, middle-class population. The new administration has pledged electoral reform to entrench the democratic gains achieved and to re-establish political legitimacy; that is why we are assembled here today

The Kofi Annan Foundation was invited by the Speaker of Parliament, the new Election Commission and Bersih 2.0 to co-organise this electoral reform roundtable with the Electoral Reform Committee, political parties, as well as civil society. The Foundation has teamed up with its partners in Kofi Annan’s Electoral Integrity Initiative, including the UN’s Electoral Assistance Division, the international Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the National Democratic Institute, and we have collectively fielded a distinguished group of regional and global experts. Let me take this opportunity to thank them all for answering our call.

Over the course of the two coming days, they will share experiences with Malaysia’s reformers on electoral systems, boundary delineation, political finance, the digital challenge to electoral integrity, and how to ensure the independence of electoral management bodies, among other topics. These are key issues, but often attention and resources are focussed on election day, by which time the electoral dice, if not the ballots, may have already been cast. This is why we believe that international support for elections should focus on structural reform early on in the electoral cycle. That is why I commend Malaysia for setting up the Electoral Reform Committee.

But election reform cannot be left to a committee alone, however competent and well-intentioned. So I am pleased that the Election Commission, parliamentarians, political parties, media and civil society are all here too. You will all have a role to play in ensuring that GE 14 will be remembered in the history books not just as an electoral upset, but the start of a new democratic dispensation for Malaysia. And if Malaysia is truly Asia, then perhaps it will start a trend in the region because, as Kofi Annan always said, there is no greater power than the power of example.